Alone, I walk the narrow plank trail zigzagging through the beaver pond. The snow has melted away, and where earth is exposed, the yellow-green heads of skunk cabbage peek from the peat—the first floral announcement of spring in the bog. About the canopy, red-breasted sapsuckers herald and negotiate breeding territories with rapid knocks on the many snags—standing dead trees rising from the beavers’ handiwork. Ice on the pond is still thick enough to support my weight, and I step from the planks for a better look into the treetops just as an otter slips from an air hole to rest on the surface. We lock eyes for a moment before she slinks back into her rich watery world below.The next morning, alone again, I find snow resting on the boardwalk timbers in a single layer of socially-distanced flakes like a dressed right and covered brigade of micro ballerinas, buoyant on dainty toes, stretching their crystalline arms, each striking her unique frozen pose: arabesque, en pointe, plié.Overhead, the breath of ocean or glacier, accelerated by narrow fiord, strains the necks of spruce and hemlock. Beneath the gale, the only sounds are the clicks of boot spikes on frozen boards, and the clear, hollow, rhythmic tones of a lone loquacious raven: hoot, hoot, hoot, hoot. A varied thrush silently retreats from the path to an overhead limb.
Snowflakes drifting into the otter hole in the middle of the frozen pond rest on satiny still water, and fresh dusting around the portal shows no tracks toward or away. The weasel has not visited this morning. Land otters will travel many miles overland between fishing holes, and I suspect this little fishless pond was but a thoroughfare. Fortunately for her, the fish market is at the end of the block.
A short walk north, the raven’s voice is lost to the driving wind. Before me, the inside passage is being diced, lifted, rolled and shattered over ancient volcanic rock by a wind that stings my ears and challenges my layers. With over 300,000 hairs per square inch covering a sleek, muscular fuselage, the otter could have glided effortlessly through the onslaught to shop the rich fish market beneath the storm, then retreated to refuge in the rocks for dining.Certain that I will not see her this morning, and painfully aware that my ears haven’t the fur of an otter, I turn back to the forest and in no time am again sheltered by ancient, pre-glacial uplift and canopy, and regaled by the raven’s monotonous hoots.
Moving slowly along the marge of the pond, I scan the quiet ice. I stop at one of the many beaver dams that both fashion and define this lowland ecosystem. The only tracks I see are back on the boardwalk—evidence that I have not been as alone as I thought this morning. The slipping boot tracks of someone less prepared than me for the frozen conditions have wreaked havoc on my tiny illusory ballet, forcing me to release the chimera.As I reach the intersection of boardwalk and earthen trail, the heaviness of a strange and awkward paradoxical intersection of fantasy and reality settles around me. In this time of social isolation, I longed for a moment with an imaginary friend in the form of an otter to whom I am, at best, something to keep an eye on, and at worst a mortal threat, but whose mere presence provides a comforting illusion of companionship. And I can’t bear to follow the fantasy of my ballet brigade being wiped out by a single, giant, slipping boot, lacking malice or design, erasing giant swaths of my fantasy world. In the age of a global pandemic, that fantasy too quickly becomes an analogy that hits a little too close to home, and the lonely voice of an unseen raven reminds me—hoot, hoot, hoot, hoot—today, I walk alone.