life and death on the interurban

Non-fiction, 2/24/12

Spring is in the air in southeast King County. It smells fresh, this springtime air, and ineffably hopeful. Daytime temperatures, on average, are on the rise, and the day itself is brightening, lengthening, prompting the age-old rites of spring observable at these temperate latitudes across the globe.

Grasses and shrubs are leafing, as are many of the deciduous trees. Alders, aspens, and dogwoods are showing signs of life; black cottonwoods and big-leaf maples, not quite yet. Some brave species, such as the ornamental cherry tree, have already put out blossoms: a riotous exclamation of pink, magenta, and white. Everywhere there are buds, shoots, branchlets. The photosynthetic race is on, unleashing cascades of trophic flow that play out unassumingly in my neighborhood wetland wilderness. I try to keep my eyes open all about me, my ears pricked to the slightest sounds, but there is much that goes unnoticed. These biotic concatenations leave subtle clues, often under the cover of darkness, and I am privy to precious few of them.

the rabbit

the rabbit

Running along the Interurban Trail, I see eastern cottontail rabbits by the dozen. They bound from the path as I pass, wary but not overly concerned. Eastern cottontails are dun-colored with longish ears and glassy eyes. They were introduced to Washington in the 1930s as game, and since then have proliferated like, well, rabbits. They prefer the juicy shoots growing in open areas, under the burgeoning sunlight, and thus gamble daily with their lagomorphic lives. Juicy shoots are primo provender, but grazing under little to no cover is risky business when predators are afoot. Or a-wing, as it were.

the coyote

I sometimes see coyote scat on the trail. It is easily distinguished from dog shit—which just looks like shit—by its smaller size, and its twisting complexity. Depending on the time of year, coyote scat comprises berries, rabbit fur, feathers, rodent bones, chicken bones, lizard scales, and even the remains of domestic cats and dogs. Coyotes are eminently adaptable, especially to human encroachment. They are like terrestrial crows in that regard. One night I heard a pack of coyotes from the brush beside the trail yipping and howling at a nearly-full moon. They were close, and I could discern at least four different voices in the din. I paused and listened, because coyotes (as well as wolves) very rarely attack humans, and because it was beautiful, haunting, one of the most otherworldly things I have ever heard.

the owl

On these night runs I also see a barn owl, probably the same one every time. It perches on telephone poles and tracks me with inky black eyes close-set in a heart-shaped face. As I pass beneath, it takes wing and seems to follow my progress down the trail; I wonder if perhaps my startling of the path-side rabbits is conducive to its hunting. It flies soundlessly on tawny wings, wavering erratically. I can only imagine the terror its wingbeats induce in its harebrained quarry: a subtle shift in air pressure, a shadow overhead, and then razor-sharp talons piercing soft fur, a glimpse of the heart-face with its flesh-tearing beak.

It is morning, and the sun is out before seven. The red-wing blackbirds are singing and the song sparrows are singing. The golden-crowned kinglets and bushtits are flitting from tree to tree, eating springtails. The spring is coming, and I am expectant.


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