Archive for Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Shouts and Murmurs: Gratitude for all sorts of homes

November 21, 2006

I thought I knew the woods.

Until a few years ago, I'd never lived in the country. But when I was a child my father often led his six children on walks through the woods at a place we called "the farm." It was a 40-acre tree-covered hill a 10-minute drive from home. The farm was the one place where Dad, a small-town doctor, could take his family on a Sunday afternoon without being interrupted by the telephone. That was long before the days of cell phones.

In our hikes up and down the hill at the farm, Dad pointed out signs of wildlife -- hawks on the hunt overhead, deer and raccoon tracks, squirrel nests.

Years later, after marrying and moving to the country, my husband took me on walk through the woods around the house where he'd lived before we met. Normally, he said, he left the treed areas as they were. So when I saw what appeared to be neatly raked stacks of twigs, sticks and leaves in the woods, I asked why he'd bothered to clean up random areas. He said the stacks -- about two feet high and four feet across -- were packrat nests.

Until then, I'd assumed a packrat nest was a myth -- something mothers dreamed up to guilt children into cleaning their rooms -- and probably a phrase I had uttered to my own children at one time or another.

Once realizing what packrat nests were, and having since seen a half-dozen or so, I assumed they were always on the ground.

But on a recent late-afternoon walk through the woods, the lowering sun struck the trunk of a hedge tree, momentarily spotlighting a stash of twigs, leaves and sticks, the base of which was about five feet above the ground. Two sizable tree limbs soundly cradled the structure, which I realized was a sort of penthouse packrat nest. Though more rare, at least in our woods, than the nests on the ground, the higher level of construction made sense. The added height provides the packrats, or woodrats as they're also called, more safety from the foxes that also claim the woods as their home.

Today, particularly as development claims more and more land that once was exclusively inhabited by wildlife, it's increasingly challenging for creatures in the wild to survive. Their territory shrinks, they must live closer to one another or not live at all. And their homes, like ours, in certain conditions, may mean the difference between life and death.

As Thanksgiving approaches, autumn winds foretell the coming strength of winter, I realize how thankful I am for the soundness of the walls around our house, the protection of the roof above. And I know -- whether we like them or not -- the packrats, in their own way, harbor a similar sort of reliance on their abodes.

After all, everyone and every creature on this earth needs to have a place of their own to call home.

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