Today, we continue our late spring theme, Practice, with Ken Apple, who shares his practice of looking for signs of the “Unseen World” of animals moving through our own.
I posted a picture of a rough skinned newt on Facebook. They are beautiful little creatures, lizard like amphibians with rough brown skin on top and smooth orange on the belly. This particular newt had been run over, or possibly attacked by a raccoon or some other animal. It wasn’t flat, smushed is the technical term, but it wasn’t exactly whole either. A co-worker saw the picture and her response was — and I’m paraphrasing, but I think I capture the spirit here — WHAT THE HELL?
Fair enough. I guess it’s not normal to post pictures of mutilated amphibians on your Facebook page. Why would anyone do such a thing?
I remember once walking through the park at dusk and my wife snapped a picture of the trail. It was too dark, the flash went off. We had no expectation that any of those pictures would turn out. When we looked at it at home we were stunned. Glowing white eyes, captured by the flash, lined the trail. They were different heights, different sizes all along the frame. This was my real awakening to the unseen animal world that is all around us.
I see barred owls in the park, especially in the late spring and early summer when the fledglings are out and the owls get really territorial. If you’ve never been dived bombed by a silent avian predator with a wingspan bigger than yours, then you haven’t really lived. Sometimes I spot them in the early morning if I hear a commotion of birds. The dayshift always gives the night shift some shit as they pass each other in the early morning, but more likely I hear the commotion but can’t spot the owl. I find feathers. Even when I don’t see them, I know they are there. If I am aware, sensitive to the clues, I can get a sense of the unseen lives being lived all around me, the unseen lives that photograph uncovered.
I used to find newts all the time as a kid by the pond in my neighborhood, along with frogs and a fish and a dizzying assortment of insects. Long summers living outside (“If you can’t find something to do, I’ll find something for you to do.”) created the greatest opportunity any naturalist could hope for. Yeah, even ten year old naturalists who only knew what that was from reading Dr. Doolittle. I don’t have that kind of time anymore, so I have to be more sensitive.
Death is instructive. If not for death, I wouldn’t know those newts were around. Because of death I know when the mice and voles start having litters. I know when the raccoons and opossums are mating and trying to cross roads into other territories and when they have kicked out their litters and the young are trying to make their way in an unforgiving world.
New fallen snow tells me a lot. Until this year, I had no idea that the neighborhood raccoon prowls my yard every morning. Which explains the barking at three a.m. I’m disappointed it’s not a chupacabra, but I’ll get over it. There are three raccoons that patrol Wildwood Park, their tracks do not overlap, each has their own chunk of territory. I think of them as Ballfield, Playground and Parking Lot.
Just south of me, probably 500 yards as the crow flies, a friend’s neighbor found a dead deer. It had been killed and partially eaten. Up here on the hill, in the foothills of the Cascade Mt. Range, wooded ravines run through suburbia like a circulatory system. It’s too expensive to flatten them and build over them, and wetland regulations make that problematic, since most have running water moving through. So apparently cougars can move unseen through these corridors. Every few years we have a bear sighting as the bears move up from the valley into their winter quarters. It’s interesting that they spot them, but they move on and are never seen again, like ghosts with glowing eyes, only bigger.
I have little confidence in humanity or human culture. We’ve made quite the mess of it, it seems to me, at least in my low moods. It comforts me to know that these animals go on despite us, living their lives, making due. I look for signs of that and I smile, like I know something no one else does. But I’ll try to keep mangled amphibians off my page. Sorry about that.
My name is Ken Apple. I am fifty years old, I live in Puyallup Washington with my wife and youngest son. I attend the Tahoma UU congregation in Tacoma, WA. I have worked in book sales for almost twenty years, because I can’t imagine trying to sell anyone something else.