Friday, March 26, 2010

I Love the Wild LIfe

 An essay for my local newspaper. Setting: Greenville, SC:

Downtown Greenville is urban wild.  It’s what I love best about this place. The wild life is not all in the bars.  
Take an afternoon walk downtown, veer off in one of the parks, and you’re likely to see some uncommon birds, resourceful mammals, and a few sly reptiles who manage to live and raise their young in a people-crowded territory.

The Great Blue Heron hangs out in McPherson Park on Park Avenue, wading in the stream, feeding on fish and insects. The heron is solitary and aloof, and well hidden, but if you’re lucky enough to see this creature, it’s a privilege you won’t soon forget. He (or she?} stands tall and slender, with a wingspan of six feet.

The leafy hardwoods in the North Main area are home to owls. Their hooting at night sounds like Vincent Price maniacal laughter and crazy lady screams. It makes me think of all the folklore about owls—as harbingers of death, predictors of storms, or as wise and powerful. They are magnificent.  Last year, in the summer dusk, I happened to look up and see a very big one gaze down at me from a telephone pole on Bennett Street. The owl was cool and collected. Unflappable. Of course, he saw me first.  I got the feeling he didn’t miss much.

In Cleveland Park, I’ve seen raccoons washing their paws in the stream. After heavy rains I’ve spotted Belted Kingfishers flying and diving. The Red-Tailed hawks circle, and call their kak kak predatory warnings. They’ve fed on squirrels in our yard—it’s scary and fascinating to watch. They shriek, they target, they fly in and strike, and they fly off with dinner waggling. Even when they occasionally stake out songbirds at our birdfeeder, I know they’ve got to eat.  Hawks have a hard life—their natural life span is 35 years, but I’ve heard most of the young don’t make it past five years.

In the spring, any day now, the snakes come out of hibernation, sunning themselves on rocks and in crevices of the Reedy River. I’ve seen people walk right by snakes, even picnic by them, without seeing them.  The snakes don’t bother me, and I’m certainly no going to bother them. In fact, there’s a black snake that hangs around our yard we’ve gotten used to. Black snakes aren’t poisonous, and they eat mice and rats. Also bird eggs, judging from the songbirds’ alarmed cries when he appears. He stretched across our bedroom windowsill one morning last summer, sunning himself. We named him Licorice, “Lick” for short.

The bats don’t bother me either. In fact, I’m pretty crazy about them. We can sit on our front porch stoop with a glass of wine, and watch them chatter and flop in the purple evening, gobbling up mosquitoes. When I started inviting the wild life to our yard, I added a bat house in the back yard. Bats need protected habitats.
The opossum visits, too, lumbering in her marsupial way, snorkeling up leftover bird seed. 

The Eastern Bluebirds, who prefer meadows, nest in our front yard, in the house we put up just for them: facing east. I feed them live mealworms I keep in the refrigerator. The bluebirds raised two broods last summer.  I watched the brilliant blue of the male bluebird—that sapphire wink—as he flew back and forth, feeding his mate—who was feeling peckish on the nest.  Both of them worked their tail feathers off feeding their young. I’ve never seen parents work so hard.  It was impressive.

The tenacity of the wildlife in Greenville is amazing. I love that nature is squeezing through the fist of concrete and condos. Creatures are doing their best to carry on with their lives in the green strips of trees, in small parks, and on all-too-rare undeveloped land. I highly recommend walking along the Swamp Rabbit Trail, through Cleveland Park, or any of the other small downtown parks when you’re feeling stressed. Leave behind your iPod and cellphone, and really pay attention: you’ll see some wild things.

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