It was a mystery to me for some days, that narrow winding path worn into the summer grass of our properties. Its muddy trench in the wet earth of our lakefront recalled the track of an overloaded wheelbarrow, or an undersized bicycle—or was this the measurement-taking of a utilities crew of some sort? Out of curiosity I followed its meander from where it began on the south side of our acreage, and then along its way north, as it veered to each of our old willows, before following closely across our house front, and then along our neighbor’s shuttered cottage, where it seemed to halt at the raised wooden deck. If the course was an animal’s, it was nothing like a deer-run that I’d ever encountered. The puzzle was solved by an arrival I witnessed one evening from my vegetable garden, of a mother raccoon and her train of six very young kits. Their amusingly solemn, almost lock-step march toward the neighbor’s cottage was precisely along that trail, as on an established footpath, the very thing the impression turned out to be.
And so they arrived and arrived again, this single-parent family of bandits, always from the south on their evening round, and with an on-the-hour dependability I wouldn’t have expected. They were far from furtive; only once did mother halt to briefly consider me. I was watching the procession from our porch, and seemed to have been formally cleared by her assessing maternal gaze, though I never attempted to venture nearer. It turned out they were bound for a foreclosed house two doors down, whose one-time owner, in his unflagging (and, to my mind, irresponsible) devotion to the stray cats that prowl our nights, regularly returned to leave dry cat food on the back porch. This the raccoons feasted on, while three or four felines watched languidly from safe perches a few yards off. The family would scatter the pellets before commencing their repast, which was mostly orderly, though with occasional lapses into hissing chaos, when one kit tried to steal from another, or when mother was not left to her own well-earned portion. Their supping done, the raccoons proceeded on to our own back lot, and to an antique rowboat upturned in some high weeds, which, to my additional surprise, was one of the improvised dens of these thieves.
Ordeal by motherhood. That’s what came to mind at the sight of the mother raccoon, with her hips grotesquely broad in relation to her pinched waist, as though she were both underfed and not yet closed up after her large delivery—she literally looked like one raccoon about to asymmetrically divide into two. How utterly spent she seemed as she trudged along with her muzzle to the earth, her gait a laborious waddle. Anyone could see how pulling that train of playful kits was a grueling test of her strength and her wits. We like to think we have reasons for the bearing of children—and maybe we do: Nature doesn’t seem to mind if we reassure ourselves with a few comforting rationalizations for the arrival of our little ones; but as the animals never tire of reminding us, reason has nothing to do with it. Surely postpartum convalescence was an undreamt-of luxury for this mother: her milk was drying up; food had to be found. As so often in the animal world, father was a patris abscondis—likely little better, in fact, than a fanatically territorial sperm donor. The recent epidemic of single motherhood in our own species has, in a perverse and impoverishing way, brought us closer to most of the rest of the mammals.
In almost perfect contrast to this weary and frazzled heroine was her troop of joyous little masked bears, whose overbrimming energy was constantly spilling over into chases, tugs-of-war, and playful wrestling. Over the weeks of our encounters I felt I came to recognize a few in the litter, such as one I nicknamed Hop-along, the kit that every few strides did a strange little stumbling dance, as though it suffered from a mild gait disorder, but whose determination kept it well within the evening parade. And there was General Annoyance, a weanling I instinctively took to be male, who was always getting under someone’s fur, and being chased off by a sibling or even mother herself, though he was quickly readmitted to the fold, and apparently without having mended his ways. And Oddball, who repeatedly strayed off to inspect one curiosity and then the next—a butterfly, a softball, even a pair of petulant sandhill cranes—before it would peer about wondering where its kin had marched off to, then anxiously scent its way back to the train. And I noted another distinctive kit, one I wasn’t inclined to name, who seemed less adventurous than the others, and slightly thinner, with fur that appeared matted—indeed, this was the first of the litter to disappear from the family procession.
That evening just before nightfall, as I was roaming our small orchard, and heard some squirrel-like scrabbling up one of our oldest apple trees, and then in the canopy’s precocious shadows I could make out three of the little bandits, hugging to boughs where they peered down on me with fearful curiosity. The whole raccoon family, I discovered, had taken refuge in the surrounding trees. (When the plums in the orchard ripen, they’ll be up in the branches knocking down a sizable portion of my harvest, if I don’t install fencing around the trunks.) And that fond but mysterious encounter in the gathering dark, as the bats were beginning to circulate, and the earliest, blue-strobing fireflies still outnumbered the visible stars: it became an externalized memory of my boyhood, where I am gathered with my own family of eight before the television, in our family room whose window screens are open to the summer night. A moth has been admitted indoors to untiringly orbit a glowing table lamp, but the grids of our screens are entirely impervious to Death.
Hunger was a taste for something;
Bombs fell elsewhere; the only scarcity
Was scarcity itself; and Death blessed those
Who were born very old.
I like to think it is The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau that makes our TV so absorbingly blue. Those rare moments of amity in our household, presided over by the noble and edifying Cousteau, that half-seal half-sage in his rubber diving suit—who would dishonor him with the celebrity with which we christen the vacuous?—and the blue, watery world of enchantment he would bring to our family room every month or so. There I lay, on the shag carpet at the bottom of the sea, when all at once from outdoors comes a raucous tympani, a fitful clashing of cymbals, and we know the raccoons are rummaging through our aluminum trash cans. My father had built for our rubbish an enclosure out of pine and chicken wire, on a poured foundation of concrete, specifically to fend off these nocturnal raids, but it seems one of us had forgotten to secure the door latch. And so out the screen door we fly, myself and one or two of my younger siblings, to chase off these insatiable opportunists, whose low hulking silhouettes in the moonlight are soon scrambling out of the enclosure, to make their none-too-glorious retreat to the welcoming white oak in our backyard. And then from its boughs we are regarded with a mixture of mystification and resentment. What do you care? They seemed to be saying. You were going to throw it all out anyway! That evening, as I was gazing up at those treed little thieves in the orchard, in the twilight that has always been the portal to realms beyond our own, I was sure I had just raced out of our family room, had just left behind, and only for a moment, that familial animal warmth I’d always found as stifling as sustaining—I felt I had just surfaced from the magical underseas of Cousteau, but when I turned around in the orchard there was no lifeful house to return to, no blue light shifting in a window, there was only the dim deserted acres and small still lake of my solitary life in middle age. That Master Thief we know as Time!—to which these little masked tree-huggers seemed like fearful, bumbling accomplices. I suppose he thinks of himself as a conscientious criminal, as he is always leaving us something in place of what he’s stolen, of lesser, the same, or even greater value—something he’s almost certainly stolen from somebody else. But I realized something at that moment: to love the past, in absence of those you love the past for—it can only bring sorrow.
It’s sweltering in the pitch of a July night; my windows must stay open; and the shrieks of the feuding raccoons are peeling my brain like an onion. No medicine for the melancholy. The caterwauling tomcats are like the King's Singers when the raving raccoons are renting the night air. There is something primally evil in that noise—and surely we are hearing it as it had evolved to be heard. The mythologizing mind can’t seem to concede that this infernal cacophony is merely raccoon. Unspeakable witches’ Sabbaths, inquisitorial tortures: here is what the deaf old Goya heard as he scrawled the walls of his villa with what would become his Black Paintings. And yet, what are these shrieking raccoons possessed by—nothing but life, and the craving for more life. It is true: every cry of an animal that the Earth has ever heard is merely a cry for more life. The howl, the roar, the hiss, the shriek and the scream— translation: More life! And what is evil to us but that which abbreviates our life or a life of one we hold dear—or cruelly extends a futile craving for them? And since our extinction is inevitable, evil is largely a hastening of the inevitable. Yes, there’s a dirty open secret behind all the victims of the self-inflicted atrocities in human history: they would have died anyway, and, yes again, possibly even more miserably. We die; we all die; we all die anyway. What is man’s inhumanity to man compared to God’s? In so many ways, we blame each other because we can’t blame God…. Sleepless in the swelter, suffering those shrieking raccoons, such were the black reasonings I was scrawling across the inside of my skull. But as the small hours cooled and the screamers wandered off and I managed to regain my wits, this conviction remained: the craving for life, life at the inevitable expense of each other: this is the elemental wickedness of the Earth, the objective evil of which we on this planet can never be cured.
The search engine scanning the heavens
Scanned since the first stars appeared,
And it halts at a small living planet
With a fate never dreamed to be feared.
All the databases are scoured,
But here is one unlike another,
A nightmare that can't be conceived:
They live by devouring each other.
Could such a place have been made?
How is it ever endured?
And the evil is so fundamental,
They can never, ever be cured.
And here the scan is aborted,
And in skies where each of us peers:
Uncountable blue supernovas,
And the Universe dissolves in tears.
The raccoons appear once again on their evening schedule, bound for the porch with the cat food as to a charity kitchen, but tonight I see from the lakeshore that it’s an abbreviated train—and a distinctly less dysfunctional family. I can’t definitively say who is missing from the litter, but there is no kit I would call General Annoyance, and no Oddball; Hop-along is now the designated caboose—the weanling with the matted fur has been absent for days. The kits seem still too young to reliably thrive independently. Loose dogs, coyotes, raptors, a rattlesnake, maybe the great-horned owl, infectious diseases, the vehicles barreling down our dirt roads, a fateful tumble from a tree branch, something that seemed edible in a torn-open trash-can liner, one too many toads or fungi, a wrong turn in the bramble and a final wandering off: it isn’t hard to imagine hazards reducing a litter of raccoons. But there is also the certainty of what didn’t happen: the missing haven’t moved in with their guilt-stricken father, nor were they graciously adopted by their grandparents; they weren’t confiscated by raccoon protective services and consigned to an orphanage; if one stray fell into the care of another mother raccoon, it was happenstance and an exploited compulsion, and not, so far as we know, raccoon Gospel goodwill. Who’s looking out for the little raccoon lost? Other than the eagle, maybe—imagine—no one in the Universe. To appreciate the dailiness of this pitiless culling. In its indisputable necessity, maybe there is no surer sign of the fallen nature of the world. And yet we can feel so far from it today. Only very recently have we ourselves been spared the affliction of surviving most of our children—which must be among the greatest achievements in the history of all of Mammalia. Stroll through an old country cemetery and read from the headstones’ fading inscriptions how our ancestors lost children the way we lose pets. And it is chiefly modern medicine we have to thank for this beneficence. Indeed, medical science has so thoroughly outperformed the miraculous, it may turn out to be the only legitimate miracle that has ever visited us.
Two young raccoons are crumpled in the dust on our dirt road. Two more animal sacrifices to the Demon of Speed—and it’s a midnight offering from almost surely a Christian. It isn’t rare to encounter the dark mounds of a mowed-down raccoon family of four or five, with the flagging tail of one victim still half-alive, and I have to pull my car over and hatefully extinguish its suffering with a rock. But a decent burial—no, I came to conclude that this was indecent. Let our roads appear to be the flyblown charnel houses that they actually are.
I am hurrying with a stack of vinyl LPs to our trash cans. These are my sister’s disco albums, and I’m sick to death of all of them. In the almost disorientating quiet that should follow—quiet until my sister’s querulous voice is wandering our house—I will wear a classically straight face, the face of the Duke of Urbino, but with deviousness seeping from all of its pores, so that as little as a sidelong glance from my sister will betray me, and then our house, as though it had been revived by a defibrillator, will with a special vengeance begin pulsating once again. But at the trash cans there’s a surprise. I raise a lid, and peering up at me from the rusted can bottom is a baby raccoon. I ought to have added another way raccoon kits are lost from their litters, by delusive youngsters such as I was, for instead of allowing the kit to be retrieved on the next nocturnal raid, I immediately resolve to foster the foundling. And my first sensations will be the most enduring, as I gently take hold of the animal: the warm, trembling flesh beneath the loose, musty-smelling fur, and then the pain of the fine white teeth sinking into my hand.
“What are you doing with my records?—what are you doing with that raccoon!”
And so I assigned myself to the guardianship of this irascible male kit, who I graciously allowed to remain nameless (though to my siblings he was the almost inevitable “Ricky”), but who never outgrew his palpable loathing of me—young as he was, I was only effective in imprinting him to the back woods. Only with gloves could he ever be painlessly handled—I ought to have worried if he were rabid—and you just can’t call an animal so consistently hostile to you your pet. I housed him in our old rabbit hutch, and became something of a bantam Daniel Boone, sporting through our neighborhood a living, toothsome raccoon hat that actively despised me. In addition to his ever-ready bite of the hand that fed him, there was the annoyance of his original musty odor, that I could never wash out of his fur. Through the summer he grew to at least twice his initial size, mostly on the fruits and vegetables I offered him from our trees and garden; these he gripped in his intricate little hands and consumed joylessly, with a disagreeably flat clap of his palate as he chewed—the bounty must have tasted so much sweeter when it was stolen. And then came the afternoon I let him clamber about the elderberry in our yard, and was called away to some more inviting recreation, and an hour or so later, when I remembered my charge, I sprinted to the elderberry and my raccoon was gone. Was I aggrieved and guilt-stricken as I combed the back high weeds and peered up into the windrows to no avail? I was not. I actually grew relieved to have shed this terminally ungrateful dependent; and if I half-expected him to eventually wander back for the amenities of his semi-captive life, I was still overestimating my powers of attraction. Soon there were other apprehended animals to hold my fascination—a screech owlet, a two-headed ribbon snake, a painfully handsome box turtle, even a fishtank of voracious giant water beetles—and the raccoon was forgotten. Then autumn arrived. Winter passed. Spring came and was just maturing into the sweltering monotony of summer, and one early afternoon my little brother dashes into my bedroom. “Ricky! Ricky is back!” Ricky? My raccoon! And still I am hurrying out into the sunshine, to find perched on a bough of our white oak my prodigal foster child—the one and only “the raccoon,” nearly of adult size now, but with certain facial markings that made his identity unmistakable. And if I was gratified to know that he had survived, I was just as curious as to why he’d returned, and in the full light of day at that. Was it to forgive? Was it to be forgiven? Was it out of a certain vague nostalgia that, upon peering down on his old incompetent captor, he now realized was unwarranted? When I returned from the house with a morsel, I learned that he wasn’t here for a handout, at least not one offered by me. In time he shimmied down the far side of the tree, and without another glance my way, he padded off, his lonesome shamble for the back woods the last I would see of him. There are events in our lives that we can hope to eventually understand with the benefit of further experience, and there are those whose mystifications we have no choice but to take to our graves. Between myself and the wild animals I’ve intimately encountered in my life, it can seem there are nothing but unsolvable mysteries.
The woodland pool across the road is down to its dregs after a summer drought, and the lingering waters glisten and squirm with dozens of half-exposed tadpoles—olive, thumb-sized tadpoles of the ubiquitous green frog. It’s a race against the thirsting sun, to metamorphose before the last of the water is dried away—to join the hoard of salient froglets, some still bearing their tails, that are springing over the soft mud bared by the shrinking seasonal pool. Bounding in all directions, these froglets have their own imperative: to evade two vagabonds that have arrived through the sedge for a feast. It’s the mother raccoon and her last trailing kit. I encounter them at the pond incidentally early one evening, but the densely printed mud suggests they have ventured here opportunely. From a distance, I watch them scurry over the mud, striving to pin their prey with their forepaws, as the froglets dart every which way, entirely frustrating the kit, though now and then mother manages to nab a slippery bounder, that she then rather daintily consumes with her almost human manual dexterity. As she dines, she considers me with a suspicion verging on self-consciousness. How robust mother seems now! How indisputably unburdened. It is no small triumph that she has simply survived the ordeal of her female and maternal compulsions. The kit, possibly her litter of six’s lone survivor—I had noted the twosome the afternoon past emerging from the inverted rowboat—is not obviously one I had nicknamed. Now thoroughly soiled, the youngster’s muddy frog-chasing seems more like play, play honing vital skills, and mother pays no mind to its ostensibly fruitless antics.
Mother and Child. That immemorial motif in Western art, that the dream of the Virgin Birth so vigorously and transcendently revitalized. Father’s absence was now formally excused; but we are less inclined to perceive another persistent omission: other children. The other children we can reasonably expect to have appeared had the portraitist set up his easel one, two, or three years earlier. Every Mother and Child is haunted by a Mother and Children, and is one misfortune away from a Madonna. I suppose we can’t bear to imagine an oak tree grieving for each of its thousands of acorns that fail to root and leaf—if only because we would have to objectify our own agonizing forfeitures. We know these lingering pondwaters are not the tears of the spawning green frogs that abandoned their offspring to such perils. But our nearer relations like the raccoon, that invest themselves in far fewer progeny, and sustain them in manners so like our own, are not so readily excluded from our sympathies. On the contrary, with motives both decently moral and cheaply sentimental—and on still rather dubious scientific evidence—we seem to be furnishing them with ever-richer emotional lives, even to the point of necessitating the presence of a near-human conscience. We never seem to consider whether they would want such an inner life. As the mother raccoon defiantly returned my gaze, I felt my attention growing distasteful, even voyeuristic, and I grew ashamed of all I was projecting onto this creature, seeing her as a callous mother, as a secretly grieving mother—seeing her as a failed mother. And maybe it was as much a false thought as a false move that sent her scurrying off into the sedge, with her bedraggled kit bounding just behind. In her retreat, I could almost hear her saying: Get away from me! Keep your accursed human feelings to yourself! This monstrous planet to which we’re condemned, this cruel realm of perfect indifference to our pain and suffering—this is no place for them.