One day when I was still employed at Microsoft, I was out walking the trails behind my campus, no doubt in an attempt to avoid committing homicide. (I was not cut out for a corporate career.)
But homicide is not what this post is about. I was walking along the trails in a wooded area, inventing all sorts of creative murder scenarios in my head, when I almost tripped over a creature I didn’t recognize. It was about the size of an adult rabbit, with small ears and gray-brown fur and a short tail. I was, frankly, amazed. It was an animal that I, a lifelong nature lover, had never seen before! It ignored me as I watched it nibble the vegetation. I poked it with the tip of my shoe. It squeaked, but immediately went back to eating and ignoring me.
A jogger trotted by. I stopped her and asked, “Do you know what sort of animal this is?” She shrugged, replied, “Looks like a giant rat,” and jogged away.
“What’s wrong with you?!” I wanted to yell. “How can you not be fascinated by an animal you’ve never seen? Do you spend your whole life on Amazon shopping for athletic shoes?”
Okay, that’s probably not (completely) fair, and such rudeness only takes place in my imagination (most of the time). Personally, I just don’t understand how any person can walk past a tree completely filled with birds without even noticing, or how someone can not want to see a bongo in real life. (It’s a really cool striped African antelope, and no, I haven’t seen one yet.)
I went back to my office, now on a mission to identify the animal I’d seen. (Definitely a more rewarding activity than the spreadsheet I was supposed to work on.) My mystery creature was a so-called “mountain beaver” (Aplodontia rufa), which is actually not a beaver at all and doesn’t necessarily live in the mountains, which just goes to show you how common names can misdirect you. Aplodontia rufa is a “living fossil,” a very primitive mammal that’s been around for thousands of years.
I’ve since run into another mountain beaver one other time (again, not in the mountains). They really don’t register their surroundings much, but are totally focused on their food. I actually picked up the one I found in my yard and moved it away from the bush I wanted to preserve, but it merely squeaked and then went right back to the same place. I had to put these astounding creatures in a book, so I added one to a scene in my second Sam Westin mystery, Bear Bait.
All my books include at least one type of wildlife. As a hiker and scuba diver, I know some animals well: black bears, mountain goats, bobcats, way too many raccoons and coyotes, squid, octopus, morays, etc., etc. I’m always excited to see any kind of wildlife. (Rattlesnakes? Well, okay, not so much.)
In my latest Sam Westin novel, Cascade (#6), I was determined to include a wolverine. I’ve never seen a wolverine, but I’m always looking for them in the North Cascades, or at least for signs of them. So is my protagonist, Summer “Sam” Westin. Of course, Cascade is a suspense novel, so I had to add a couple of avalanches, a collapsed ski lodge, and the mystery of why two teens wanted to trap a wolverine.
Maybe, one day, I’ll be lucky enough to spot a wolverine in the backcountry. And I hope I will find that bongo in Africa, too, someday soon. It’s important to me to see all these rare creatures before we humans drive them out of existence. I want to see vaquitas (tiny porpoises), pangolins (scaly anteaters), blue whales (the largest creature on earth), and oh, so many others I’m not even aware of yet.
I hope you don’t just jog by the Earth’s amazing wildlife, uninterested in any creature that is not a pet. People share this planet with so many other incredible beings! I hope you have at least one mind-blowing encounter with an awe-inspiring, non-human creature in your lifetime.