The Animals I See

Running is my favorite thing, rivaled only by writing. Running is when I feel sane, healthy, whole. It’s what lifts me when I feel down. It’s how I punish myself for my sins, real or perceived. It’s also my gift to myself; the endorphin glow is my reward for intense, personal labor. Like writing, running is a labor that I undertake with serious deliberation, doing it only (or primarily) for myself.

Running is how I commune with nature. Now that the rains are over, I can go back through the narrow path about half a mile from my apartment, the one that leads to the Shell Ridge Open Space. If my run is taking me far enough, I can follow the open space’s trails up and over the ridge, to the base of Mt. Diablo. I haven’t run that far in a long time.

Even if I stay on this side of the ridge, I can run high along the western side of the hill or low in the valley created by Indian Creek. Staying high along the ridge means I’m going to get blasted by the sun and have to put in greater effort over the big climbs. Flying low in the valley, I stay in the shade of the laurels and cottonwoods and buckeyes that grow along the creek bed, feeling like Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans. For a brief time this spring, there was water in the creek, but most of the time it’s dry.

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A month or two ago, in my first run back there this season, a small raptor — I think it was a falcon, since it was smaller than most hawks I’ve seen — landed on the branches of a dying arroyo willow less than 10 yards from me. It sat and watched me, only flying off when I slowed down and tried to get a picture of it. (That’s another reason I think it was a falcon — they’re notoriously camera shy.) That was the second raptor I saw on that same run. A mile or two before that, I heard a hawk call out high above me. Seconds later, I saw a small cluster of rodents start scrambling for cover. They had been digging away at the trail, perhaps looking for nuts they had buried before the rainy winter. I think they were California voles, but honestly they were scurrying in such terror it’s hard to say.

The open space doubles as public grazing land for cattle, so later in the season I regularly encounter cows and steers. I’ve found it’s appropriate to address each cow in her native tongue. Surprisingly, most cows are Francophones, so I am sure to say to each, “Bonjour, Madame la Vache !” While I say hi to the cows, I just avoid the steers. Even though they’ve been castrated, they still seem a little testy.

In the height of summer, it’s not uncommon to see big, meaty snakes sunning themselves across the trails. The most threatening animals I’ve come across — along with the steers — have been rattlesnakes and tarantulas. Unlike rattlesnakes, tarantulas are not actually dangerous to people but they sure are creepy, just like the vultures I sometimes see circling overhead. Less creepy but perhaps more unpleasant are the wild turkeys who sometimes scream at me when I surprise them.

I ran back in the open space twice this past week and had incredible encounters with animals each time. On the second run, I was able to get within a few feet of a young male deer. I see deer all the time, both back in the open space and along my county’s paved railroad-right-of-way-turned-running-path, when I run there in the early mornings. But this one let me get closer than any has before. The run was hot and very hard, so I stopped for several minutes and watched the deer eat the dry, brown grasses. I was fascinated by the way its big ears kept close watch on the sounds around it, and the way it investigated the parched hillside. Sometimes I like to watch my housecat’s little brain work as he explores his world; this was a rare chance to watch a wild animal do the same thing.

Earlier in the week, I had an even rarer encounter. Coming around a turn in the blasted canyon between two creek beds, I startled something with two long ears and a bounding gait. I’m pretty certain it was a jackrabbit — the first I’ve ever seen in real life. If you pressed me on how big it was, I would have said at least three feet long, though of all the rabbits and hares native to California, the largest, the black-tailed jackrabbit, maxes out at about two feet long. I saw it a second time on my run, as I looped back around to that same location about 20 minutes later, and I still think it was bigger than two feet. But the eyes can play tricks on the mind, especially when running through semi-arid land during a heat wave.

The jackrabbit was perhaps the most skittish animal I’ve seen, even more so than the coyote I saw last year. From the skittish jackrabbits, voles, and coyotes to the lumbering and lazy cows and steers, every animal I come across feels like a gift from nature. Even the more common animals, the squirrels and sparrows and crows, serve a good reminder that this world is not ours alone. It belongs also to nature — beautiful and brutish nature.

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