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Let the Wildlife Come to You

Checking in with our fellow species, without breaking a sweat


I was about 7 years old during my most dramatic, up-close-and-personal encounter with wildlife. I was camping in a fairly empty campground with my family in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and my mother and I had gone a little ways into the woods around dusk to sit and see what we could see.

I remember working very hard to sit still. I remember everything being in lots of dim shades of gray and brown. I remember my mother very close beside me. And then I remember a towering buck deer with a huge rack (this is my memory, I can’t judge how much is embellishment), mere feet from we sat. He towered over me. I could hear him breathe. And then a doe behind him. It was no longer hard to sit still.

Then the wind changed and they took off. It’s not like it was the best view of a deer I’ve ever gotten. Full daylight and binoculars prove much better for that. But for a few minutes I wasn’t watching so much as inhabiting the same space as those deer. I was part of their world, albeit a sort of transient part who was trying not to be discovered in my trespass. It was awesome.

Summer is supposed to be the season for being outside, connecting with the natural world. Of course many people seem to take this on in ways that involve an awful lot of exertion for a season that also features dehydration, sunburn, and heat exhaustion: jogging, boating, getting up at dawn and hiking a long way to see birds.

While I have engaged willingly in many of those activities (except the jogging), I find the unmoving dusk sit more appealing to my heat-sensitive nature. There’s a reason more animals are out and about at this time of day: They have more sense than we do. Taking the time to be still also entails a bit more of the “connecting” part of connecting with nature.

If you want to commune with the animals, the first step is to pick your spot. You don’t have to be in the White Mountains, or even the Helderbergs, unless you’re on the trail of mountain lions. (Let us know if you succeed in that, by the way. And bring a camera.) There’s quite a bit of wildlife on the peripheries, and even inside, our cities and towns. The Pine Bush Preserve, Albany’s Normanskill Farm, Schenectady’s Woodlawn Preserve or the waterfalls on the Poestenkill in Troy could all be wonderful places to settle in one evening and see what you will see.

Within your chosen locale, choose the exact spot you want to settle with a few things in mind. First, the best spots are generally on the edge of two kinds of habitat—especially any waterfront, or the line between meadows and woods. Edges tend to be more biologically diverse, and water is often a first stop for nocturnal folks just dragging themselves to consciousness. Of course you’ll have to weigh the water thing against the bugs thing.

Pick somewhere comfortable, with an eye to having something supporting your back and underbrush that isn’t going to make a huge amount of noise every time you twitch. If you can tell, and have a choice, place yourself downwind from the spot you think you’re most likely to see creatures—it’s dusk, and you’re dealing with folks who are not relying primarily on sight to warn them of danger.

Come prepared for bugs in whatever manner you prefer, remembering that loud slapping and cursing will detract from the experience. Keep in mind that it will cool off (hopefully) as the sun goes away, and that you may want a flashlight for getting back.

Leave the guidebooks at home. It’s nice to read through them ahead of time to get a sense of what you might see, but this is an exercise in observation and communion, not keeping score. And you won’t be able to see the book very well anyway.

On that note, try to keep your expectations vague. I remember one other camping trip in Maine where we were dead set on seeing moose, and spent several increasingly disappointed sessions staking out common moose stomping grounds to no avail. To this day, my two moose sightings have been completely serendipitous.

Around the Capital Region you might well see a fisher or a muskrat, a coyote or a fox. But a chance to quietly observe a more common possum, raccoon, or deer up close—or a group of wild turkey, a sky full of bats, a luna moth—can be just as magical. Or you might end up mostly listening—to owls, coyotes or mysterious, tantalizing rustles.

I won’t promise you’ll encounter anything at all. But even if you don’t, you will have gotten to sit still among trees, enjoy some quiet, and breathe some non-air-conditioned air. These days, that by itself can count as getting in touch with wildness.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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