Downtime

St. Francis of the Side Hustle

Why I spend hours investigating the creatures around my home.

Rabbit Hole, noticing creatures like squirrels cats and birds.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock.

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

I am a busybody. But not the sort who calls the police on sidewalk skateboarders or peers over the shrubbery to see who’s ringing my neighbor’s doorbell. Short of riding your dirt bike through my flower garden while firing paintballs at my window, you can do what you like in my neighborhood. That is, as long as you’re human.

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The animal kingdom is where I devote my nosy energies. On any given day, my duties might include investigating a scuffle in the hyacinth bush, providing sustenance to a transient cat, researching groundhog habitats, photographing and/or recording unknown bird species, or relocating a small spider. It’s a more demanding job than I, a city dweller with less than an acre to patrol, would have expected. But I’m almost always up to the task.

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Like anyone who works from home, my success in my trade as a freelance writer and online university instructor is largely contingent on my ability to ignore distractions both external and internal. It’s taken time, but I’ve become fairly masterful at this. To everything there is a season, and all that.

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But like the gentle woodland creatures of a Disney movie, the neighborhood animals always manage to penetrate the thicket I’ve cultivated around the precious commodity that is my focus. There always seems to be something fluttering or scuttling in my periphery, something to rescue or research or (gently) evict: a dragonfly trapped between the slider and screen, a curious-looking bird whose presence ought to be noted for future reference, a wandering dog, a hungry cat.

Squirrels are a particular favorite of mine. I love their ubiquity, the soft reassurance that no matter the horrors and hardships around the world, some things will stay the same. I love their high-wire acrobatics, the comic relief they provide. I relate to their indecision, the way they constantly stop and start and reverse direction, tails twitching.

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At my previous apartment, there was a squirrel who had a habit of visiting my porch and obsessively licking one of the floorboards in the same spot day after day. I spent more time than I care to admit studying him. At the house where I live now, there is a squirrel who regularly climbs the screen on my back deck, providing a close-up view of her (yes, her) underbelly. Her mouth is usually stuffed with brown leaves. I suppose she’s working on building a nest somewhere up in my eaves, which should probably worry me but doesn’t.

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Of all the duties I’ve taken upon myself, pest control isn’t a priority. Creepy things that find their way inside my house have to go, and predators are encouraged to keep walking, but other than that, I’m laissez-faire about who takes up residence where and who eats what. In this way I differ from my mother, who spent years devising evermore elaborate gadgets and strategies to keep squirrels out of her bird feeders, and my father, who resorted to popping off chipmunks with BB guns.

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Birds, however, are a different story.

“What do you think this is?” I’ll text my mother, attaching a blurry close-up of a gray-and-white bird with tail feathers like a spatula.

“It could be a junco,” she’ll reply. “Did it have a white belly?”

I’ll zoom in closer. “I think so. Do juncos eat berries?” And on it will go.

I’m not sure why I need to know what kinds of birds are visiting my berry bushes or making homes in the neighbor’s dead tree. I’m not sure why I take an outsize interest in the local rodent population or try to endear myself to skittish cats who don’t know how to ask for the attention they surely crave. Maybe I myself am craving companionship. Maybe I’m living out unfulfilled hero fantasies on a scale suited to my abilities and demeanor. Maybe in another era—when neighborhoods were buzzing with activity at all times of day—I would have been the lady who frowned and fussed at the daily shenanigans on my street. But I don’t think so.

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I think, most of all, I love the unpredictability and unruliness of the animal kingdom, the sense that anything can happen at any time. Back when I lived in out in the country, I saw a black bear roam by the living-room window. I watched a huge snapping turtle stroll through the vegetable garden. I rescued a baby bird and drove it to a wildlife rehabilitator 30 miles away. I once opened the front door to see my tiny cairn terrier loudly confronting a bull moose. My terror that my dog would be summarily trampled gave way to amusement as the baffled creature turned and tiptoed back into the woods.

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These are the moments I secretly hope for when I hear a scuffle in my now-more-modest backyard. I want a thrill, a mystery, a mission. Something manageable but real. Animals know no schedules or ordinances. They can’t call a friend to help them out of a scrape. At the same time, they’re not my responsibility. It’s not obligation that wrests me away from my workday. It’s pure altruism. It’s intrigue. It’s the storybook feeling that there is an alternate universe beneath my feet, over my head, and hidden all around me.

We’ve had a rough winter here in New England, but spring is coming. I’m going to be busy.

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