Lifestyle & Culture

Wild Washington

March 20, 2014

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Illustration by Kathy Legg / iStock photos

Illustration by Kathy Legg / iStock photos

WHEN WE MOVED to Northwest Washington in 1993, we had lived in New York, Paris and lastly Brussels — capital of the new European Union and home to three American embassies — and felt prepared for the politicians and diplomats of a sophisticated capital city like D.C.

Also, because I had grown up in Delaware and spent weekends at a family home on the Eastern Shore, this area felt like familiar territory. Instead, the best preparation for my life here turned out to be bushwhacking steep rainforest trails in Panama, fending off wild boar in the Venezuelan jungle and ducking flying cockroaches in Senegal.

Across the road from our new house on 27th Street, we found the dense forests of a national park — as in Yellowstone, Glacier, Zion — and in that park, Rock Creek Park, a nature center. At that time, the center housed injured wild animals — either permanently, like the owl that flew around the exhibit room, or temporarily, like the large snake we examined one day in the basement.

On our afternoon drives home from school, we saw albino deer along Foxhall Road. At night, a small herd of does, stags and sometimes fawn congregated on our lawn. Slowly crossing our road one night, a lovely but possibly rabid fox glistened in the moonlight. And luminescent possums with long ghostly tails traversed our porch, unfazed when we pounded loudly on the glass door.

At least the possums kept going. A family of raccoons moved into our back yard, with new babies every spring. Displacing a whole family is difficult, because each raccoon will try desperately to find its way “home” to the others. Years later, during a vacation in Guadeloupe, we hiked up a volcano where people told us we might be lucky to spot a wild raccoon. We shocked them with stories of own raccoon family in the city of Washington, D.C.

We prefer raccoons to rats, which ate an entire (wrapped) loaf of bread on the counter one night, though exterminators eradicated the rats and do a pretty good job with the insects: crickets and spiders in the basement, carpenter bees in the wood, and termites. Most upsetting were the inchworms. Within months of our moving in, the ceiling of our small pantry began to crawl with hundreds inching their way back and forth — and then cocoons spinning in packages of flour and cake mix, and moths flying out of boxes of crackers and cereal. We quickly signed our life away with an annual pest-removal contract.

Venturing into our new national park wilderness one winter morning, my toddler and I  found slopes so steep we had to crawl up on all fours and slither down seated. Suddenly we heard a deep male voice from behind a nearby rock alerting us to an elaborate campsite of two homeless men — complete with clothes drying on a line. The same morning we watched police cars speeding along Broad Branch Road, lights flashing, in search of thieves who’d robbed a Connecticut Avenue store.

After 10 years of Washington living, beginning to pride myself on making peace with this urban wilderness, I happened to look up at a stoplight on Connecticut Avenue to see the official sign: “Watch Out for Bears.” My heart sank. I was ready for a large black bear to saunter across the street, until I saw a panda poster advertising the nearby zoo.

As testimony to the power of D.C.’s own call of the wild, colorful escaped birds like parakeets and canaries can be spotted flying among the park’s high trees; the cockatiel belonging to our neighbors arrived at their window one day. And now our black cat, who started life as a stray but spent eight years sleeping on our bed, bringing up her babies and eating regular meals, has moved into a hole in our back yard.

Fatter and furrier than ever after five months, L.C. (for Little Cat) suns herself on the grassy slope and can be picked up and petted. But when brought indoors, she emits an extremely loud, feral noise before fleeing to freedom. And she ignores our other cat, Stripey, her daughter, as well as our little dog, her old best friend. Either she had enough of the sophisticated city, politicians, diplomats and us — or she’s simply returning to her roots. We hope she won’t convince the other pets they should follow.

 –Mary Carpenter

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