Before I collected weird CDs and bits of interesting cultural ephemera, I caught snakes, frogs, and whatever other strange creatures I could find in the ponds and fields of Maple Ridge, where I grew up. They’ve all been duplexed and condo’d out of existence, now, but I have many happy memories of chasing after the small green treefrogs of a place we called, simply, the Frog Pond, or turning over boards to catch garter snakes (even better if you spotted them squiggling quickly through a field, and managed to grab them – there was an actual adrenal rush that accompanied such a capture). I used to love the smell of a garter snake’s noxious aroma, which it excretes to defend itself from predators, and when I occasionally see a snake in my adulthood, I’ll almost always pick it up and sniff it (as it slimes its goo over my fingers) for the nostalgic rush it gives me. I remember giant water beetles, salamanders, all sorts of creatures I encountered in my explorations; I even reacted enthusiastically when I discovered that there were leeches at the Frog Pond, which I immediately placed on my arm, to let them suck my blood, just to see how it felt (I figured I had blood to spare). The other kids in my elementary school thought I was a freak, and I remember phoning people I knew to invite them to go catch snakes with me and receiving an amused, horrified, “what are you, a weirdo” kind of response (this from 12 year olds, albeit middleclass ones, with their sense of suburban normalcy already deeply entrenched; they’d rather stay home and watch hockey, or play a sport themselves, like they were supposed to do. I had other things on my mind). My closest friends, though – mostly from the lower-class, aging condominium where my parents had moved us – understood and joined me without question. I imagine my love of hunting out books, movies, and music now has much to do with my love of catching and bringing home such critters then.
Thanks to the promptings of a ladyfriend, who knows I need more exercise, I took a hike around Stanley Park this afternoon after work, and passed a pleasant hour sitting by Beaver Lake. The smell of the pond (because it’s far more a pond than a lake), stagnant, fetid, brackish – brought back this smell of my childhood and I drifted in reverie for a long time, sitting on a little wooden platform that extended a short ways out over the water. There I observed the blooming, white, pink and purple flowers of the lilypads; the low intermittent thrum of a single distant bullfrog; the wriggling tail and bulbous, egg-sized body of a bullfrog tadpole; abundant dragonflies and damselflies (one of which landed on my shirt); and the songs and cries of various birds. I tried to tune out the noise of cyclists on the trail or the constant seaplanes flying overhead. I remembered from my youth that if you’re silent and still for long enough at a pond, the creatures aren’t as timid, and will emerge and go about their business, where normally they would flee you. (I remember being 15 or so, standing on the edge of a large pond off Pitt Polder, watching bullfrogs float up from where they’d been hiding, to drift along the surface of the water, ducking under if I shifted too visibly). Storks do the same thing -- they just stand there, until something comes close enough, not realizing a predator is close by.
Of course, I'm less of a predator now. Content to observe, happier not to interfere: the fruits of adulthood, I guess.
Walking back out onto the trail, I encountered several squirrels and something that looked like a cross between a squirrel and a chipmunk – it had lighter fur, a much smaller body, and shorter tail than your garden-variety (so to speak) B.C. squirrel, so I’m not sure exactly what it was. I stopped on a bridge to watch it; it had an unusual way of moving. It would move its whole body, almost in a bouncing, jerking jump, of sorts, then stop, and examine what was in front of it, to see if any of it was edible. It would pause like that for a minute, and then bounce-shift again, like it was simply too high strung to just take a step; it had to move its whole body, then be still. It came quite close to me, and I was finding it very pleasing to watch, when suddenly a bird gave a loud twitter from the forest on the other side of me, and, as if warned by the bird, the animal darted off. A minute after that, a large raccoon stepped out of the bushes on one side of the trail; it was as if the bird cried out “a raccoon is coming” and the squirrel-thing new enough bird to get out of the area. The raccoon looked at me for a minute, sizing me up, then continued to the other side of the trail.
I lingered on the bridge for a minute, watching minnows in the shallow creek below, before continuing, figuring I’d give the ‘coon ample time to meander on its way – I’ve had them growl at me when threatened, and I didn’t want to cause that sort of reaction. To my surprise, as I passed the area where it’d gone, I noticed that the ‘coon was still there, watching me intently from cover. I bent down to meet its eyes. It began to sniff the air. Wanting it to see similarity in me, I began to sniff the air, too. It seemed to relax a bit; I backed off and watched. The animal, with its long, furless, black forepaws, came forward and began to dig in the muck at the base of a rotting skunk cabbage, pulling up something and eating it. Bugs? Roots? I couldn’t tell, but it plunged its arms into the muck (reminding me oddly of the experience of doing dishes) to bring up morsel after morsel, which it busily chewed. I recalled that I had some hard candies in my bag, and I unwrapped and threw one to the ‘coon; last I saw this beast, it was chewing my gift with great effort and determination.
Walking out of the park, I took a little detour from the trail; it was interesting to notice that there was someone camped out in the middle of things, clearly someone homeless, in a ramshackle tent, with clothing, cookware, and garbage strewn about it. It would be a very different life, to wake up every day in that park. It’s probably far easier to romanticize than it is to do; I don’t think I’ll be buying a tent anytime soon. I do think I’ll start spending more time there, though.