When our family moved to northern Michigan almost ten years ago, we were aiming for urban living in a rural setting, something like what we had seen in the magazines. We wanted to plant gardens and raise chickens and breathe the fresh air . . . and at the same time enjoy all the amenities of the city. And honestly, we got pretty close. We live on six acres right in the middle of a cow field. Sometimes we act like we've brought our wild world into submission, but more often we just hold on for the ride and hope that our mistakes don't turn out to be deadly.
Almost a decade into our adventure, I continue to be amazed by the veritable animal kingdom that surrounds our home. Most days, I could offer a graduate zoology seminar on our back porch. I have a pair of binoculars handy, but I rarely use them. Instead, I simply look outside and watch. A few years ago I watched the wolves pass by. I haven't seen bears close to the house yet, but I'm told that they are in the area. What I have seen are coyotes, foxes, porcupines, skunks, raccoons, vultures, owls, hawks, hares, deer, possums, feral cats, and all manner of rodents of various shapes and sizes. Bald eagles come so close and show up so often that we've given them names. Right now, there are swarms of dragonflies outside devouring clouds of mosquitoes. If you add to all of that the neighbor's herd of forty cows and our docile but curious black lab, you have quite a menagerie.
It's enough to wish that I were the essayist Wendell Berry. If he were here, he would write quite a story!
I've gotten quite an education this spring. I'll save you the graphic details, but I have seen both wondrous and gruesome sights. As tempted as I am to wax poetic about all that circle of life stuff, it's not as pretty as all that. One day I watched the birth of a calf, and I stood for hours while the mama cow did her work. The next morning, I was crushed to discover that the baby calf (and one other) had frozen to death in the night. For three solid days, the mama cow moaned for her lost baby, and only then did she consider leaving its side. From increasing distances across the field, she watched for predators and raced back to the baby at every threat. Eventually, she gave in to what was inevitable and other animals appeared to enjoy what they considered a feast.
It was as if the animals were following a prescribed order. First, the coyotes came. They showed up in twos and threes during the day, and then came as a ravenous pack at night. Next came the birds. Lesser scavenger birds arrived only after the bald eagles left. And despite what I expected, I saw both coyotes and eagles scatter quickly whenever the mama cow charged across the field toward them. In a confrontation between a grieving mama cow and a hungry eagle, the cow has her way.
It all brought back childhood memories. I could almost hear the subdued voice of Marlin Perkins on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom telling us about the lion in pursuit of the wildebeest.
Every day I woke up wondering what would happen next.
Within a few days, a deer carcass appeared on the highway in front of our house, the victim of an encounter with a car. The very same process unfolded there. The same animals appeared in exactly the same order and seemed content with the bad fortune of another creature that had become good fortune for them.
As I watched all of this high drama, I looked for lessons.
The whole circle of life thing didn't seem sufficient. I wasn't all that happy about what I was seeing and I couldn't imagine that adding a backdrop of Disney music would help.
Some days I watched my little zoo while listening to political news in the background -- and I imagined which presidential candidates would be represented by the different animals that I was watching. (What I was seeing outside was not all that different from what was being reported on television.)
Eventually, I settled on that old biblical promise of a day when lions and lambs would live in peace together. And I figured that the prophet's promise would also likely include mama cows and coyotes and eagles.
And maybe even people.
This peaceable kingdom that we read about and dream about and hope for isn't yet here. That much is certain.
But one day things will be different.
One day we will, in fact, enjoy the peaceable kingdom.
In the meantime, we would do well to make our little kingdom as peaceful as we can.
Even if the animals around my house don't seem to know how to do that.