It was a beautiful afternoon in early June that I first explored the “Historical Society of Old Yarmouth Nature Trails.” These trails are located just behind the Yarmouth Port post office on Rt. 6A. At first glance it looks like a typical mid-Cape conservation area, encompassing some fifty acres of wooded uplands, wetlands, old pasture, and a small pond. But every place has its own individual character and its unique potential for unexpected encounters.
As its name might suggest, this Historical Society property has a long history of human use. In fact, I was delighted to read in the trail guide that it is “a remnant of a golf course fairway abandoned in the late 1920s.” After all, if golf courses may in time be swept back into nature’s bosom, why not airports, malls, industrial parks, highways, suburban sprawl. Wal-Marts and cellphone towers?
At the southern end of the property is Miller Pond, a small, shallow, elliptical kettle pond. The water level was low that spring. Highbush blueberries, pendant with epaulet-like clusters of white blossoms, lined an exposed muddy shore that sloped gradually down to the pond. The mud was covered with fine, short, bright green grass. As I stood there, shading my eyes from the westering sun, I noticed, about fifty yards to my right, a large brown form rooting about along the shoreline. It was a muskrat.
The creature was snuffling and rooting about, waddling slowly and deliberately across the mud in a hedgehoggy sort of way. It seemed unaware of my presence as it gradually made its way towards me. I stood stock still beneath the dangling sprays of rose-colored maple seeds. Then I began to walk slowly toward the creature along the spongy, upper shore. Still, it showed no awareness of me. Its fur shone warm, brown, and rich in the late afternoon light as it waddled slowly, deliberate and unafraid, like a skunk. It nibbled the tender green shoots of grass, alone on the pond with me. It was so hedgehoggy, so Beatrix Potter-y - so English!
And then, when I was only some twenty feet away, it took a large clump of grass in its mouth, turned, and with no sign of alarm or even recognition, moved out into the pond, continuing it waddling motion even in the water. It swam off slowly, trailing a smooth V of water behind it, it followed the north shore of the pond for thirty yards or more, finally turning into the shore, where it disappeared into what I presumed was its den, heavily concealed by the overhanging shrubbery
It was one of those chance meetings when, for a brief space of time, you are ushered into the private life of another creature, one whose total unawareness of you creates a strange and sudden intimacy. Suddenly the place you are in becomes not just another typical “nature preserve,” but a world unto itself; or rather, an integral part of the larger world that stretches out beyond the formal boundaries of the preserve into endless connections. You are suddenly and deeply aware, beyond imposed precepts, that in some profound and fundamental way you share this pond, and by extension, this world, with other sentient beings. Such moments cannot be taught, or even consciously prepared for, for they work on the level of recognition and acknowledgement that is nonverbal and instinctive, touching us in places deeper than understanding.