Monday, August 18, 2008

New appreciation of life ascends 13 steps up the clay wall

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 18, 2008)

When we built our house 16 years ago, the spot we selected was on the slope of a steep hill.

The soil was thick orange clay, and to create a road to the garage, we had to cut away some of the hill and terrace the land into a series of steps. The result was a stark clay wall about seven yards behind the house that leveled off about four feet before stepping up again for another short climb.

To reach the upper area, Ralph cut a 13-step stairway into the hard soil and smoothed it over with concrete. My office looks directly at those stairs and the narrow path above them.

Initially, the area we call "the clay wall" was raw and ugly, but after years of planting vines, shrubs and gingers at its base, the wall disappeared behind flower-studded greenery. Over time, the once-barren hillside became lush and verdant. Huge oaks now cover the sloping land, their long limbs reaching down to brush the leaf-littered ground.

It was in this relatively untended spot that, on two separate but equally thrilling occasions, I recently saw first a coyote and then a bobcat walk along the pathway at the top of the clay wall before pausing at the head of the steps.

When the coyote came, I was alone in my office working on the computer. Although my eyes were focused on the monitor, the animal's movement must have triggered an unconscious awareness, because I looked up just before the coyote reached the spot where the path meets the stairs.

I'm embarrassed to admit it was my own loud calls to my husband and son that scared the critter away. Apparently, even if a person is inside a building a good 25 feet from where a wary coyote pauses to survey the landscape, cries of "There's a coyote at the top of the stairs!" can be heard by the animal's finely tuned ears.

The tawny-toned hunter turned around in his tracks and scampered off into the woods -- but not until he looked directly at me with large, probing eyes as if to say, "What did you do that for?" How foolish I felt to have reacted in such a typically insensitive, loud human way.

In retrospect, I wish I had reached for my camera and snapped a few pictures to share instead of trying to call my family into the office to see the animal themselves.

Fortunately, when the bobcat came by a few days later, my 16-year-old son was already in the office with me. It was Toby, not me, who spotted the stubby-tailed predator. With a calm voice that wouldn't scare away a fly, Toby announced, "Look. A bobcat."

Sure enough, standing right where the coyote stood a few days before was a beautiful spotted wildcat. Like the coyote, the bobcat paused when the level path it was taking met the top of the stairs. It too chose that spot to sniff the air and survey its surroundings. I wasn't screaming this time, so it wasn't scared away. Assured of its safety, the bobcat ambled along the narrow, grassy path.

I wish I could say I snapped some wonderful photos of the animal as it stood at the head of the stairs surveying its surroundings. Unfortunately, I didn't.

Cameras, even close-at-hand digital devices, take time to turn on and get ready, and in that time the bobcat moved out of view. But I wasn't ready to give up. Toby and I, now joined by my husband, quickly stepped outside to see where the bobcat was heading.

It was heading directly toward us.

Even though we were making a concerted effort to stand still and be quiet, the animal's sharp ears and acute sense of smell noted our human presence almost immediately.

Like the coyote before him, the bobcat gave one long, final gaze at these pesky people before retreating rapidly into the dense wooded undercover.

These two recent sightings got me thinking. I've seen bobcats and coyotes before on the property -- not often, but frequently enough to know the land we live on is part of the territory they also call home. I also know that, despite being predators, both critters are not above foraging through compost piles for edible tidbits.

Putting two and two together, I decided to build a new compost pile at the top of the steps. Perhaps a depository of aromatic scraps would draw more animals to this spot of close observation.

It has been about a week since the compost pile was completed. Although the only wildlife I've seen so far has been squirrels and birds, I remain hopeful that someday a bobcat, fox or coyote will stop by to check it out.

My attitude about the clay wall has changed dramatically, especially since the coyote appeared. Sixteen years ago, what began as an eyesore has turned into an attractive -- if somewhat unkempt -- landscape feature. More recently, that same clay wall has become a focal point of both the yard and my imagination.

It doesn't take much to change our perspectives. From ugly to lovely, unkempt to well tended, small steps can make a big difference in our everyday world.

In my case, 13 small steps up a solid clay wall have made a big difference in my daily life. From an area once ignored to one much adored, my office view has become much amended.

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