The View From My Window: on Human Habitats in the Wild

Vernal Equinox 2013
Vernal Equinox 2013

Looking straight out my window, I see nothing but mountains, trees and sky. In the foreground, I see our homestead: the planting beds, the greenhouse, the chicken’s coop and off, beside the garage, is our goat pen. The mailbox is a half-mile away.

We live deep in the woods. Surprisingly, a lot of people do. Other houses in the neighborhood can be heard, but not seen through the thick underbrush and foliage. We all know eachother, and wave when we see someone on the street. We love it here.

We have to. Two summers in a row we received a call to evacuate our home due to wildfire. The first warning calls came from neighbors. Their early alert gave us valuable time to pack photos and other irreplaceable things before dashing out the door. It’s good to be neighborly.

At dusk, the quiet of the forest becomes an orchestra of the wilderness. Crickets saw out a backbeat that marks temperature more than time. Frogs sing ballads to their wanton mates. Coyotes celebrate the moonlit kill with sticcato yips and yowls. Racoons rumble percussive through the garbage cans, and you awaken to the fact that you are not the audience. The audience is everywhere, and you are the show.

Living in the redwoods is nothing new for us. We have been here a long time, and this area was settled by humans a long time before that. First, (in recent reckoning) by the native Ohlone and then the Spanish, or Russians, and so on from there. Each culture in its own way.

We have adapted to it, and to us it is more than a home. It is our habitat. In the Pleistocene era, redwood trees ruled the globe. Modern humans evolved late during this time, and I suppose there might be some ancient womb-like comfort in this sylvan repose for me.

Not much happens around here that we haven’t seen before. But the daily adjustments to rural living can surprise some who move up from the concrete jungle. Little things like securing your trash cans, and how to keep raccoon out of the kitchen at night, the rats out of the woodpile and the mice out of the cupboards, are all part of the adventure, along with falling branches, trees and rocks with every storm.

Hiking shoes are casual daily footwear up here.

Going for a walk is beautiful, but also has its hazards. Even the plants can get you if you happen to run into poison oak, stinging nettle or a widow-maker branch dropping from the canopy above. There is wildlife everywhere. Insects, reptiles and mammals. If you are quiet, and have quick eyes, you may see them.

It’s the animals you don’t hear or see that can surprise you.

Banana slugs are one of my favorite symbols of the local wildlife. An early right of passage for me was learning that they are impossible to remove from the bottom of a Vibrum soled boot.

Avoid stepping on banana slugs. This was my first practical lesson in living with Nature.

Slow moving, at 5-1/2″ per hour, they range in color from mustard brown to bright yellow. Mating is easy for them, as a banana slug can be either male or female at a whim. More than this, they are seldom found without redwoods nearby and are the sole polinators of our native wild ginger.

A recent discovery: the inside of our mailbox is perfect banana slug habitat. Turns out it wasn’t the mail carrier making those worn-through spots on the incoming envelopes, it was a slug! S/he even opened one all the way along the top edge. That’s enough to make anyone suspicious, but the evidence panned out and a plump little slug sat waiting, looking embarrassed, the next time I pulled out the mail.

When not living in a mailbox, erstwhile soiling the reputation of innocent mail carriers, they love other dark cold and damp places to hide, feeding on the fallen wood and leaves, fungus and animal detrus so abundant in the redwood forest. They hide through the dry summers, too, forming a protective shell of mucus and leaves to wait out the heat and will only go out next in soggy winter weather.

The power goes out in the winter too. Out with the storms when the trees get pushed down by the wind; or if it freezes hard outside the trees will crack from the sudden expansion of all that water inside them; and sometimes in the summer when it’s sunny and the soil gets too dry, the trees will break and fall over, top-heavy from all that carbon they sequester as the wood pulp is grown inside. Perhaps a tree makes noise if there is no one around to hear it, but if it falls in these woods it will probably land on a power line.

Occasionally, some poor sap runs their car into a utility pole – but that is really rare.  And then the generator gets fired up. We have learned how to live off grid here, because the infrastructure town folk take for granted may not be available at usually the most needed moment. Like when it’s dark and stormy and you’re wet and cold and hungry.

Or if there is a wildfire.

The most recent fire ate thousands of acres, fully half of the forest in our community up here. This has forced the wilder inhabitants into previously ‘civilised’ neighborhoods. It has been a year since the fire, and there is not yet enough vegetation to feed the deer that once roamed those now charred hills.

Doe, a deer. A female deer.
Doe, a deer. A female deer.

A lot of mouths depend on those herds of deer. Most humans around here don’t hunt, but lately, as Bambi and his family moved into the ‘hoods to feed on my roses, their favorite dinner patron has moved in too. That would be our top local predator.

Here, kitty, kitty.

It is rare to see a mountain lion. In the unlikely event that you have surprised the animal, make yourself as big as you can. Open your coat wide and holler. Make lots of noise. If that soft-sack-of-meat-surrounding-your-soul can become more trouble than this hungry and efficient predator is willing to bother with, the cat may leave in disgust.

A recent study of the 115 to 220 pound cats, whose range extends from the Yukon to the southern Andes, tagged as many pumas as could be found in our region to track the habits of these beautiful and elusive animals. On the local mountain lion population map it turns out that a very large concentration live in our neck of the woods. That would be us on the map, under the red cougar. Every where else nearby has yellow or even light green cougars, if they get one at all.

As a livestock owner, this also makes me a tad nervous.

When the Spanish settled these hills, they brought domesticated pigs with them. Allowing the animals to range free ensured they would get nice and fat on the oak acorns and fungi growing abundantly in the forests. When it came time for more pork, someone could go get one, simple as that.

Alright, I see the logic. Keeping those hungry, heavy, strong, rooting animals confined is very tough. There is an old farmers axiom that declares a good fence must be ‘hog tight, bull strong and horse high.’ That takes a lot of work. I can see it now, landing the boat and getting ashore… letting the pigs run sounded like a good idea at the time.

Hardly anyone hunts anymore. Today those feral pigs are the most dangerous animals in the forest – from a human perspective. They are smart and have a keen sense of smell. They are also very nearsighted and awake in the day, making chance encounters more likely.

Here’s the kicker, although they will probably hear you coming if they don’t smell you first, it is likely the animal will charge when it finally notices you. Unafraid, they are very fast and have very sharp, long tusks they use as weapons and digging tools. Whatever you do, don’t get between a sow and her piglets.

Kind of makes you wonder how humans ever survived through so many dangers, finally ‘advancing’ to a point that our big game now arrives home wrapped in plastic. What kind of person wants to live in such a wild place? Our species is so adaptable that some of us found a way out of the wilds and into milds. Does that mean humans shouldn’t be in the wilds anymore?

I’ve heard folks rail against habitat encroachment. sigh. Just because humans are out here doesn’t mean we’re hurting the environment. We can do better than that, and it’s up to every land owner to protect habitat for the wild things they share the land with. We can do this. This is where we came from, too.

There are some folks who couldn’t spend a winter without snow, no matter how cold it gets outside and others who need sun all year long, not minding the crisping heat of summer. Whole communities that live in boats and never leave the waterways to step on land, and others who will never leave the city. Just leave us to the redwoods. We’ll deal with it.

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