Going Feral: Field Notes on Wonder and Wanderlust: Excerpt from Heather Durham
I sat on a pile of leaves and conifer needles in the space between where two large roots of a western red cedar sloped to the ground. Back against the thick bark and elbows resting on the roots, I surveyed the forest in front of me. It was December in Western Washington, dry and cold for a few days between rains. I pulled my fleece hat down to cover my ears and tucked my hands into the opposite arms of my wool jacket.
I breathed in the cold and the quiet. The Douglas squirrel who lived in the Douglas fir stump across the open cedar grove was nowhere to be seen, though he no longer bothered to squeak and chatter at me after seeing me there regularly. The black-tailed deer who fed in the nearby meadow at dawn and dusk might have been nestled somewhere nearby, as their heart- shaped tracks paralleled mine in our habitual routes, but I couldn’t see them, nor any other living mammal. The birds, too, were silent on that day; the green conifers and naked brown maples and cottonwoods were still.
By most definitions, I was alone. Yet the cedar tree was strong at my back, under my arms. Dried maple leaves insulated me from the cold earth. Emerald sword ferns, Oregon grape leaves, and lush mosses softened the winter browns, and in the spaces between the deciduous trees in the distance I could see the open river valley and white-capped Cascades mountains. Three thousand miles from my birthplace, no family member nor human friend within shouting distance or even a short drive, yet I knew I had found my true home. I was safe.
And then, gunshots rang out. Loud! I cringed and gripped the tree, looked around wildly for the source, though I knew by then that the shooter was probably down in the valley, a half mile from there. Probably shooting waterfowl, or just targets. A normal part of living in the country, out West. I would eventually get used to it, they said. Maybe. But right then my heart was beating too fast. Right then I was panting. I pulled my knees to my chest and dropped my head.
A few minutes later, leaves rustled across the cedar grove. A furred mammal leaped over the hillside that sloped up from the stream bank. Pointed ears and snout with a moist black nose, chestnut-brown and grey fur with a bushy black-tipped tail.
She froze, one paw in the air. I froze, still clenching my cedar tree. And then, I exhaled. Still holding her gaze, I let my shoulders drop away from my ears. Loosened my grip on the tree and lowered my legs back to the forest floor. My head dropped back against the bark. I breathed easy.
Coyote put her paw down. Took a few slow steps on a line parallel with me, looked behind her, then back at me. Then, sat down.
She looked at me, blinked. I looked at her, smiled and breathed. She blinked again, cocked her head, and trotted away.
Heather Durham is a nature essayist and naturalist with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction and a Master of Science in Environmental Biology. She’s held a variety of environmental jobs around the U.S., from Interpretive Park Ranger to Field Biologist, Trails Worker to Restoration Ecologist. She currently lives in the foothills of the Washington Cascades where she works behind the scenes at Wilderness Awareness School. Going Feral is her first book. Learn more at: https://heatherdurhamauthor.com/
Special Thanks to Heather for sharing her writing and don’t forget to see Heather in person at Village Books in Fairhaven on May 11!