I grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains just outside Blacksburg, Virginia, the son of a Virginia Tech physics professor and a librarian. Our house was outside town on a 23-acre hilly piece of land that had started out as pasture and that we’d allowed to grow up into woods. We didn’t really have neighbors in the traditional sense; there was a large dairy farm on one side of our property line and the house of one neighbor off in the woods in the other direction, but not so close that you ever ran into them. (The cows we had a more personal acquaintance with, on the other hand, but more on that in a bit.)
We had all kinds of critter experiences when we were kids. We had squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, skunks, a fox a time or two, and a bobcat that lived out in the pine trees that we’d occasionally glimpse at twilight. We had a zillion songbirds and Mom, a bird lover, dutifully kept birdfeeders full of seed twelve months a year. Deer were an everyday occurrence — so much so that we really didn’t pay much attention when they walked across the lawn, or at least, that’s how I remember it.
Dad didn’t hunt and had posted our property against hunting, but that didn’t stop some of the local jackwagons from trespassing. Dad would go just about berserk when he heard or saw hunters on our property, especially if they were near our house. One total asshole shot a fox dead in our front yard while we were having lunch one Saturday and I believe Dad wound up chasing him about a half mile into the woods shouting imprecations.
Then there was the possum. Mom and Dad and my brother were out of town at a conference one night in the summer of 1985 when I was just out of high school and hadn’t gone off to college yet. I heard something outside the house rustling in the dead leaves and grass — it sounded for all the world like someone walking around out there trying to be quiet, like they were looking for the best spot to break in. I shouted out the window “go away”, “get lost”, etcetera, hoping that they wouldn’t decide to force the issue now that they’d been heard and challenged. But the noises didn’t stop and it started to really skeeve me out. After some thought, I called the cops — “there’s something or someone poking around outside our house” sounds pretty stupid when you find yourself saying it to a 911 operator, but I had no idea what else to do.
A half hour or so later (during which time the noise continued unabated) a Montgomery County sheriff’s deputy showed up with a Blacksburg Police car in tow (we were outside town limits, but I guess it was a slow night) and they poked around out back for me. They said they didn’t see any person or persons out there, but they did see a possum that looked rabid — it was “acting funny”. So they shot it. And left it for me to dispose of.
And that was that… until I went out the next morning with a shovel to dig a hole and, well, dispose of the corpse… and it was gone. I assume that even the most apathetic sheriff’s deputy is capable of dispatching a standard possum, rabid or otherwise, so I didn’t figure that the possum had recovered and crawled away. Instead, well, I’m guessing that some other animal came along, found the fresh (rabies-infected) meat, and said “thanks!” Yeah, I know. I felt pretty stupid when I put two and two together; I should have done something with the carcass right away rather than leaving it for morning.
As for the cows — well, Mr. Price’s cows got bored a time or two, and they pushed down the fence that separated our property from the dairy pasture. And as cows will, they went off for a stroll, most of them heading up the hill along our dirt-and-gravel driveway to our house. I believe that I was the first to notice them one of the times; I glanced out my bedroom window early one Sunday morning and saw, in place of the black walnut tree that normally dominated the view, a bunch of cow derrières. Dad called Mr. Price, and Mr. Price showed up with some of his employees and a truck or two and in short order, Bessie and Mabel and company were removed and restored to their proper place next door.
Only the story doesn’t end there. Mr. Price asked Dad what he could do to make amends and Dad cannily offered to accept a load of manure to be used as fertilizer for our large vegetable garden. Upon delivery, we spread it liberally and tilled it in and went on about our lives.
Then we went on vacation to Texas and New Mexico and Arizona for a couple of weeks. It was one of those classic 1970s Great American driving vacations — the whole family in our green Chevrolet Beauville van (metallic mint green paint and everything) crisscrossing the desert Southwest in search of adventure. What we didn’t know was that the real adventure was waiting for us at home…
… in the form of the most heinous, Amazon-jungle-like spread of invasive weeds you’ve ever laid eyes on. Our beloved vegetable garden was completely choked with deadly nightshade and other fast-growing botanical monsters strange to behold. That manure, we came to realize, had been full of the seeds of every organism on the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service list of “Plants To Avoid”. And talk about fecund — that “fertilizer” had more than done its work. Certainly, we’d expected to have to do some weeding when we came home from being away for a couple of weeks, but we hadn’t expected weeds four feet high.
So yeah, the garden was a complete loss for that year. I think we eventually just walked away from it, waited until fall when everything died, and then burned it in hopes of incinerating the seeds left behind.
At the end of the day, though, I think the memory of our house and its peripatetic population of wandering wildlife that I most cherish is the day the bicycle tire showed up on the doorknob of the guest bedroom.
Yeah, I know. “Bicycle tire”?
We were having lunch one Saturday around 1975 or so, when I’d have been around eight and my brother Rob would have been about five. Rob went off to the bathroom mid-meal and when he came back, he announced that there was a bicycle tire hanging from the doorknob of the guest bedroom. None of us had any idea what the hell he was talking about, so one of us went and had a look.
I can’t say “you guessed it, it was a ___________” because almost no one guesses correctly.
It was a sizeable black snake, which had somehow gotten into the house and slithered up the wooden door of the guest bedroom and, not having been content with doing that, had draped itself over the doorknob and was hanging, half on one side of the doorknob, half on the other, suspended at its midpoint as it were… and seemed content to remain there. I hadn’t known that snakes could basically slither right up a vertical surface; in fact, I don’t think any of us had. Nor do I have any idea why, having gotten into the house in the first place, the snake had chosen to go up an otherwise ordinary bedroom door. But there it was, eyeing us thoughtfully as we all trooped down the hall to see what was going on.
As I recall, Mom retrieved a large wastebasket and a wire clotheshanger and persuaded the snake off the door and into the wastebasket, whereupon it was returned to the great outdoors and allowed to resume the even and lowly tenor of its way.
It wasn’t that we were unused to black snakes, incidentally; there were lots of them in the woods around our house and we’d occasionally see one sunning itself on a log or on the driveway. We weren’t especially bothered by them. We had other snakes as well: copperheads a time or two and I won’t say I didn’t see a rattlesnake once, but my memory may be conflating a snake seen in my back yard with a snake seen at the local science museum (such as it was).
Snakes were no big deal.
A snake on a doorknob, on the other hand… well, that was just strange.