As the word “sanctuary” in Carolina Memorial Sanctuary implies, it is a nature reserve, a safe and natural space for people, and also for all the wildlife that is attracted to live there. Safe for the animals is not so much about individual beings, but more about the balance of life and death. And perhaps the same is true for people. The environment we are supporting is one where people can process grief, loss, and other challenges they might face around the death of a loved one and around their own eventual death. It is a safe place to think and feel about whatever arises, to connect with the nature of our own being, and to witness its wild beauty as well. For me, the animals here have been great reflections and also truly magnificent to observe.
At the Sanctuary we have 15 bluebird boxes, which have been the happy homes of many different bird species. Most recently, with the cold weather and the rain, I have seen robins, cardinals, and blue birds. Starlings (which are also not native) have been showing up, and chickadees and wrens occasionally sing to me on the trails. In warmer weather there are gold finches, red finches, blue jays, and indigo buntings, titmice and nuthatches. The presence of both colors and sounds from song birds really give a sense of life energy in all seasons here, and I enjoy their company while I work.
On Christmas Eve, 2018, I was giving a tour on foot. One of our restoration experts, Shaun, was crossing the trail in front of us, when a huge bird flew overhead and lighted on a tree nearby. It was larger than a hawk and after a week of curiosity and research, Shaun identified it as a young bald eagle! I have had lots of breathtaking encounters like this with large birds. Once I spooked a blue heron that had been wading in McDowell Creek. I had just arrived at work and walked across the bridge, when suddenly I heard a raucous to my right and up flew what first appeared to be a pterodactyl! For most of 2017, we also had a family of turkeys roaming across our property. Add in red-tailed hawks, kestrels, peregrine falcons, crows, wood ducks, and three different woodpeckers and turkey vultures, and the diversity of bird life alone at the Sanctuary is really quite amazing!
Creepy Crawlies Fun-Loving Insects
Most people who visit the Sanctuary are fine with birds, but the critters that give some folks the heebee jeebees are also quite numerous. Worms are in almost every grave and tree planting I dig. This past year, we had a near infestation of caterpillars that feed exclusively on red and black oak trees. I found a Shingle Oak, before they destroyed it, with at least 70 caterpillars on it! Of course the caterpillars become moths and butterflies eventually, and we had painted ladies, monarchs, and swallowtails this year in abundance. One of our customers chose a spot for their partner because there were dragonflies flying all around. The presence of dragonflies also means mosquitoes, which were loving the warm wet weather. I saw huge mantises, spiders of all different colors and sizes, and we have both the native and European honey bees pollinating our flowering plants.
Reptiles & Amphibians
My seventeen-year-old loves turtles, and he was out walking the trails with me and our dog. Shaun and his crew had discovered a common snapping turtle in an ephemeral stream near NC State’s property, and it looked a little bit prehistoric; it’s cousin – the alligator snapping turtle, which looks even more like a dinosaur – was also seen in the wetlands on our property the past two years. My first year at the Sanctuary I saw a red salamander, and the conservation expert that did our baseline study found a hellbender in McDowell Creek, a sign that the creek is incredibly clean and healthy! Skinks like to hang out on the bridge in the sun, and we have black snakes helping to control our field mice and also the wrens and other small birds. And, one of the most beautiful sounds in the spring just before a shower, is the singing of the peepers, a small tree frog native to Canada and much of the contiguous United States.
And then there’s the mammals. Some of my most entertaining animal moments at the Sanctuary have been with mammals. The most common, aside from Homo sapiens, are rabbits and groundhogs. A grave I dug in late 2016 had an opening into a groundhog tunnel in one corner and running through the bottom third of the earth. I was both amused and relieved, as the rest of the digging for that grave had been quite difficult. It was like the groundhogs had done some of the work for me. Last winter I witnessed two groundhogs on our property attempting to propagate their species. When I called out to them, “Hey, what are you doing?” they immediately stopped and stared at me before running off to a tunnel nearby. It was also at Carolina Memorial Sanctuary that I saw my first white squirrel. They are not albinos, but actually a distinct species that lives exclusively within a few miles radius of Brevard, North Carolina. And just last month, we noticed that some beavers made a home for themselves on the small tributary on the south end of the property.
Then there are the larger mammals, including deer who roam across our property in twilight. In spring of 2017, I was walking the trails first thing in the morning, looked up, and I was in a staring contest with a coyote or a coywolf. We couldn’t have been more than fifty feet apart, just standing there, watching each other, both surprised to see one another. I looked down just long enough to get my phone for a picture and when I looked up it was already running for cover. We have had a few elusive animals like that, including a red fox that shows up from time to time and a small black bear that was apparently sighted from Barkwells one weekend.
My most mysterious visitor started in February this past year, with a paw print the size of my hand and no claw indentions. According to the national forest service, the Eastern Cougar is extinct, and the only other cats of any notable size in the area are bobcats, which are not supposed to get much larger than three feet long. I also thought it could have been a large dog print and the mud just didn’t capture the claw indentions. Then, a few days later, I arrived at work and found a fresh half-eaten rabbit in my tent garage. I moved the carcass into the woods so that whatever had eaten it could continue its meal later, away from human encounters. The clues started pointing more and more to a cat though when I came to work the next day and found a dead uneaten mouse on the concrete pad just near the garage. Shortly thereafter Shaun found a baby deer carcass in the wetland next to a large pile of verifiable cat scat. Then nothing for over a month. I assumed that it had moved on, as large cats apparently do. I was hitching up the trailer to my truck in early May, and happened to look up at a flash of movement near the fence at Barkwells. I still don’t know exactly what I saw, but it was catlike in build, and easily the size of a pit bull with golden brown fur and a short stubby tail. It disappeared in a second along the spring head that makes our border with Barkwells on the north side, and when I got there to see if I could snag a photo or at least get a closer look, all trace of it had vanished. I like to think that I had a bobcat friend with me at the Sanctuary, under the radar for most everyone else, but I realized that day that not knowing was a more beautiful way for me to remember the experience. I have discovered this with plants too: sometimes the ones I can’t name or identify seem more beautiful to me than the the ones I can.
These and many other encounters for me inspire a certain reverence for the life that is all around us all the time. I have a sense of wanting to protect these precious lives just as I would want to protect my own pets, or other people. At the same time, I want to interfere as little as possible, knowing that my presence and my work can have a significant impact on the lives of all the living things at the Sanctuary. And this is the place for me of being connected and letting go of my beliefs and expectations. I am a part of the life of the Sanctuary, and to observe and support is my role. As with the funerals of which I am a part, there is a need for me to tend to and mind the space, and also to let everyone do what they need to do to be with the life and death that is present. I witness the little miracles, and then, like the mysterious feline, they are gone, and I am left with beautiful memories and the tasks at hand.
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