Before I go, I have something to say

Dubuque, Where the Wild Things Are

I love it when something completely wild sneaks into the city. (And no, I’m not talking about Bryce’s last party.) I’m talking mostly about animals, the ones we tend to think dwell mostly in National Parks, there for our pleasure, but far enough into the wilderness not to threaten our daily lives.

It’s not like I want to encounter lions on the way to work (or tigers or bears, for that matter). But don’t you love it when a blue heron flies by overhead? With their slender, jointed legs and impossible wingspan, they always seem prehistoric to me. Yet there they are, hovering over the Mississippi. We think we’ve tamed that river, with our locks and dams and bridges, but the animals that call it home would beg to differ.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a turkey vulture. I was walking along the hallway on sixth floor, as high as it gets in the building where I work, when I saw a large bird circling the sky, and then another, and another, until I counted sixteen raptors, all going round and round, seeming for all the world to be just enjoying the breeze on that summer day. What I didn’t know at the time, aside from their name, was that they do this thing – called “kettling,” as if they were stirring a giant vat of soup – whenever one bird finds a good updraft of wind. Before you know it, another bird has noticed, and then another, and another, and joined in. Airplane pilots have reported seeing them as high as 20,000 feet, circling without moving their long, fringed wings.

Other evidence of wildness stays closer to the ground. People see red foxes more frequently than you might think in Dubuque, right in the middle of town. A friend of mine who bikes fifteen miles to work most days saw a fox being chased by a white housecat, right next to the house where my kids and I used to live. When we lived there, we had no idea what creatures lurked in the dark.

Or maybe we did. My most outlandish creature story from our time in that house on University starts with a toaster oven. This tale starred a nice loaf of garlic bread, an inattentive cook (that would be me), and a blazing fire. Once the flames died down, I carried the bread, now a shrunken black cinder, outside, still on the toaster over rack, to cool down on the front porch. My son, staying overnight at a friend’s, arrived home early the next morning just as the sun was coming up and a possum was about to make his getaway, toaster oven tray in his greedy little mouth. Dan yelled, the possum dropped his prize, and the tray was saved.

I’m always feeding birds. Any time a bunch of hot dog buns turns stale, out to the birds they go. And isn’t that what leftover pancakes are for – the birds? And once a hawk stood on the edge of our bird bath. Did he drink? I don’t know.

My family used to take rides to the country and hike around the Iowa woods, our parents pointing out exotic plants and amazing bugs like walking sticks and katydids (which I liked until I realized just how much racket even one of them can make outside a bedroom window). Imagine my shock when I encountered a woods-dwelling bug at the local Lowe’s garden shop the other day. My daughter was paying for a bonsai for her new work cubicle when I noticed something odd on the line of shopping carts extending outside.

Walking up to it, I say aloud, “Katydid,” because it had that beautiful spring green on its wings. The cashier corrected me. “No, it’s a walking stick.” I don’t think so, I thought; those really do look like sticks. This one did not. It was Allison, who has never seen one in the wild, who came up and confidently declared: “Praying mantis.” Darned if she wasn’t right. That long body, that triangular head, and those large hands, clutched in supplication. The cashier told us they could fly like butterflies and were all over the place. Evidently they came in with the plants. I was glad to know they could fly away from harm.

I’m sure the rest of you have your own stories. The wolf running down the highway. The coyote keeping you up at night. Newspapers are always following lonesome bears around, as they mess with people’s garbage, seeming to be in hapless pursuit of a mate. Maybe you’ve seen a rare bird, a raccoon, even a bobcat. When I was a child, my parents called my sister and me out of bed to tiptoe out to the backyard and listen to the family of owls perched on the phone lines along the alley. More recently, I watched a young deer munching leaves from a tree planted above Highway 20. Of course I was concerned for the tree, but oh, a deer, in such a dangerous place.

When I lived in Colorado, the wildlife was both more exotic and more expected. We learned to stop whenever we saw a group of cars pulled up along a road, and to look up the mountain, where we would see elk, or one time, mountain goats. I once made my first husband laugh when I came home and asked, “What are those deer called that have just one horn?” A whole herd had thundered across the road in front of my car. Once he’d collected himself, he told me they weren’t deer but antelope.

The wild things – they take us out of ourselves for a moment, leaving us awestruck, and restored.


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