The raccoon shrugged

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THE other day I had a staring match with a raccoon. Or at least that's what I thought. He probably thought he was invisible -- gazing out through his black mask from the dense hazel bushes along the shore, motionless before the green and alien presence of my canoe. A moment before, I had come around the point into the marshy shallows. Through the wisps of early morning mist that rose from the lily pads, I had noticed a movement in the bushes. But there was no hint of wind in the Maine sky: The water lay smooth and pearly, like the inside of a mussel shell. So I let the canoe drift and peered, Moses-like, at the bushes, trying to puzzle out the cause of the sudden tuggings and snappings among the leaves. Now and then a paw emerged. Here and there, past gaps in th e natural hedge, a banded tail flitted past. And at last, as though assembled into a whole by a force beyond us both, the entire animal appeared near a piece of driftwood. Thirty yards away, my canoe creaked gently against some reeds. We both froze -- I with the paddle across the gunwales, he with a forefoot on the log.

One can pass a lot of time watching animals. It's an old and honorable tradition, especially in a country conceived as a frontier and dedicated to the proposition that self-sufficiency rewards those who understand the ways of the wild. But before long, the mind wants more than just a stare. If you're an Audubon, I suppose, you begin to focus on visual detail. If you're a Darwin, you think about phylum and class. If you're a Thoreau, you reflect on the way nature holds an unflattering mirror up to hum anity. But what if you're just a journalist on holiday? Raccoons rarely make headlines. And even a solid feature story on the Procyon lotor, small cousin of the black bear, would want to dwell on its relationship with people -- overturned garbage cans, midnight raids on the compost heap, and that sort of thing. Not much newsworthy in a backwoods stare -- at least, not as the world counts newsworthiness.

The canoe, still drifting slightly, swung in a dead-slow arc. I had to move my head gradually, owl-fashion, to keep him in view. The longer I sat there, the more I wondered what it all meant. In a sense, of course, he was just what I wanted: He was my reward for fumbling out of bed before dawn and paddling through the gelid air. I, however, was distinctly not what he expected -- an interruption of his otherwise leisurely forage along a hidden stretch of bog. What gave me the right, then, to satisfy my curiosity at the expense of his breakfast? What could I learn from him in person (if the term may be stretched to cover coons) that I couldn't have learned more quickly, and certainly more warmly, by reading about him beside the fire back at the cabin?

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It's a matter, I thought (still staring: neither of us had flinched), of privacy. In a way, that's what the call of the wild has always been: the search for seclusion, for sanctuary, for the place far from the eye of society where inner and outer lives become one and depth can be lived on the surface. We have friends up here who, when they go camping every summer, set as their only goal the finding of a place as far away from anyone else as they can. That, too, is an old tradition, probably predating

Odysseus.

The canoe, by now, had stopped moving. And I began to glimpse, through the black mask of that patient face, what troubled me. This old tradition of seclusion, it seemed, was squarely at odds with journalism. For journalism wants in so many ways to barge in upon that privacy, hale it into public for all the world to see, roll it about on the tongue as the hard candy of the worldly wise. On one hand, the uninvaded wilderness; on the other, the intrusive nose of reportage.

Had it not been for what happened next, I might have left the matter at that -- bathing myself in the mixed light of a righteous indignation blended with a slight occupational shame.

But the raccoon suddenly turned away -- I'm sure I only imagined that he shrugged -- and took up his bushy hunt again. Perhaps he had grown used to my stillness. Or perhaps he had concluded (quite rightly) that a man in a straw hat armed only with paddles at 30 paces was a threat worthy of supreme indifference. But just maybe, knowing he was being watched, he consciously set out to display raccoonishness (or is it raccoonicity?) in its best possible light -- assiduously tipping up logs, hunting under t ufts, and fishing through the pickerel weed with a new-found determination.

So had I really intruded upon a privacy? Or had I merely watched nature at work? Was I uncovering secrets best left undiscovered? Or was I simply bearing witness to the inherent and instructive characteristics of a neighbor? Was this an invasion or an invitation -- and, whichever it was, did it make the world a worse or a better place?

One is not usually driven out of swamps by moral wrestlings. But as I paddled home to breakfast, I realized that there, in that indifferent stretch of woods, I had stumbled upon the central dilemma of the reporter's craft. The good reporter -- or essayist, or teacher, or artist of any sort -- leaves, like that raccoon, no promising stone unturned. Every detail moves toward coherence. Each gesture and word, however haphazard, begins to compose a character -- and, through that, a world. All is grist for the mill.

But with curiosity must come also discretion -- the sensitivity that knows when insight has crumbled into mere gossip, how the noble observation of ideas can degenerate into a petty fascination with personalities, where to draw the line between genuine public discourse and legitimately private intimacies. To maintain the highest regard for the confidential, and the lowest tolerance for the cover-up; to write not simply so that the reader can know but can understand; to do it all

without being manipulated by one's subjects or duped by one's own excitement -- there are days, I thought as I beached the canoe at the cabin, that it's easier to be a raccoon. What they find, after all, they simply eat -- whether or not anyone is watching.

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