Archive for Thursday, June 18, 1998


June 18, 1998


Undeveloped lots can be a source of natural wonder, if we happen to be in the right place at the right time.

My study window looks out on a small field surrounded by houses. Because it has escaped the development that claims every surrounding acre, this meadow at the city's outskirts is a haven for suburban wildlife.

Rabbits bed down in its switchgrass. Raccoons and possums prowl the marshy stand of willows at its southern edge. Jays and other hearty songbirds flit through its hedgerows and ride out storms in the branches of its pines and spruces. Honking geese fly over on their way to the lake.

Though it's no more than three or four acres, there seems no limit to the wonders it yields. Take yesterday, for example.

In the course of the morning's work I looked up just in time to see a red-tailed hawk, perched at the top of a dead elm, dive suddenly into the meadow. I got out the binoculars to follow the action, but the rust-colored switchgrass, which stands in such stark contrast to the surrounding green lawns, hid the bird and its prey perfectly. Camouflaged, the hawk claimed its prize in peace.

Minutes later, a coyote sauntered out of the grass' edge to contemplate the rush-hour traffic on I-70, which forms the field's southern boundary. The wind ruffled his coat as he sat calmly, not 30 yards from my back fence. When I went out for a closer look, he spotted me and bolted toward the highway.

Once, several years ago, I spied a coyote in my driveway, but that was when I lived on a farm, not on a cul-de-sac; this one seemed so completely out of place that he just had to be passing through on his way to somewhere else. I figured I'd never see him again.

He was back in 15 minutes. By then I'd glassed the field, turning up nothing more than a white housecat in a jeweled collar stalking something along the near fencerow. Whatever it was got away, and the cat went moseying on about her morning rounds. Until the coyote showed up.

What followed was a fascinating encounter, a confrontation between the wild and once-wild that seems as apt a metaphor as any for the countless little untamed patches of wilderness that survive as if by the grace of some temporary oversight in man's quest to pave the planet. We drive by them a hundred times in a year without a second thought. But these odd lots and unturned corners can be sources of natural wonder, if we look hard enough or if we happen to be in the right place at the right time.

I glanced up from my computer screen to see the cat hunkered down in short grass, the coyote scampering circles around her, probing for an opening. The cat must have landed a jab to the nose before I noticed the little drama; from time to time the coyote stopped his feinting and lunging and shook his head irritably, as if trying to shake off a snootful of hot pepper. Then he'd go back to his circling, never quite finding the right moment, bobbing and weaving and looking more like a playful pup than a wild animal that relies on its wits for survival.

Finally, he resorted to the trickery for which coyotes are infamous. Feigning boredom, he walked off a short distance and sat with his back to the cat. He kept sneaking looks over his shoulder, checking the cat's position like a pitcher keeping a runner close at first.

I expected the worst. The coyote, a healthy specimen, judging from his thick coat and powerful build, obviously possessed all the savage cunning necessary to thrive in the wild. The cat, evidently in no hurry to escape, sat blinking benignly in the sun. I imagined it was just a matter of time before the coyote moved in for the kill. Recalling how bereaved my wife was over the recent disappearance of her beloved cat, I thought of intervening. I only had to walk outside and the coyote would be gone.

Instead, I watched. In the battle between wildness and domesticity, I figure, the wild things have more than enough disadvantages. And, if the coyote's caution and the cat's confidence are any indication, those things we think are tamed -- like the meadow itself -- are often wilder than we think.

The standoff was resolved like many a schoolyard confrontation: Satisfied they'd made a sufficient show of bravery, both parties casually sauntered off. The cat jumped the fence into a neighbor's back yard. The coyote faded back into the sheltering switchgrass, quickly blending with the cover. I went back to my keyboard, keeping an eye cocked for another wonder, large or small.

This morning has been quiet, so far. A gang of crows chased a hawk across the sky -- perhaps the same one I watched hunting so well yesterday. The cat is back to her stalking. The coyote may still be there too, bedded down in the tall grass, watching for a sign of me as I'm watching for him, a little wildness hidden unaccountably in the heart of the workaday.

-- Steven W. Hill is a part-time writer and book critic for The Mag.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.