As I drove south on Highway 97 in June, on my way to read from Get Your Pitchfork On! in Bend, a sage rat ran in front of my car. (“Sage rat” usually refers to Belding ground squirrels or gophers.) Without thinking, I braked, carefully and steadily, to let it go by. Then, I laughed.
I guess I’ve been re-citified, I thought.
No country person in their right mind would think twice about running over a ground squirrel. In fact, it’s common practice in southeastern Oregon to go on sage rat hunting expeditions for fun.
A few days later, I drove up Wallowa Loop Road. The road is a barely-two-lane scenic byway through the Wallowa Mountains with sketchy pavement and so many curves I never exceeded 40 miles per hour on the straight-aways. I loved tooling along with the windows down and the dry smell of pine trees filling the car. Butterflies that crossed my path rode the air current over the top of my car without incident.
At one point, a local’s pickup came roaring up behind me. How did I know it was a local? No one else would be sporting the enormous “deer-smasher” on his grill nor driving so fast—he’d traversed the road so many times he had it memorized. I pulled over so he could pass in a cloud of gravel and dust, and wondered how many deer he’d actually run into. There a blind corner about every half-mile.
My relationship with animals is complicated. Generally I welcome them, feel protective, even. I love to see antelope or moose grazing on a trail or a nearby hillside, elk or deer at the side of the road, horses and cows in a farmer’s field, woodpeckers and songbirds in my yard. I welcome dogs and cats into my home. I even like skunks!
People I know will go out of their way to run down a snake, gopher, coyote or other critter that happens to find itself on the pavement at the wrong time. I am the opposite, constantly slowing for them. If one fails to get out of the way, which has only happened a couple of times, I wince at the thump and carry a burden of guilt for a while. Thankfully, I’ve never had a large animal dart directly in front of my car.
I am a carnivore but abstain if I can’t be sure that the meat in question came from an animal that was treated and fed well. As documented in a previous post, I do not abide mice in my kitchen. I would never shoot a flicker on the side of my house but I’m not shy about scaring them off, even with warning rocks across the bow. I’ve occasionally thrown rocks at scrub jays simply because they won’t shut up. I vacuum around spiders unless someone is coming to visit; then, I apologize to each one as I unceremoniously suck them up.
Many people who have attended Get Your Pitchfork On! readings have heard the excerpt (published last year by the Jackson Hole Review) about fighting gophers in our garden. It was a learning experience for me, not only in doing the killing but—perhaps more importantly—in preparing emotionally to kill. By the time we left our land, I was still not super-excited about the killing but I sure appreciated the being-dead.
Going out of my way to spare a sage rat in Eastern Oregon showed me that I’ve still got one foot in the country and one in the city.