“What about animals?” people ask me, and a fine question it is, though not as precisely phrased as one might like. Still, it’s better than talking about politics these days.
Among the many treasures I have been given in an errant, unworthy life, one is the window before me today, on the side of a mountain in Vermont. Two windows, actually, each one 32 by 54 inches, looking onto a small grassy patch into conifer and hardwood forest. There, each morning as I tame grammar and prune actionable allegations from this news page, animals present themselves for inspection.
Once in a while a red fox trots by, always from the right — where the creek is — uphill to the left. It’s always wonderful to see a fox, though I don’t know why, but I’d bet 90 percent of the human species would agree: It’s always fine to see a fox. We all know that foxes exist — but why is it always a thrill to see a fox?
A white-tailed deer lives in those woods. She had three babies this year. All four stepped lightly across the little meadow in June, each little spotted fawn no larger than a big dog. I don’t know why spotted fawns break my heart, but they do. After a few appearances their mom wouldn’t let them into the pasture anymore. Last time I saw the fawns there were only two of them.
Mr. Woodchuck makes me laugh. He reminds me of Falstaff, sitting up on his fat bottom, leafy something in his mouth, chewing, chewing until it disappears. I don’t know why I like woodchucks, or why they make me laugh, or how they have survived for millions of years. They look like the best prey animal a coyote could dream up: fat and juicy, low to the ground, not that fast. Nor do I know why I called him, or them, Mr. Woodchuck just now. They look like office managers: a bit puffed up with their own importance, officious, surveying their small domain.
Ms. Robin, whose nest is in an apple tree in my neighbor’s yard, turns up first most days, pecking for worms. I believe — this may shock you — that she’s not just pecking for worms; she’s licking the dew. Where can a woman get a drink around here? She could fly down to the creek, but the fox lives there. She doesn’t need much water, anyway — just the morning dew.
Down at the bottom of the hill live a charm of goldfinches.
I’m not making that up. That’s the collective noun for a bunch of finches. Isn’t that great? It’s accurate, too, as is a murder of crows, but let’s not get into that.
Four goldfinch daddies live where the hill flattens out by the creek. The mommas live there too, but their dress is more modest. I couldn’t see them if I tried.
Now here, again, is the thing. I know the goldfinches live there. I have seen them many times. But every time I pick up my mail at the bottom of the hill, then see goldfinches flash out of the apple trees uphill to the woods, my heart beats faster and my mood improves — as though those goldfinches had injected adrenaline into my brain.
Once in a while I borrow my ex’s dogs and take them to Broad Brook, where it bends and makes a little pool as it flows to the Connecticut River. Axel, the black Lab, and Bonnie, the golden retriever, know where we’re going. When I park, past the underpass, and open the door, they tear out toward the creek. Cold as the water may be they jump in and return to me, wet and grinning and talking to me in Dog.
Come on! they say as I amble down the path. Come on! What are you waiting for?
I speak fluent Dog.
I follow them to the river and stand on the pebbly shore and throw bits of bark into the water, and the dogs chase them and bring them back. Axel will go to extreme lengths to beat Bonnie to a little piece of bark. He comes back with two, three, four bits of bark in his mouth, and won’t give them up, until I show him the next one.
Bonnie doesn’t care about the bark. She just likes the game.
Once in a while I’ll throw a rock way downstream, so Axel can see it splash. While he’s bounding after it, I throw a twig into the little circular pool and Bonnie brings it back, wagging her tail. I tell her she’s a good girl and throw it back and she goes after it again.
If there is a heaven, and I get in, I believe I will be doing that forever.