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Livable Forest

Ken Muenzenmayer


We used to live in “The Livable Forest” which, now that I think about it, sounds
quite inane.  It was not a forest at all, just the western fringes of the big thicket of East Texas, tall pine trees with roads and greenbelts carved throughout in which the wildlife consisted mostly of spoiled teenagers running rampant in cars bought by parents who had little knowledge of or control over the extracurricular activities of their children.  At one point in time it was actually a nice place to live with our own constables, volunteer fire departments, well maintained roads, and designated water supply.  Things changed immediately when the annexation occurred.  Water rates doubled, response time by the new city fire department doubled, roads deteriorated, and the new police force began making many questionable traffic stops.  Can you say “redistricting”?

We lasted a few more years before relocating to the “urban jungle” of Coconut Grove, Florida, where there was much more wildlife.  Parrots, peacocks, cats, and rats come to mind.  While it was a beautiful place to live with flowering
tropical vines and trees creating canopied roads and dappled sunlight throughout the neighborhoods, wildlife of the human variety became rather intolerable as did the doubling of our taxes within our first year of living there and the cost of living in general.  We managed to get out of the jungle before the real estate bubble burst and made it back to the friendly environs of The Lone Star State.

Upon our reentry to Texas we decided we no longer needed the confines of a city and bought a house on a few acres three miles outside of a larger small town.  Our property had been overgrown for the last few years prior to our acquiring it so it did take some reclaiming to make it livable.  While not exactly a forest, we
border the woods and have quite a few large oaks on our property.  What we do have here that we did not have in our “livable forest” or “urban jungle” abodes is actual wildlife.  It took a couple of years to cut back the vines that were growing in all of our oak trees and clear the various junk piles amassed on the property by the previous owner, and all of the labor was accomplished without a single scorpion sting or snake bite.  As they say, “ignorance is bliss” and having been raised up north, the presence of these critters never even crossed my mind.  And those vines I had been pulling down out of the oak trees turned out to be decades old poison ivy vines which I luckily identified before they awoke from their dormant winter state.

The first sign of our coexistence with nature was an audible one.  The “hoot hoot, hoot-hoo” of the barred owls (I prefer to call them bard owls) that
maintain their presence today and, contrary to what most people think, visit quite often in the daylight hours.  Just ask our dog, Lucy, who was strafed by one about a year ago.  When we first got Lucy as a puppy I remember the curious chuckles and clicking sounds made by four owls hopping from branch to branch in the top of one of our oaks while they were eying Lucy exploring her new territory for the first time.  While having lunch one day we enjoyed watching an owl protecting his lunch, a snake snared down by the pond, from a gang of crows that were extremely interested in what the owl was snacking on.  He just spread his wings making himself appear about three times his actual size and danced and charged at the crows eventually forcing them to fly off.  The owls help keep the mouse population down but don’t seem to deter the squirrels, with whom I have a constant battle concerning the birdfeeder.  Cardinals, chickadees, and sparrows don’t seem to mind the squirrels as much as I do.

The mice that escape the owls seem to invade our house in groups of threes.  They are another source of irritation and keep me occupied in an ongoing cycle of setting traps and pondering the merits of “cheese…or peanut butter?” as the most
effective lethal delicacy.  Thankfully, what I see less and less of, are the snakes.  I’ve had to chop the heads off of a variety of snakes.  Some of them poisonous, some not.  I don’t care, a snake is a snake.  Whether it is a black snake, coral snake, or the taunting maw of a water moccasin, the adrenaline starts to flow.   I don my boots and reach for my trusty hoe, and on the hunt I go.

One morning about three years ago while on our morning walk Lucy took notice
of something in our back field.  I looked over and saw the head of a large cougar peering over the tops of grasses beneath a tree.  I was thankful that Lucy stood as still as I did as the cougar stood and began walking away from us, glancing back occasionally before clambering leisurely over the back fence into the fields beyond.  I was elated to witness this and realized the answer to the mystery of how the remains of a red fox, tail flying with the wind, came to be at the back edge of our property.

This past January 1st, at three a.m., hours after all of the fireworks had been spent, I was awoken to the sound of carousing coming down the highway in
front of our home.  I was a bit perturbed at the disturbance and as I listened I realized it was a pack of coyotes yipping, howling, and barking.  It reminded me of staying overnight in a motel and being woken up by a group of college kids coming back to their room after a night of partying.  They seem to have taken up residence in the area for I hear them about twice a week in the middle of the night.  Oddly enough, Lucy does not bark at them, as she does at other sounds in the night.  Perhaps she senses the wildness in their voices and wants no part of it. 

We are often visited by deer, which Lucy will bark at, brave dog that she is.  They visit our pond often, especially in the dry summer months, and have never been a nuisance to us.  Early in our years here a young deer started snacking on our persimmon tree.  One day my wife went out and spoke to this deer, scolding it like a child.  “No, no!  These are our persimmons.  Go on. Get!”  The deer just sort of walked away, looking back, still tempted by the persimmons and looking at my wife till she said once again, “Go on!”.  The persimmons, our roses, and our vegetable garden have never been bothered since.

Occasionally my wife gets fed up with the mice, the coyotes, and the snakes and talks about moving back into the city.  I think about the deer and the conversations I have with them on our morning walks, the ducks that visit our pond every winter, the birds at the feeder, and the beautiful sunsets we see over the fields every night and figure I’ll take the carousing of a pack of coyotes over the antics of teenagers gone wild in their new Mustangs anyday.