Notes from Candice Ransom

Footprints on the Porch

hawk feathers

Wegman’s was Armageddon.  I went in with one woefully inadequate reusable shopping bag and met a wall of people at the check out.  Fueled by news of Boston’s blizzards and YouTube views of Yeti helping dig them out, everyone in Fredericksburg had been called to the barricades.  I pushed through denuded aisles, thankful we didn’t need toilet paper, getting necessities like People magazine and Pepperidge Farm Golden Layer Cake.

Driving home, I fretted over my book project, which wasn’t going at all well.  The weather report had everyone in a tear and everything in the chilly air seemed out of whack.  We were all focused on ourselves, on surviving this storm which by no means would be epic even by Virginia standards.

As I unloaded groceries, I heard crows making a terrible racket down the street near the wooded area.  Their harsh cawing had a tribunal quality.  (Poet Louis Jenkins said crows “have a limited vocabulary, like someone who swears constantly”).

The piercing kee-kee of a red-tailed hawk punctuated the crows’ shouts.  A blue jay added his two cents’ worth to the melee.  I had to see what was going on.  If a hawk had been injured, the crows could mob him.  Instead I stumbled on an amazing scene.

On the ground two red-tailed hawks squared off in the “mantling” posture, wings fanned open.  It took me a few seconds to realize they were fighting, most likely over territory.  Another hawk fluttered nearby and a fourth flew in.  The crows carried on higher in the trees. The fighters gripped each others’ legs with their talons, as two wrestlers might clutch arms above the wrists, panting and terrible-eyed.

The crow crowd seemed to be taking sides and laying bets.  The other two hawks could have been seconds in an old-fashioned duel.  And the blue jay reported the proceedings in the excitable tone of an announcer at a boxing match.

I approached as close as allowed.  At last the hawks flew off, the crows scattered, and the blue jay shut up.  I walked over to the fight ring.  The only sign of a scuffle were two breast feathers netted in the underbrush.  I hurried home, by then truly freezing, but also feeling somehow privileged and cleansed.

A few hours later, a chickenfeed snow began to fall.  Small dry flakes quickly drifted over the ground where so much had been at stake a short while ago.  Through the window, I watched from the warm safety of my home as the snow disguised the familiar world.  I wished I could bury my faltering book project under the whiteness.

In his book Secrets of the Universe: Essays on Family, Community, Spirit, and Place, Scott Russell Sanders advises writers “…to free themselves from human enclosures, and go outside to study the green world . . . if we are meant to survive, we must look outward from the charmed circle of our own works, to the stupendous theater where our tiny, brief play goes on.”

Later still, when it was dark and bitter cold and snow was still coming down, I looked out on the porch and saw tracks.  Cat pawprints.  I knew with certainty that this was no neighbor cat making casual rounds.  Not in this weather.

My husband filled a plate with cat food and put it on the porch.  Then we waited until a shadow separated itself from the swirling night and hunkered over the plate.  My worries over a book project seemed as petty as people squabbling over a case of bottled water.

Hawks will fight for the right to hunt and stray cats will search for food and shelter in the wider story of real survival.  I remind myself to step off my insignificant stage and gaze out into the stupendous theater.  I might learn something from players different from me, no less important.

11 thoughts on “Footprints on the Porch”

  1. Quite a scene, which you describe so beautifully. Whenever I see something interesting outdoors, I always think what a gift it is — moments later, you’d have missed the whole thing. It’ll be interesting to see what unfolds with the stray cat.

    • We’re having trouble feeding the stray–a well-fed neighborhood cat keeps eating the stray’s food first. I keep putting food out and the greedy cat keeps coming. The stray is in hiding until very late at night. Any suggestions?

  2. Is the greedy cat out all night? I suppose if you put the food in a different place (other than the porch), he’d still find it before the stray has a chance? That’s a tough one, kind of like the raccoons getting the scraps we leave out for the fox. As it’s survival of the fittest, I hope the stray learns he has to be more aggressive and come earlier. 🙂 Or, you could always leave place cards :D. “For the Stray, Not You, Greedy Cat.”

    • The greedy cat does seem to be out all night, or at least very late–has a collar and tags and is well-fed. We don’t know where the stray is hiding–possibly under our shed, the deck or the porch. But the greedy cat could find those places, too. The stray is new to homelessness, I think, and has to learn to get tough.

  3. For someone living in nomans land, with one foot in suburbia the other country, I only get glimpses of each. What I do have is an abundance of feathered friends from the mighty pelicans that glide so high and graceful to the little lorikeets and lots of parrots of all sizes in between, the scene of the birds you described placed me looking over your shoulder to witness their wonderful world thankyou.

    What we do have close to the house is a ringtail possum and her baby, we leave an apple out each night, not only to feed them, but to keep them away from our apple trees.

    • We have possums, too, our only marsupial in North America. Most people think they are ugly, but I think they’re very cute (even if they do have 52 sharp teeth).

      I would love to see a lorikeet!

  4. As usual, your story is welcomed here like a letter from family. I read them aloud to my husband and we laugh together. Your description of crows – and their limited vocabulary of only curse words – had us nodding our heads in agreement. As we watch the bird parade that goes on in our backyard (feeders are really popular in the snow), we witness similar plays. I can tell you, with certainty, that birds know when a camera is being pointed their way – and they will instantly fly away and refuse to come back until I put that thing away!

    Your book will not be buried beneath snow. It’s hard work because no matter how you dress it up, writing is intimately personal – that’s what makes it personal to all of us. Keep at it.

  5. Cats are the same way about the camera, once they catch on. Right now Atticus is after the strap so he always looks, but Winchester would hardly *ever* look at me after a few years. My bird pictures are laughable. Tiny dots.

    Crows remind me of the Crowder family on “Justified.” Noisy, rowdy, stribble-haired . . . smart and funny.


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