I think a lot about moose these days. My preoccupation is occasioned by a dramatic shift in the quality and quantity of time I spend going down rural roads in my car. A few months ago, my daily commute entailed thinking about bread and hardware stores - the temptations and opportunities flourishing along Green Bay Road traveling North from Evanston, Ill. I cannot resist an opportunity to buy handmade bread or peruse the aisles of a good hardware store with creaky floorboards and knowledgeable hardware guys. You can never not find something you need in either place.
The actual driving consisted of anticipating traffic-light changes several blocks ahead in order to choose the lane that would flow through the next intersection. This is a game of internal-combustion pinball, stop and start, hurry up and wait for the green light. Now I go weeks without seeing a traffic light, so driving consists of watching for moose.
I drive a landscape rather than a route - a road that conforms to the land's contours, rather than a grid to which the land conforms - miles of dense forest, occasional pastures and small farms, punctuated by infrequent clusters of houses. The bread store and the hardware store must now be destinations in and of themselves, rather than landmarks or distractions along the way. Here the terrain is rolling, two-lane roads punctuated by "tummy tickler" dips or hilltops. The country road is also commerce. Want to sell a fridge? Put a sign out by the road. Got apples? A boat, car, dresser? Advertise out by the mailbox. But for me, being a transplant from thickly settled terrain, the country road is about peering into the verge.
The road is different every time I drive it, which propels a kind of interior conversation between viewer and landscape. New details of forest, wildlife, and seasons emerge daily as my eyes adjust to seeing things as we pass. Sometimes it's actually new - true sightings - but mostly the sense of newness comes from having passed a thing enough times to finally see it as it is.
So I motor along, differentiating between species of trees, between stone walls and glacial erratics, tidal versus fresh-water streams. I can count on at least one new house to mysteriously appear each time I travel the road. True change is stark: A woodpile is larger than the day before, a field is suddenly mown; the latest course of shingles is up to the second floor of Snow's cottage. When the trees drop their foliage, who knows what elusive facts will emerge from the camouflage?
Which brings us to the active participation of wildlife in my sightings collection. Today was a four-deer, one-great-blue-heron day. I seek a moose day. John McPhee writes of the "stillness of a moose intending to appear," as he paddled Umbazooksus stream in the Allagash waterway ("The Survival of the Bark Canoe"). His sense of the impendingness of an animal sighting is certainly familiar.
Last week, when I spent a night on a secluded northern lake, the moment was ripe for something to reveal itself: a moose, a bear, a deer, an eagle. I would have been happy even to see a raccoon, a comparatively suburban critter. Full moon, still waters, no wind - it was simply time for any denizen of the wild to put in an appearance. Nothing. I live yet in anticipation of seeing a moose, as does McPhee, daily scrutinizing any boggy clearing with HMP (high moose potential).
THE other evening at dusk, I thought the moment had arrived. I glanced down a dirt road and, out of the corner of my eye, I was certain I saw the dark outline of a moose loping across a clearing. I pulled over and turned around. "I think I saw a moose. We've got to take a look," I told my son and my brother-in-law. "It'll be worth it." I turned into the road and halted in a moose-free zone. The very mooselike clump of evergreen bushes was not the animal I'd hoped had been intending to appear.
This has become the aesthetic of my drives on country roads: hoping for an intersection of a moose's day with my day. I'm somewhat comforted by the fact that there are people around here who have lived long lives in close proximity to a robust moose population and still never have seen a moose. For me, to have a moose one day step out of the verge would be a reciprocation of this daily, appreciative conversation.