Paying attention to the natural world

Column by Hal Walter

Wildlife – September 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

EARLY THIS SUMMER, while we were nesting inside with our new child Harrison, a family of bluebirds moved into the fan-vent on the sunny side of the house.

The flap that covered the pipe had become cracked and warped from years of exposure. A gust of wind apparently had blown the flap open and it had stuck open long enough for the birds to move in, build a nest and hatch a family. In between the crying of our own child, we could hear the peeping and cheeping of the bluebirds in our walls as the parents left and returned with insects crosswise in their beaks.

One evening I noticed both parent bluebirds nervously flitting around that side if the house. The flap had blown shut, effectively locking them out of their house and from their babies. Using a fishing rod, I reached up and opened the flap. Immediately the birds flew inside to the cheeping chicks. Then they set about working overtime in the waning light to catch bugs and feed their hungry family before nightfall. The next day this situation repeated.

Finally, I climbed up with a hammer and nail and tacked the flap open. Sometimes when you ignore the natural world too long it will move right inside your house and it does not pay rent. I am often amazed at how tightly this world is seemingly intertwined with my own. That is, when I pay attention.

This summer my metaphor for catching bugs has been working as a night copy editor for a member of the conservative mainstream media in not-so-nearby Pueblo three nights a week. In addition to the standard Team Fear content, the newspaper also regularly publishes stories about two diseases related to the natural world — West Nile virus which is spread by mosquitoes, and hantavirus which is spread by deer mice.

I normally don’t pay too much attention to this sort of thing, but a new baby in the house can jade your point of view. One night, after reading about the current population explosion of deer mice — and the accompanying increased threat of hantavirus – I noted dozens of mice scurrying across the road in my truck’s headlights. After I arrived home, I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom when I glimpsed a mouse sprint across the kitchen floor and under the dishwater.

Though it was late, I decided to set traps. That night I was awakened three times by the snapping of a trap. Once while dropping a dead mouse off the deck I saw a live mouse running through the grass outside. This scene was repeated several nights until finally I explored the underbelly of the dishwasher and found the holes in the floor through which the mice were entering from the crawlspace below. I plugged these holes with aluminum foil and Gorilla Glue and we haven’t seen a mouse inside since. Thus far, we’re all still breathing.

Then I began finding mosquitoes in the house. There’s a good possibility that I’ve already been exposed to West Nile, as I was eaten alive by mosquitoes during a pack trip to the Great Sand Dunes last summer. A couple weeks afterwards I became ill to the point of vomiting, and had bouts of continuing nausea the rest of the summer. I’ve never been tested but often wonder if maybe I contracted the virus on that pack trip.

But I don’t want my baby to get infected, so the idea of mosquitoes in the house had me hunting them with a rolled-up magazine each night at bedtime. The first night there was one mosquito in the house. Then one night I swatted two. Then three. One night I smashed five mosquitoes. I could not figure out how they were getting into the house. We have screens over the windows and try to minimize going in and out the doors at night.

What’s more, we don’t live near any water. There’s a spring at the old lineshack, but that’s at least a breezy quarter-mile away. I keep a fish in one of my stock tanks and regularly dump the other so I don’t see any mosquito larvae in those. Over the years, there just have not been many mosquitoes around here. In fact I’d already swatted more in my bedroom than I’d probably seen in 13 years here.

WE HAVE A PORCELAIN fountain bowl in our living room that we’ve recently neglected due to busy lives. One day I happened to spy movement in the bowl and was alarmed to see hundreds of mosquito larvae swimming with their jerky, wormlike motions in the fountain. I immediately realized we had been hatching the mosquitoes right in our own home. I carried the entire fountain outside and dumped it on the ground. While doing so it occurred to me that at least the mosquitoes had not been around birds inside our house, and theoretically would be free of West Nile virus. I guess when it comes to mosquitoes, it’s safest to grow your own.

For 25 years now I’ve been participating in the sport of pack-burro racing. Although our races traverse some of the most rugged outback in the country, I rarely see wildlife on the courses, probably because I focus too much on racing and not enough on the natural surroundings during these events.

Just before the start of this year’s World Championship Pack-Burro Race in Fairplay, the announcer asked for a moment of silence in memory of Rob Pedretti, my burro-racing friend who died last winter. While most people bowed their heads downward in respect, I looked upward and saw a raven, black against the blue, blue sky. It seemed like the raven was flying but hardly moving at all. I got the chills, smiled and raised up my hand in a V sign to the raven.

The race is 29 miles to the top of 13,187-foot Mosquito Pass and back to Fairplay. The race grew more strenuous when I took the lead in Mosquito Gulch, But whenever I thought about how difficult the race was or about letting up, in my mind’s eye I saw that black raven against the blue sky.

Ted Andrews, author of the book Animal-Speak writes: “With raven human and animal spirits intermingle … Raven has the knowledge of how to become other animals and how to speak their languages.” Also, “raven is the bird of life and death” Oddly, I lost a friend and gained a son all in this last year.

AND SO WITH THAT RAVEN in my head I arrived alone and in the lead to the long, steep climb up to American Flats. This is when the herd of bighorn sheep appeared. They initially spooked Spike and he spun and tried to go back downhill. But then I turned him around. By then the sheep had turned to parallel the road on the uphill side and Spike went up that hill with a quickness of pace that’s he’s never had before, his ears cocked on the lookout for those sheep up the hill on the right.

Just below the summit there is a rockslide with an indistinct trail through the talus. A ptarmigan appeared on this rocky pathway and began to walk along in front of us. Spike followed the bird. On the way back down the mountain I stopped to kiss Harrison en route to winning the race for my fourth time. I’ll never forget that raven.

With the booming mouse population, foxes have also been quite common. On one late night commute from Pueblo I slowed down to watch a fox running along the highway shoulder with a mouse in its mouth. Other nights I’ve hit the brakes as foxes bounded across the road before my truck.

But the most memorable fox all summer was seen in the oddest place. One night when the newspaper copy was making me blind, I walked away from my desk, and went outside for a stroll. There in the concrete-and-brick jungle I saw a fox trot across the street from an old brick building and into an abandoned lumberyard. It’s amazing what you can see when you pay attention.

Hal Walter breeds mosquitoes and burros on 35 acres in the Wet Mountains.

Hal came quite close to winning the Triple Crown of pack-burro racing this summer, with a first-place at Fairplay followed by a victory on the other side of Mosquito Pass at Leadville. But he and Spike finished second in Buena Vista.