It doesn’t have to be a mountain lion or a tiger shark—the shadow of a large predator moving along an edge. It doesn’t have to be a huge and beautiful manta ray jumping black against the sun. A person can be shocked by a meadow vole. On your knees in the backyard looking for your son’s matchbox car. You reach for an old flowerpot, sunk deep in the yellow grass. You lift the pot. The vole shoots out, brown fur moving tight against the earth. You stand up. The vole stops. You gather yourself, and then you apologize for disturbing its peace.
The moment of being shocked or startled dissipates as we’re allowed the time to reflect, to pause. The feeling is like we’ve been blessed with good timing. Yesterday I saw on the side of Route 95 a hawk ripping apart some form of ground animal. It just happened. The hawk shielded its prey with its wings. Here my timing was good: I wasn’t really out looking for anything. I was simply driving home on a highway and my eyes just so happened to intersect a hawk’s business.
I love when this happens. I’m certain that many other travelers were lost in their electronic devices, lost in their need to be heard, in their need for recognition. I’ve got a good dose of this too. That’s why I can talk about it. (I didn’t Tweet the hawk encounter.) When the hawk was eating its kill my phone was off. I had no need to look at my phones display screen, which gave me the extra time to watch the road and the surrounding landscape.
I have a habit of looking along the margins of things: highways, stonewalls, ocean eddies. I stare. I hope the animals don’t mind. There’s a voyeur in town.
Every time we go into nature—whatever that really means—and we see something or something startles us, what we all do is bring that experience back and tell others about it.
We’re out on a trail walking through a pine forest with steep banks of granite. As we pass under the trees, we talk about Internet dating. She has many questions—what about all the creepy men in photos without shirts? Then around a bend in the trail—a weasel on a log. We freeze. The weasel is small. I’m thinking it’s a mink. The weasel watches us. Its nose twitches, gathering data, processing. It moves along like a slinky down the stairs. A ten-second event. But the event changes things. For the rest of the walk we’re quieter, we look around more. Up in the trees, down the steep slopes. We stop at a creek. The water gurgles past. I lift a stone searching for a crawfish. The subject of Internet dating never emerges back. It’s too mechanical, too remote from the trees we’re in. For half an hour we say nothing at all. But it took a weasel to give us that.