Time and again, we've driven over the small bridge on our approach into Bloomington, Ind., and talked about stopping, but we never did. Until, in our curiously unstructured time between Christmas and New Year's - time we seem to plan around, never for - we pulled over to explore the changes to the creek bottom.
For weeks we'd noticed in passing the toppled trees, the gradual rise in water level. If there were no cars right on our tail, we'd slow to a glide over the bridge and peer over the guardrail at the stumps rising pale and pointed from aprons of fresh, bite-sized chips.
There was no doubt that beavers had taken up residence. But why here, along such a busy stretch of highway? Why within a half a mile of a hundred hillside homes?
This particular creek winds through our city-fringing dairy farm before going public. It emerges from our woods and enters a culvert under the outer reaches of Dunn Street, then hugs the hillside below the Blue Ridge Estates. It is, we discovered, a pumpkin's roll from those backyards to the beavers'.
Here, the creek courses right under the cross flow of the heavy commuter traffic between Bloomington and several out-lying communities. Crossing the "37" bridge on our own trips to and from town, we became aware of the beavers in November, as others must have.
WHAT were they thinking, settling here, so near the madding crowds? There were none to tell us as we tramped among the fallen and half-gnawed trees. Nocturnal creatures, beavers wouldn't be out and about for hours. We poked around, admiring their handiwork. They had a penchant for cherry bark, we noted, but enjoyed soft maple as well. The dam looked well-knit and sturdy enough to walk across. But it couldn't have been closer to the bridge. Indeed, it must be bathed in headlights through the evening and well into the night.
We worried about the animals' vulnerability to human predation, and searched the banks carefully for traps, particularly around the broad muddy stretch where a scramble of prints announced as clearly as an address or a welcome mat the colony's aquatic threshold.
We found no traps - nary a human trace other than what we'd made walking in.
As we left and re-entered the flow of traffic in our pickup, I thought that perhaps the beavers were cannier than we'd assumed. It takes a cocky thief to rob a lit-up storefront on a well-traveled avenue.
This was, I supposed, a good place after all for beavers to keep their peace and their pelts.
In fact, more and more wild animals are making their existence and habits known in areas like this one, poised between rural and urban. I think of the quails that landed whistling and chirping at our farmhouse bird feeder not long ago. Of the wild turkeys that strut magnificently up and down roadside fields, iridescent among the corn stubble, within days of Thanksgiving. Deer graze on lawns and ornamental shrubs, coyotes howl and yip answers to ambulance and fire sirens.
And now, beavers have set up shop right below the hectic hum of our tires. These wild things on the fringes of human habitation probably have no choice but to rub elbows with us. Their existence may not be feasible without occasional, sometimes blatant exposure.
But I suspect there is something more going on than the struggle to survive. I'm thinking now of the mole that tunneled clear across our bare back pasture early this winter, leaving as straight and startling a scar as ever one could under a bright blue sky. There was no missing or mistaking this animal's statement. It was as big and bold, in its context, as the Great Wall of China.
I would call that pure chutzpah.