Babe in the Woods
This post is the second in a series contributed by DRA Trustee Barnaby Porter. Read the first post here.
A lushness has settled on this river valley, a lushness of filled-out leaves and promising buds, of violets and bluets, and iris wedging forth from the deceptive flatness of their fog-green leaves. Nestsful of three and four eggs incubate under the fluffed breasts of sitting birds, poised under eaves, in thickets and secreted in the hollows of decaying trees. Blackflies and mosquitoes, succulent and swarming, emerge from the black, sphagnum pools of the brook in the woods, and, wherever I look or listen, there is an abundance of evidence that life and renewal are in the throes of passion. The river and the land around are heaving with life. They are a vast nursery.
In these woods, babes are born. And there are many. The moment of their beginning is one of wonder, nurture and tender initiation – one of perfection. But in the following days, that might not be so; there are also fear, competition and misfortune – the elements of natural selection. To live and thrive are more exception than rule, and the fate-dealing overlord is very much in attendance. Fragility and innocence are traits of weakness, not strength. Sweetness, sadly, is in the final assessment of the devourer.
Driving along our dirt road the other morning, I came around a green bend laced with ferns and splashes of dandelions. There ahead lay something dark and glistening. I slowed down to look but couldn’t recognize it at first. It was not of these woods, it seemed. I stopped.
It was furry, about the size of a black cat – an infantile form, dead, slick with the morning damp. It had been partially eaten, but I knew by its form, its face, its clawed flippers, it was a baby seal. The shore of the cove was a good hundred yards from this spot, down through a steep, piney ravine. This innocent babe had not come here on its own.
Seal pups, it is well known, often become separated from their mothers. It is not at all unusual to hear them crying out mournfully this time of year. And such pitiful notes are sure to reach the ears of others, listening, who have babes of their own to feed. I suspected a fox, a regular in the neighborhood.
Had a fox heard this young seal? Sneaked up on it and watched for a while from the bank? Had she then dashed for it in a flash of orange, grabbing for its chubby throat, yanked it, dragged it, bawling, up into the woods? That is what I imagined.
But such a heavy, struggling burden – it must have been a lot of work for the mother fox. Perhaps, on gaining the edge of the road, she had rested with the now lifeless pup and then begun devouring it where it lay. Or perhaps she had given up, frightened by a passing car. Maybe the torn flesh was the work of ravens or crows.
There was a particular sadness about this infant’s lifeless body. We, in our idealism, don’t accept such truths. This poor one had not only been lost by some quirk, but had surely suffered an undeserved terror at the end: abandonment, attack, bewilderment and pain. And then the final incongruity of this young seal’s short life, to be dragged up and away from its appointed, sea level, environs into this strange world of pine trees and blackberry brambles by the side of our road. It made me wonder if our fates have ever been or will ever be anything but unexpected.
The dew-laden air was warm in the morning sun, almost hot. The sense of teeming life, and death, of the steaming wealth of new vegetation, and of milky breath, hung over this bend in the road, the last resting place of a babe in the woods.
Artist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. Barnaby currently serves on DRA’s Board of Trustees. For more about Barnaby, click here.
Photos courtesy of Barnaby Porter.