Animal Encounters

Posted on Aug 15, 2011

Rotulae: Animal Encounters

City of Toronto Archive

So, I’ve been reading John Freeman’s The Tyranny of E-mail and trying not to be triggered every time he mentions the ‘e’ word, not to check mine, but I gotta say, it’s Pavlovian. I actually start drooling at the mere mention of it. I’m a classic addict, checking whenever I’m bored, in the hope that someone loves me enough to send me spam.

Freeman goes through the history of technology around communicating, and the read is very entertaining, and informative. One early mode of communication has excited me so much I thought I’d see if a game couldn’t be made out of it. What Freemans writes:

“The growing order of monks also kept in touch through lay brothers traveling from one monastery to the next, trips that could take as long as several months, carrying scrolls called rostuale, an early, low-tech version of a Listserv. A scroll would leave a central monastery with simply, say, a list of names of brothers or benefactors who had died  and ought to be remembered. At each monastery an addition would be made to the scroll, the local abbot acknowledging receipt of the message and perhaps adding comments or further news” (The Tyranny of E-mail, John Freeman, Scribner, p. 28)

I want to use this concept to make a running scroll of animal encounter stories. The rostulae game works like this. Add your most memorable animal encounter below and pass this on, if you like. I love hearing encounter stories — human meets animal — and I’m curious to see whether others like to, as well. Here is mine:

When I was putting myself through university I spent several summers up north planting trees in the bush. I always put my tent at the margin of the clearing and the bush, which, to be fair, we were told not to do. One year, an energetic chipmunk discovered that the dome of my tent made an awesome slide, and took to leaping onto it every morning. Once in a while, I’d tap the inside of the dome and give it a scare, which only seemed to add to its amusement.

One day, I thought I heard it rustling in the dirty laundry I kept in a garbage bag outside my tent, so I tapped. The chipmunk had grown huge. It thundered off quickly into the bush, and my first thought was, “Moose!” Now moose are gorgeous otherworldly creatures, and having only seen one before I was eager for another view. I crept out my tent and began, all the while looking down, to try to track it. A moose! After about twenty steps and by now deeply into the bush, it occurred to me it might be wise to look up, and when I did, there was a huge male bear, scenting me about three meters away. They say don’t run, they say make noise, but I sucked in the quietest breath ever and ran like hell the other way.


  1. Three summers ago a friend offered us her cottage for the summer in Clear Lake. I had never been to a cottage before and was excited to see my kids’ reactions to being in a place where there were no televisions or computers to distract them. I though my youngest, who is autistic would benefit the most from being away from the city.

    While we were there, my friend who had come with us, taught us how to spot monarch butterfly catterpillars, keep them and help them after they emerged as butterflies. My daughter connected so well to this idea of development that whenever she encounters a new situation she asks us to divide the situation into stages for her. She adores schedules because they give her some control over what is a chaotic world to her.

    Both of us connected in a different way through these butterflies. Her concentrated efforts at finding patterns in the chrysalis and the adult butterflies wings, inspired me to sketch and paint those patterns for her. I comfort her with colorful order and she comforts me by showing me how free it can be to just let the world happen.

    Fast forward to me running my first marathon in 2008. It was a hard journey to train for it. I had lost 2 months of training due to an injury and had learned to discipline my body, not just for the distance, but to be patient with what my body could offer me in return. That day at the 25 kilometre mark, I found myself at the waterfront with no runners in front of me and a trickle of others behind me. The world seem still and quiet. I look towards the sun for a bit, turned my head back and saw a monarch gliding beside me. It held in my breath while a small wave of nostalgia hit me in the chest. The butterfly flitted its wings lazily as it across me and around my head and headed away to the marshland up ahead.

  2. 1994. A trip to England. We were travelling along the officially designated footpath in southern Devonshire, between the towns of Mousehole (pronounced “Mowzel”) and Cadgwyth. We had been walking several hours when we came upon a dilemma: it seemed the official footpath would lead us into a field with several young bulls, if we were to follow what had been drawn carefully on the survey map issued by the British tourist board. On the other side of the fence, leading in the same direction, was a densely muddy field which, if we walked into, would surely cover us in mud to over our ankles. In addition, the muddy field had a large British Army-issued sign stating that it was strictly forbidden to trespass, and moreover, was a matter for Her Majesty’s Armed Forces that it was enforceable by law.

    We started to walk along the correct path when two of the bulls, seeing us, stood up from their seated positions. A helicopter could be heard nearby. I began to panic, and told my partner. He seemed worried, but suggested if we just walk along reasonably rapidly, that the beasts would ignore us. But I was terrified of being gored. I really was. We walked a few more feet when a third also stood up. The three young bulls, all of them with extremely pointy and sharp horns, were staring at us intently. We froze. We decided after considerable debate—and I was crying with terror—to walk back along the fence and violate the army sign so that we could get out of the area as soon as possible. So we did, but as we walked back I kept thinking any minute we’d be charged. We weren’t. The first helicopter was joined by another, though, and circled overhead, surely watching us break the law. I kept thinking we’d stumble on some secret service headquarters we weren’t supposed to know about. Eventually, muddied, crying, and miserable, we emerged from the field. The rest of the official path presented no more difficulties and we were in the next town by dusk.

  3. My most intense animal encounter took place in the Canadian Rockies, at the Columbia Icefields. I worked there for the summer of 1986, as a chambermaid at the Brewster chalet at the toe of the Athabasca glacier.

    On the return from a 3-day high-country hike, my hiking partner and I got hopelessly lost. We were in the wrong valley, we could see where we were headed — Mt. Athabasca — but there was no way to get there. We needed a vantage point, so we struggled hand over hand to the top of a large, scree-filled moraine (not easy to do with a heavy back-pack) to get a better view of the valley floors ahead of us. After sixty sweaty, expletive filled minutes, I was rewarded by the reassuring sight of Wilcox Valley and home in a few more hours.

    But at my feet was something more amazing: a tiny, hidden mini-valley BRIMMING with bighorn sheep and their newborns. The little valley had 75-100 animals in it, all naturally penned by scree on one side, and rock on the other. My hiking partner and I rested for a while and watched newborn sheep and their mothers in a bighorn nursery. The astonishingly white babies cavorted, butted heads, leapt, and just ran like mad little things. The mothers were either nursing or grazing the lush valley bottom.

    A huge ram separated from the herd and kept a close eye on us. He walked along the moraine base, staring up at us, tracking our every move as we hiked along the top and out of sight. I think he looked astonished to see humans there, clearly no one else had ever been foolish enough to attempt to climb the back side of the moraine, and peer into his secret world from above.

  4. Apologies in advance to all who do not consider a mouse story worth telling.
    But one of my favourite moments in my life occurred about 40 years ago. I had made tomato soup, and some had dripped on the stove near the burner. As I was sitting at the counter next to the stove, eating my soup, I saw a mouse had poked up from inside the stove, and was leaning out of whatever you call the holes in the top of the stove where the burners sit, and was eating tomato soup along with me.

  5. One morning last week, I woke to extreme chirping coming from the tree in my backyard that gently craddles a robin’s nest. The chatter was so unusual and actually ridiculous that I dragged myself from the bed that I adore so much and laboured towards the window, to see what in God’s name was going on. My dogs, or course, wanted immediately outside to see what all the noise was about. The cat sat with eyes wide shut, waiting to see if one of her feline “outdoor” cat friends had stirred up the dust or ruffled a few feathers. By the time I got downstairs and opened the patio door a robin was now perched on top of the rooftop on the house behind mine, in a roar, fluttering feathers like a proud momma. The dogs went out, the robin disappeared quickly to the rooftop next door and the backyard fell silent. I went about my usual day wondering from time to time what was all the chaos was about. When I came home, I wandered out to the yard towards the back fence and looked down to see what all the chatter was about…..low and behold a robin had passed away and was laying there, lifeless in the yard. My heart broke and tears flowed for this robin. I went into the house and grabbed a clean towel and wrapped the robin in it. I dug a whole under the tree where the nest was hidden and the burial began. I placed the soil back on top of the earthy mound and carefully placed a rock on top of the small grave. I took a pot of yellow pansies from the patio and put them on top of the rock. I said a prayer and as I glanced out of the corner of my tear, my dogs and my cat were gracefully watching me, together, from the patio door. I figure the chirping was a distress call which I will never forget and the encounter with that lifeless little soul left me with a heavy heart of gold for the wisdom of my day.

  6. The first time I took my daughter to Kenya, she was three years old. I was still breastfeeding Isabel and she and I were still very much physically attached. She missed most of the animals on that trip as she invariably fell asleep when we got into our vehicle for game drives. We had an exhaustive itinerary but I was in absolute heaven and could never close my eyes I did not want to miss the beauty of it. One night we stayed in a high altitude grass and wood forest hide hotel that overlooked a nightlit mineral lick. The idea was that you would stay up and see all the nocturnal animals. At this point in the trip we were finally accustomed to the 9 hour time difference and determined not to mess up our sleep schedule. The grass walls meant for light sleeping and we were quite relieved when morning came. Isabel and I took our morning tea on the balcony. It was very cold and I was looking forward to some hot sweet tea. Isabel sat on my lap and I pulled a heavy wool blanket around us both. No sooner was the tea out, than a monkey appeared at the corner of our balcony. For just a moment we examined each other. I reached for packet of sugar and the moment I held the packet in my fingers so did that monkey for it had in all nimbleness, intentions upon my sugar. I held on to that packet and tugged it towards me. She tugged it back. We did this a few times and it was during this rally that I noticed the tiniest of shining eyes looking back at me from her belly. Strapped to her chest by tiny arms and legs, tiny hands and feet clenched in fur. I realized at this moment that I was in a battle with a mother monkey over a packet of sugar. Mother monkey took her sugar and moved to a safe distance. I looked down at Isabel. Her round head had retreated to my arm pit, her shining eyes peeping out, terrified.

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