Sometimes we are given a rare opportunity to experience an event no one could ever imagine. By being aware of one little sound in the forest, I was able to witness something that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. It has affected me in a profound way. It is a story I will tell as long as I live. This story is not an easy one to tell, or to read, but it is real. It is primal. And I cherish the life that was sacrificed so that others can thrive. Be prepared to be moved if you decide to read on.
I heard the snap of a branch in the woods. My immediate reaction was to dismiss it, assuming it was a dead limb from a snag. I decided to give it full my attention. When I looked up, I was surprised to see a black bear running full speed down the steep slope along the east side of my house. It turned and with amazing agility despite it bulk, slalomed its way through several saplings, and followed along the edge of the woods past the south side of my house. What was it running from? I had to know so I hurried around the north side of my house feeling confident it made enough of a barrier between us. Besides, the bear was about 100 feet away and my front door was within five quick strides! I felt safe. Peering around the west side of the house, I caught another look at it. I was thrilled to have this incredibly long view: black furry portly belly, lumbering stride, tan face, small ears, and stubby tail. It seemed to be an average-sized adult and I thought it might be a female.
“IT’S ABOUT TIME!” I thought to myself. I have been waiting several years for my first bear sighting since I moved here. I had heard enough bearanoid stories from the previous home owner, neighbors, and folks around town. One fall I found a large bear calling card (scat) in my driveway full of seeds, apple, and corn. On the forested hillside above my house, beech trees with claw marks and “nests” are undeniable signs of their presence. It was just a matter of time before I’d actually see one in motion.
The bear was still running hard and just in front of it, I could to see the tell-tale spots of a young fawn. It was frantically fleeing and I knew it was soon to be a goner. I’ve heard that bears will sometimes take a fawn, but I never thought I’d witness such a thing. Next I realized they were heading toward the road and they were both in danger.
My house is surrounded by forest and has a sense of wildness, but is also close to a main road. Although the highway is on the edge of several well-traveled game trails, it does not penetrate or fragment the forest. Over the years I have seen many nature stories unfold here. There was the winter of the short-tailed weasel that would frenetically slink its way through the old stone wall in search of a meal. Another winter I had a long glimpse of an even rarer weasel, the fisher. It parked itself under a suet feeder and cleaned up the greasy crumbs left by the birds. This summer’s entertainment included a 30-inch long garter snake. It magically slithered up a stone wall, turned at the top and came back down while its back half still continued up… like opposing escalators at Macy’s Department Store. I have also enjoyed over 80 species of birds that I’ve heard or seen here.
One dark November morning I was drawn to the window by raucous shrieks of blue jays. Like today’s event, I witnessed another gruesome act of nature. A merlin (falcon) was using the yard as a B&B during her migration. The jays were unusually loud and sounded disturbed. One of their kind was pinned below the merlin. After a few minutes of wrestling, the merlin prevailed and flew off with her meal.
It seems natural to want to intervene, to be the fixer of “problems,” and help the weak or unfortunate. The thought does pass through my mind even when I see a blue jay (egg-stealer, baby-bird-raider) in trouble. Here I was again, feeling like I should race to the road, stop traffic to spare the bear and the fawn. How ridiculous, but it’s human nature to react with emotion and want to do something.
I flashed-back in my brain to a day I hiked with my friend Deb and we came upon a similar scene. A snake had caught a frog by just one back leg and couldn’t get its mouth around it to swallow. The frog tried to crawl away. We didn’t interfere, but a young girl and her father came along the trail. She pleaded, “Daddy, the poor frog! Do something!” The father used a stick to lift the snake, then jiggled it until the snake lost its hold on the frog. The frog was free and the snake was hungry. Poor snake, I thought.
Of course, all I could do was watch the animals sprint away. I hoped somehow the fawn would escape and I lost sight of them. I almost believed it could happen, but I knew that was very unlikely. My heart broke when I heard the cry of the fawn, sounding like a baby lamb. Overwhelmed with empathy, I felt the terror of that moment and it nearly undid me. Such a tiny, innocent creature…Nature isn’t fair.
Watching Nature on ETV teaches this lesson, but it is drastically different. There is an emotional distance or displacement that happens when I’m passively sitting in front of a box, in my living room, knowing the event is from the past. When it is too much to bear, it can be muted, changed, and turned off. It makes it seem less real.
But this was real and I felt totally engrossed; I grabbed my binoculars. I called friends, Keeping Track, the neighbors. They asked if I was documenting it. No, I was living it. I found the bear on the west side of the house, in the woods about 100 feet away. My front door was 15 feet away. I felt safe. The bear was partially blocked by a fallen pine tree but I could see her panting and settling down. Was she eating? It was very quiet and I watched for several minutes.
I went back inside for a moment and when I returned, I could not find her. Where did she go? Did something spook her? I knew it would be incredibly stupid (perhaps fatally stupid) to approach the woods, and so I scanned from the lawn. I found her several hundred feet away from where I believed the fawn lay. She was looking in my direction, nose held high. She was aware of me. Perhaps she thought, “She’s 100 feet away. I am safe.” She slowly ambled back to the fawn, keeping her distance from the edge of the forest, curving around my house like she was tethered on a long lead. Occasionally she would stop, turn towards me, lift her snout again. She must have smelled me. She settled back behind the pine tree. We were both safe.
After 25 minutes, she picked up her prey and started up the game trail. It’s one of the trails I call “the highway,” one of the most obvious, muddiest, most used. It’s the trail I often walk on. It’s the trail that arcs around the west and south side of my house, up the steep hill, and eventually to a large wetland and the Vermont State Forest. She uses it too, I thought.
She walked, head held high, holding her prize, then broke into a run. I was amazed by her agility and strength. That is when I convinced myself she was a mother, taking the fawn to her own family. I imagined her own cubs waiting for her in the forest, growing bigger, going on.
After a safe period of time, I took my camera to the sight of the kill. I expected tracks and sign to be obvious; I expected to find carnage. I had the right spot, but all I found were some broken hawkweed stems. I followed the game trail, but there were no tracks, only a few broken ferns, laid flat in the direction she traveled and an occasional tuft of downy fawn fur. I searched the east side of the house where I first heard the commotion and saw her. All I found were some dry pine needles in raised clumps, the spacing matched what I thought were reasonable strides for a charging bear (6 tracks in about 9 measured feet). I could see the faint trail of the pine needle clumps leading down the hill. I searched for hairs, tracks, anything….Nothing! Nothing to grasp on to, to tell about the tiny fawn’s little life and big sacrifice. It all seemed so unreal to me, I somehow needed to convince myself it really happened.
Filter out your busy thoughts. Choose to pay attention. Listen to nature. The woods might seem quiet, but there are life stories happening out there! The sound of the branch snapping sounded different than a branch falling from the snag. I chose to pay attention to it. It opened the book, for this story to be told.
Alison is an experienced Vermont birder who first wrote this article in 2010.