Evening watch


Even on summer evenings I didn’t often linger outside. I’d walk down to the beach and take a swim, but once I hung my wet suit on the line and stepped into the kitchen, this room became the center of my concentration. I flicked on the lights, turned up the radio, and started dinner.

One of the kids or a guest might call me out onto the back porch to admire a sunset, but no matter how lovely it was, my attention remained with the meal on the stove. The ding of a timer or the scent of finely chopped basil drew me back inside. So I usually missed the time when light slowly fades and so many animals become active.

Not this evening. Tonight, I am home alone. I pour a glass of cold white wine, drag a chair into the far corner of our porch and sink into it. The cottage next door is empty of its summer tenants. There are no singsong voices playing hide and seek in the small yard. No screen doors bang. The grill sits unlit. The porch light is off. Instead, three catbirds hop on the low stonewall dividing our house from theirs. The undiluted quiet is a gift.

Fog blankets the dropping sun. This isn’t one of those nights with wild reds and oranges swirling across the sky. The fading light is the dusty color of a blueberry. As the dusk slowly ebbs, I watch the color bleed and thicken to a deep plum against the umber of the newly mown field.

A tawny smudge moves at the bottom of the field catching my eye. I wait. Out from behind a huckleberry bush steps a young doe. Her four legs are delicate and lanky, thin strips of gold against a puddle of the blue grey light. She must sniff me, since she stops and looks my way, but she does not startle. Instead she twists to rub her hind leg with her head, indulging in a long, thorough scratch before continuing along the path.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched my own children and dogs meander down this same trail heading for the beach. I anticipate where she will vanish behind two beetlebungs and then move my eyes to the exact spot where she will reappear. I track her journey until she disappears at the far end of the field, absorbed by a purple patch of oak.

Just as I lose sight of the deer, two skunks saunter into view, as if on cue. Separated solely by a low stonewall these solitary animals seem oblivious of one another. What innate signal roused these animals from their burrows at the exact same moment? One patrols our yard, while the other commandeers the cottage field. They notice me — both tails are up in warning — but otherwise they sniff the ground for grubs, fully absorbed with the business of dinner.

Their black-and white coats look glossy and thick. The white stripe glows iridescent in the advancing dark. I have an urge to run my hand through their fur, but it’s short-lived. The skunk in our yard comes closer and closer to my perch on the porch. He’s more at home than I am comfortable with. I click my tongue to remind him I’m here. It works. Racing across the lawn he slithers over the wall and vanishes in a tangle of bittersweet and wild cherry.

Stars pepper the sky. It’s fully dark now and the thought of my own dinner pulls me inside. Encircled by the yellow glow of my cozy kitchen I try to picture all the other animal lives I run parallel to but rarely intersect with. Who else do I routinely miss? Otters? Owls? Raccoons? Moles? Spiders? I wonder how many species use the path I think of as ours, and which animals are just now getting up and starting their day in the night?

I’m grateful to be reminded of the extraordinary way living things fill each niche. It’s too easy to forget how remarkably complex and rich our world is. From the kitchen window I can just make out the outline of my bathing suit on the line.

Tomorrow morning when I put it on, I’ll be following the deer’s path to the beach and looking for signs of other travelers. Tomorrow evening I hope to be back on the porch watching and listening to the vibrant world that’s always there. It’s just a matter of paying attention.

Laura Wainwright is a freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury. She is a frequent contributor to The Times editorial pages.