While it’s not exactly a wild thing myself (up 73), I consider the Eightmile River, just across from our hayfield in Southeast Connecticut, to be part of my natural habitat. I share it with other species.
Unlike many once wild places across the country, mine is largely untouched.
This modest river is home to mink, wood ducks, great blue herons, native brook trout and a few otters, to name a few. I also visit regularly, to sit on its western shore and meditate – or to wallow in its waist-deep water. It’s arguably too refreshing this time of year.
There are times, of course, when swimming is not recommended. You might find yourself in Long Island Sound during a flood. My son and I went once on Christmas day. I still shudder at the mere thought.
The other day, at the end of October, before performing my daily ablutions, I saw a slight turbulence cutting through the smooth surface and meandering downstream. As he got closer, I could see a small head above the water, trailing a wake caused by its long slender body. He showed no sign of seeing me.
The northern water snake crawled past my waterhole, where I also occasionally saw snapping turtles of alarming size. Before making my shallow dive on the rock at hand, I make my presence known.
In doing so, that day, I tracked down a couple of wood ducks that weren’t ten meters away, well hidden under the overhanging embankment. They were squealing “oo-eek” in harmony as they retreated upstream. The snake that had swam did not worry them. Humans do, however, and with good reason. I try not to take it personally.
Virtually all of creation, including fearsome creatures like black bears, flee at the sight, sound or smell of our species. Remember the rhyme about “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie?” Well, that’s why. They see no profit in getting to know each other.
Species in disturbing numbers are disappearing and will be extinct before our grandchildren are big, and our species seems to be good at it. Places like where I swim are disappearing all over the place.
Collin O’Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, reported in a 2019 Ted Talk that there are 60% less wildlife in North America today than 40 years ago and that 150 species have disappeared in the last 100 years. A third of all species in the United States are in danger of extinction, he said.
Scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and elsewhere report that the total number of birds in North America has declined by almost 30 percent since 1970, meaning there are three million fewer birds today. ‘hui, including common species like blue jays and robins.
Most of the time, I don’t see anything of importance by the river, other than chickadees or phoebes. But over the decades, I have had some memorable encounters. I was once pelted by a red-shouldered hawk, which mistook my splash for that of a muskrat.
Our dog Sophie has already clashed with a horny ten-point white tailed male. They faced each other from opposite shores. Wisely, Sophie blinked first. Our son caught his first fish in the Eightmile.
Sitting quietly in my riverside chair, which is nestled under the branches of a hemlock, I was approached by a number of animals unaware of my presence. A wild turkey was trotting along the opposite shore without detecting me, although it looked nervous.
The gray squirrels crept very close a few times before I felt compelled to announce myself. They flee in a loud, comical gust. You can hunt squirrels in Connecticut from September 1 to December 31. What we do with the harvest, I shudder at the idea.
Creatures also abound around the river, if not inside. Wood turtles, which like many species are scarce around here, make their way through the hay field. Coyotes, foxes and bobcats lurk around, which is probably why I haven’t seen a groundhog in the field in decades. Barred owls love the marshy surroundings on either side of the Eightmile. The occasional Louisiana Warbler roams the shores, compulsively swinging up and down like a feather swing. Kingfishers are a rare treat to see and hear. I’ve spied on indigo buntings, redstarts and all kinds of warblers. Woodcock court and mate in the hay field and nest not far from the river.
The ones that you see the least are the ones that are remembered the most. A few years ago, on a very cold winter, I came across a pair of great mergansers, which look anything but common, looking for open water. If they ever came back, I missed them. I saw a night heron there only once and I was happy. Bald eagles fly over periodically. Ospreys appear for some time in the spring just after the state has supplied the river with trout.
My old neighbors across the river used to swim scantily where I wallow now. I saw them once and we all hastily retired to our respective homes. They found a more isolated swimming hole downstream.
I hardly ever see humans along the River Eightmile these days, not even, as I once did, fishermen every now and then. We have become a kind of interior, disconnected from the world that feeds us.
Yes, everything looks fine by the riverside which, of course, is not.
David Holahan is a freelance writer from East Haddam.
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