As near back as the end of the last century it was all pretty quiet up here in the Shawangunk Mountains of Upstate New York—you know, the Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah … Mister Bluebird’s on my shoulder … yadda yadda of crickets chirping, chipmunks sniffing, birds tweeting, turkeys gobbling, Disneyfied deer nibbling green grasses as red foxes pad silently across the yard, monarch butterflies landing on the Rose of Sharon.
Indeed, one of the extra pleasures of rural life back then was to be able to taunt our urban, hyper-sophisticated, uber-allergic, Patagonia-wearing weekenders and daytrippers with the seeming ease of free range existence up here in the boonies. No crime. No smog. No noise. No additives. No rat race. No rats. I’d point to the hammock strung between the pines and they’d grow smog green with envy.
Then sometime before Y2K, it seemed, our formerly benign deer gained courage—or more likely lost territory due to development—and started eating our roses. Then the azaleas. Then the yew bushes that front the porch, stripped to ugly brown sticks poking through the white snow. Bambi was banished at Blockbuster.
Next, right on cue for the twenty-first-century apocalyptic film boom, we started seeing coyotes, howling beyond the tree line, and hearing the blood-curdling screech of fisher cats pouncing on cute little chipmunks, squirrels and bunnies in the dead of night. Then came the snakes. Snakes! More and more snakes. Big black snakes, garter snakes slithering out from the charming stone wall, a copperhead in the woodpile, an occasional rattler on the rocks.
And that was before the first bear, a 400-pounder, showed up in our backyard for some tapas: bird seed, suet and garbage. He was not alone. Soon after, we saw a mother bear and three cubs cavorting around the swing set and the little goldfish pond. RIP Carlton Fish, Carlos and Not Carlos.
The Forest Rangers were alerted. They essentially shrugged, telling us we had to take in the bird feeders each night and build bear-proof garbage bins. I did. But when one of the big fellas knocked over my previously immobile bear-proof garbage bin—and had his fill of my landfill—my only option was to nail it to the porch and hope he couldn’t knock that over too. He didn’t. But he (or another he) ripped off the front doors of the previously bear-proofed garbage bin, so I had to secure it with C brackets and a sliding 2×4. Just like my friends’ lofts in the city.
Right now, I’m winning, if that means I’m trapped in my house when the ursine hoards wander around my backyard—just like our closest, albeit unseen, neighbor-through-the-woods. She was working on her computer one afternoon when she looked up to see a fully grown male on her deck, his nose pressed to the glass, peering in at her. A breathtaking vision that quickly turned into the triple realization that she was trapped in her house, the refrigerator was empty and she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. And thus a few hours later, all ethical and moral considerations falling Maslow-like by the wayside, she phoned town for pizza delivery. The poor delivery-boy-cum-college-student saw the bear, dropped the box on her porch and ran for his life—no pay, no tip, but a new understanding of the precarious nature of existence to bring to his philosophy class.
A similar understanding of the nature of life arrived at my doorstep last summer. I was up late doing some work, my wife asleep upstairs, when I heard the back screen door squeak open and clap shut. I assumed it was our old dimwitted dog Gloria nosing it open to wander around outside. A few moments later I heard it squeak open and clap shut again. Gloria coming back in. Then it happened again: Gloria going out. Then again: Gloria coming in. So when the squeak-clap happened one more time I snarled bear-like at the dog to get back in the house—squeak-clap—and soon packed up the laptop, closed the back door and went upstairs to sleep.
Where I found Gloria already asleep on the floor next to my wife.
I ran downstairs, flipped on the floodlights and ran out into the cool night to find the bird feeders I forgot to bring in strewn about the yard, twisted and mangled. I looked back at the screen door.
I guess he decided, finally, not to come back in.
Or perhaps he came back in and was disappointed with our leftovers.
Although our visitors no longer seem smog green with pastoral envy, they do seem mighty impressed—even drop-jawed—with the perilous conditions we face up here in the provinces. “Bears? Bobcats? Snakes? I don’t know how the hell you can live here!” they exclaim. And that, admittedly, is almost as pleasurable and comforting as the shtick with the hammock.