Outdoor Adventure: Winter is the most patient hunter
Our cat, Lady, hunts with patience that borders on immobility; she will watch without moving, seemingly for hours, eyes alive. Nothing else moves save, when interest arises, the white tip of her tail.
Winter is the most patient hunter, draining life’s warmth in the cold, dark nights and too-short days. Dogs are impatient hunters, rushing roughshod through October forests and glades, pushing like a sweep of hot wind; birds flush in panic as if catapulted off a springboard or trampoline. In between the two extremes is Lady; patient and stoic, poised like a miniature Sphinx on the hard concrete.
She has hunted as this for as long as she has been alive and she is now an old cat though her exact age is in some question for she is a shelter cat and all we know is that Sally took her in a dozen or more years ago. She is declawed and she is, most of the time, an indoor cat. But she loves the out of doors.
We put her outside when we can. We use a small collar and a lead of nylon parachute cord and stake one end of the lead and let her roam. The dogs run free in the yard, ranging from side to side, end to end. I have, after much consternation and breakouts of various dogs, fenced the yard sufficiently to keep the dogs in.
The cat, smaller and narrow profiled, the cat we cannot be certain of; she may find a void small enough to keep the dogs in but not so small to keep a determined cat confined. We imagine her slipping through a small gap in the fence like a rivulet of water around the edge of a dam. We imagine her easing her way out of the safety of the yard into the world outside, a world filled with hazard of rushing cars and hostile dogs and careless children.
The cat, outside, patrols the yard, walking smooth like cats do, long and lean and stepping lightly. She invariably tangles the lead, gives real world meaning to the old term Cat’s Cradle; her lead tangles around yard furniture, birdbath, grill and apple tree. She waits, patiently; we untangle her, set her free again.
She leaps, quick as a blink, to the chair; all hunters like elevation. She watches for bird or chipmunk or low flying dragonfly. But mostly she waits; hunting is waiting game and the richest attribute of all good hunters is nothing more than patience, patience boundless as the sky overhead.
On a day last week of unseemly coolness the cat waited, lying prone on sidewalk, watching the hole under the foundation that chipmunks use. The day brought to mind autumn, perhaps late September or October; a day of chill and cloud and breeze as alien to a normal July day as one could imagine. It was a day that put off water skiers and bicyclist and golfers. But the cat did not mind.
The cat waited. She has waited for as many summers as I can remember. She lies still; she stalks chipmunks across the yard; she dashes at them like a gust of wind pushing leaves across the yard. She has done this for a decade. She has never touched a chipmunk, never drawn blood, never killed.
She goes forth each time with the optimism that separates the hunter from the spectator; without optimism there is no reason to go afield, whether it be for game in the autumn woods or a fleeting chance at a chipmunk in the back yard.
Optimism drives any hunter; patience marks the good ones, separates, as they say, wheat from chaff.
Is it just me or do there seem to be more chipmunks this summer? They seem to be all over and in numbers of some significance. I see holes dug under foundations of house and garage; I wonder at what labyrinthine maze of tunnels there is in the dark, damp soil under the house. I have visions of entire families of chippers, extended families of cousins and uncles and aunts, visiting one another under my front porch or back entry. I imagine subterranean living rooms and rooms to store food from their puffy little cheeks, all under by house. I wonder at damage done.
Enough. There is enough worry to go around these days; one need not make more. There have been chipmunks for decades and no houses have tumbled into a maze of chipmunk tunnels that weakened the foundation (though I have seen a few houses that seem slightly askew: Possible chipper damage?).
The cat waits as the dogs run wild in the yard, chasing and tumbling, then, tuckered out, sleeping in the sun. Perhaps they dream of hunting, the dogs, but it is clear that once the yard is found to be empty of game they put conscious thoughts aside. Not so, Lady. Lady waits as she has for summer after summer, waits near the hole that she knows the chipmunks use as they have used it for as many Julys as Lady has hunted them.
Sally weeds her garden; I read a book; the dogs sprawl in various poses of repose on the summer grass. Lady waits, patient as a stone.
I never see the chipmunk. I never see it come to the edge of its burrow, eyes bright, nose aquiver, ears up; alert as all prey species are alert, high strung and living on edge. I never see it; I only imagine what it would be like.
I imagine that the chipmunk would advance with caution, his little brain snapping with the conflict: Go forward to fresh air and food, or retreat to the safe darkness of burrow. He would see the cat but would he recognize it? There are young chipmunks out now, young and inexperienced and in that inexperience the perfect prey for those of sharp tooth and quick moves.
Lady would be perfectly still, a statue of tan and buff; frozen as if by winter cold but alive, heart beating faster. Her eyes would focus; her muscles tense. She would measure the distance between herself and the chipmunk; she would, in her feline mind, spin the calculations of cat’s leap factored with the chipmunk’s response; figure the time the chipmunk would need to turn and dive for cover.
This all happens off my watch; I never see it. I am engrossed. The dogs do not see this; they are snoozing. Sally is on her knees in the garden, pulling weeds. It is, at that moment, a peaceful, sleepy summer setting.
Then Lady pounces. I see her move, move fast like a boxer’s jab; hear her growl her small but spirited yowl; see movement out of the corner of my eye. See a flurry of action, a blur of tawny cat, eyes flashing bright, covering something on the ground.
The dogs come at a run, roused by the cat’s move and call. I walk over to Lady. She is covering something, paws in front of her (little clawless paws, tipped in white) as a raptor mantles prey.
I bend over for a look.
Lady is holding tight to something small and brown. She raises her eyes to me as I reach out and lift her paw.
And on the cold gray cement I see a small length of brown fur; it is the last 2 inches of a chipmunk’s tail, bitten cleanly as if cut with a scalpel. It is as close as Lady got: The wait; the pounce; the contact; the fleeing chipmunk; a sharp, quick bite. I lift it up and Sally asks me what it is and I tell her and she indicates that she finds it “icky” and asks me to dispose of it. I do just that as Lady watches me.
Then we all settle in again; the dogs go to their naps, Sally to her garden and I to my book. Lady? Lady lowers herself to the ground, eyes fixed on the burrow; hunting.
The next day Sally sees a bob-tailed chipmunk sprint across the yard, fast, as we run in our nightmares from a dark formless fear; as if it was running for its very life.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call (715) 362-5800.