I was reading a post from LittleSunDog (one of my favorite wordpress bloggers) about small, sometimes unseen, acts of compassion. She wrote about saving a butterfly from flying into a bonfire, deciding not to cut down an old tree because there was a family of squirrels living in it…that sort of thing.
And it got me thinking about life out here on the ranch. We live out here at the intersection of wild and domestic. The bulk of the property is woodland-with approximately 80 of Eagle Ridge’s 100 acres in forest-and, were we to let it be completely, it would reclaim this dwelling on the top of the hill in just a few years I think.
Living at the intersection of wild and domestic creates a certain tension: we struggle to care for the wildness while at the same time guarding against it. And it can be very difficult to know where to draw the line.
I pulled into the back lane the other day and was pleased to see our local herd of deer. They have grown quite a bit since we moved out here, the population recovering from a disease that reduced Illinois’ deer population several years back. I love watching them, and I’m always pleased to see them around.
But I was also sad.
When we moved out to the ranch, Jeremiah and I decided that we would prefer there to be no deer hunting on the property. There were a lot of reasons, including the fact that I love watching the deer and they weren’t really hurting anything. At the time, there were only two does that we saw with any regularity anyway.
And yet, we didn’t plan for the reaction of the local hunters. Our first year, having disallowed hunting, we found three headless bucks dumped at the corner of the property. Trophy kills, likely from our woods. Apparently, the local hunter population, especially the men who used to hunt the property before we took over, found our no hunting policy to be a personal insult. We had trespassing issues during hunting season, people throwing beer bottles at us from their trucks as they drove passed…and then one night at the tail end of bow season, I heard someone stalking me from the woods as I did chores, human footsteps following me to the barn and back, a matched step for each of mine. Out here, we apparently have a hunting population that is perfectly comfortable threatening the personal safety of people…all because we gave safe harbor to deer.
The next evening, as we were lying in bed watching TV, things got worse. A farmer/neighbor sped down our back road and rushed up to the house to tell us the back woods were on fire. Jeremiah ran out of the house, I followed minutes later, and what we found looked like Mordor. Acres of forest were ablaze, the air thick with smoke. Jeremiah, a former professional firefighter, grabbed a rake and worked to beat back the fire line. Soon, three engine companies from the surrounding towns showed up to fight the fire.
The fire had nearly reached the horse pasture by the time it was quelled.
When the fire investigator showed up the next day, he confirmed our suspicions: The fire had been intentionally set, probably to drive the deer who were sheltering in our woods onto the neighboring properties. I was seething. Our entire farm, our home, and (of course) all of our creatures had been put at risk, the forest fire intentionally set. I shudder to think what might have happened if we hadn’t been home, or if the neighbor hadn’t spied the flames…
When we moved out here, a few people had warned me that only hunters could keep out hunters. Despite all of the problems we had, it wasn’t until the night of the fire that I realized they were right, at least around here, and I made a phone call.
This year, there will be a couple of deer hunters on the property again, a decision I made, oddly, to protect the deer. The decision was to allow a few select hunters, who I know to be exceptionally ethical, to cull a few of the deer in exchange for keeping out the trophy hunters, the poachers, and the former hunters (who I later heard would not even chase down a deer they wounded but did not drop in place…)
Needless to say, we are exceptionally unpopular with the locals these days.
Lately, fire has become a common sight around this place. This time, intentionally so and in a controlled manner. For about the past week and a half, my husband, on the advice of a professional, has been managing controlled burns in the forest immediately around the house and barn. The burns have several functions, one is pest control; burning the fallen leaves removes shelter for mice and flies and other undesirable pests, pushing them farther into the woods.
The other comes back to compassion in tension. Jeremiah and I have a long term goal of restoring some of the woodlands, much of which has been overtaken by invasive honeysuckle and scrub trees, to it’s natural state as an oak savanna. This will allow native, endangered species to find homes, but, in the transition, will remove some habitat for others. And it will require fire. A lot of fire.
It’s like a dance.
Out here, at the intersection of domestic and wild, we try to dance intentionally. But, in the end, we simply do the best we can with what we have, and we try to make peace with the results.
Isn’t that all that any of us can do?