Last September, I was looking out the kitchen window as a black bear casually walked up to the barbeque, snout outstretched, warily looking up to the house for signs of life. I opened the front door and went out on the porch, and we had a stare-off.
Him. Me. Him. Me.
“What do you think you are doing?” Silence. Averted gaze. Gaze. I walked out on the deck a few feet and stood still. “Get out of here!” Slowly he turned and sauntered behind the wood shed. And disappeared from my sight.
I walked to the edge of the deck to get a broader view of the back-story of Douglas fir forest and blackberry thickets. Nothing stirred. To my left I saw a broad new white splatter of raven droppings where the deck right angles around the side of the house.
Directly above, roosting dryly on a roof joist under the projecting eves was a large raven. I said, “Good morning, raven. Gawk, gawk, gawk.” The raven replied with three “gawks.” I next tried two. The raven copied. Then I went, “gawk.” The raven responded once, then hopped from the dry perch and glided off between the trees.
Living in a forest house is to be constantly reminded by the terrestrial and avian neighbours of their presence. They already know you are here; you have to slowly acquire evidence of their presence.
Most don’t talk to you, and you have to intuit from their behaviour what they are thinking. Black-tailed deer, for instance, can be pretty obvious about their intentions. We see them walking the fence-line at the vegetable garden at dusk.
They nibble on every shoot and leaf that curls through the metal mesh. Their split-heart tracks have created a trail around the garden. You can tell they have been tamed by various campers in the nearby provincial park campsite, because they will openly approach seeking handouts of cookies and leftover vegetables.
The bald-faced hornets are much less friendly. Their rotund body, black with yellowish-white spots, is diagnostic. They are much more subtly coloured than the western yellow jacket wasps that also live nearby. Both sting at any provocation of their nests.
Last month, I was arranging kayak gear down on the beach after a day-trip, when I felt a sudden painful stab in my neck. I looked up and saw a new football-sized paper nest immediately in front of me, tucked under a rocky outcrop.
I am sure that it wasn’t there that morning, only eight hours before. Now it was alive with wasps, all of whom were aware of my invading presence. I beat a hasty retreat. After a week of no kayaking I went down and found it strangely resolved: the nest lay broken-up beside the kayaks. No wasps were in sight. A bear perhaps; maybe a strong gust of wind?
Not all such problems are easily resolved. Take this week’s invasion by a little brown bat. My visiting son alerted us to its presence in a departing phone call. “There is a bat in the house! I saw it fly into your bedroom! I can’t find it now. You’ll have to deal with it…”
And so we did last night. “There’s a bat in the bathroom, Michael!” cried my wife, slamming the bathroom door.
I jumped out of bed, and as I opened the door a small brown bat flew right at me. I ducked and retreated to the kitchen to get the broom. My wife meanwhile grabbed a Samoan war club (another story for another time) from the cluster beside the fireplace, and draped it with her bathrobe. Together, broom and war club flailing, we drove the bat into the living room. My wife opened the front door, and the bat echo-located itself outside. I slammed the door, and we went back to sleep laughing.
Just another night in the country condo we share with the citizens of the natural world. We are the denizens, the foreigners who came to forest residency from away. We are still earning and learning our right to live here.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.