Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Wild Life of Wildlife

A number of type-A city people have asked, since I moved to rural New Mexico, well, just what do you do out there?

While I am writing, both creatively and finishing an 80-page report for a client, and painting, and fixing and cleaning and watering and mowing and watering some more, and exploring (and getting lost), a fair amount of time and mental energy has centered on critter encounters. 

Since arriving in New Mexico, I have met:

    Coyote at dusk
  • coyotes eyeing me at dusk who finally decided I was too big to be prey (I stood up very straight), but did try to lure away my dog Rita; 
  • snorting javelinas charging by after the dogs while I was out for a run; 
  • bats circling above my bed at 3am that I proceeded to catch in a fishing net and escort outside, leading to a massive caulking event of any and all cracks inside the house;
  • a 5- or 6- foot rattlesnake that was more than a little irritated when I turned on the water faucet right next to him to water some trees -- we were both surprised by the other's appearance; I had to hose him down to get him to move away from the faucet so I could turn the water off; 
  • crickets that like to nestle in the skylight so that their shrill voices will echo and carry even farther; alarmingly speedy house spiders; two varieties of roaches; innumerable flies; lumbering mosquitoes laden down with my blood; and, 
  • a tarantula out for a sunset stroll.  
I moved to 106 desert acres. This crowd of critters is standard fare for this part of New Mexico. In the lively world out there, it's not all nose-twitching bunnies and hopping toads, although plenty of those frolic through the sand too.

By far the most dangerous predator on my land, however, is me.  

Armed with eco-friendly peppermint bug spray, flyswatters, fishing nets, a loud yell, and (unused) baseball bats, I am somewhat more imposing to the animal kingdom than my small stature might otherwise suggest to humans.

More to the point, however, as caretaker of the property, I also have access to the three guns that come with the land. With that, suddenly the humans are wary too.

With a rattlesnake or black widow bite, you have a couple of hours where, if you seek treatment, you'll likely be fine. Bats are freaky swooping overhead, but not lethal. Tarantulas can kill mice, but not people.

A shotgun blast can kill a person from across the room in a matter of seconds with one pull of a trigger finger (that gun balanced in the clasp of an evolutionarily-advanced opposable thumb).

Animals do kill their own kind, often to remove competition for a mate or resources for food. Chimpanzees, for instance, murder to expand territory. It's not sunshine and rainbows in the animal kingdom with everyone holding paws and singing in 5-part harmony.

But Homo sapiens take killing to a whole new level. Combining their big brains and big guns, unmitigated rage or righteousness or misfiring neurochemistry or greed or panic or pathological hatred or some combinations thereof, we can and do destroy to a terrifyingly extreme degree.

I saw that impressive rattlesnake again yesterday, slithering near the old compost bin by the other house where I suspect he lives.  

I still scan the ceiling for bats if I wake up abruptly in the middle of the night. After five non-violent bat removals, I'm still a little jumpy, even though, yes, I know, they are harmless except for the tiny percentage that is rabid.

My arachnophobia, however, appears to be fading. Now when I go in the garage, while I look for the tell-tale sturdy webs of black widows, and check before putting my hand anywhere where I can't see all of the area, from garage handles to boxes, I don't think much about my eight-legged friends. 

When I saw the tarantula outside that a month ago would have made me shriek, I only paused to observe.  When it didn't move in any aggressive way, I opted to take its picture and move on.

My first thought: I'm bigger; I could take him out if I had to.

Living in the rural southwest, I am up closer against my own survival instinct, and the level of ruthlessness I can live with in acting on that. 

The last bat I relocated, found clinging to a window screen, clearly exhausted, just wanted to be outside again.  I removed the screen, carried it away from the house and shook him out, with stern words for him to tell his buddies to stay outside. I am territorial. Just ask the roaches (now absent from the kitchen).  

That first meeting with the rattlesnake sent my heart rate up, and left me babbling at "Mr. Snakey." Now I am more likely to wear shoes sturdier than flip-flops now when walking the land, but through that exchange, I also realized he mostly just wanted to be left alone. His rattle made a lot of big noise to say, "back off!"

Living on my own, I don't have nearly as much luxury for dissolving into complete hysterics (although friends who have listened to me rant on the phone about bats and snakes may feel otherwise). In the moment, however, with a flapping bat or rattling snake, I best figure out a way right-quick way to manage critter relationships myself. The water hose worked fine with the rattler.  

Kind neighbors have helped when, for instance, I got the tractor stuck in the sand. I joined the search when one of their dogs went on walkabout. We have community, but largely, independence is the way here on the ranch. Each individual finds different balances between survival and cruelty, risk and security, paranoia and foolhardy obliviousness.   

If his Snakiness makes still another appearance, I could call the neighbor that shoots snakes, but more likely, I'd call the other neighbor that relocates them instead, or most likely, I'll do as I did yesterday and simply steer clear and let him slither on his way.  We have a lot of space here to share. 

I've killed a lot of crickets, mosquitoes, house spiders, roaches, gnats, flies, ticks, and a few odd unspecified creepy transparent multi-legged insect of unknown variety. Swatting and swearing, I've lectured the cats on their pathetic hunting expertise. 

The cats yawn and purr, roll over in the sun, dreaming of delicately chewing the heads off of mice and grounding swooping swallows.  

A lot of people have asked me, aren't you scared out there?  And the answer is yes, sometimes I am.  

And sometimes I'm exhilarated by the quiet and the beauty of the land, grateful for the opportunity I have to see clouds roll across the sky for the monsoon season.  

I do know where the ammunition is stored if one day I find a rattlesnake curled up in the Laz-Z-Boy in my living room.   

For good reason though, I am most scared of the violence of my own species.

Petting Lucky at the ranch shortly before rain rolled through
Photo credit: John W. Hicks


  1. I enjoy the way you express yourself. I shall be reading you!

  2. Sounds every bit like I figured it would be... though I think you have a stronger mind than I do, coming to terms with the spiders. Snakes and all things 4 legs & under: totally fine. 6 legs and up: hell no.

    I think there is a magic about the southwest that most people have covered over with strip malls and developments. Any place that has so much desolation, with so much hidden life... it has to have magic.