Ruth Bass: Sometimes Mother Nature desperately needs a few volunteers

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RICHMOND — Message to columnist Thom Smith: You can't herd baby bunnies. Perhaps you already knew that, with all the thousands of things you know about plants, animals, the sky, the planet and the moon. But I didn't. In fact, why would either you or I even think about it? Last week on Dan Fox Drive in Pittsfield, I learned first-hand and wanted you to know, just in case a reader sends a query to your Sunday column.

It was daytime on that busy connector road where the speed limit is 50 mph for a short stretch. Coming around a curve, I braked at the sight of several stopped cars in the oncoming lane. I stopped. Cars stopped behind me. In front of me, a young woman was running hither and thither chasing a tiny animal. For several minutes, she tried to herd a small creature that scooted south, north and in between, occasionally darting into the tall grass and coming out again. Finally, it made a decision. It scampered close to my car, and I realized it was the smallest rabbit I'd ever seen. It disappeared in the woods, at which point someone in the growing line behind me - someone who apparently assumed we were just idling the day away in the road - honked. Or, best possible, a honk of applause.

Turtles, not rabbits, are usually the traffic-stoppers. They're so poky, any animal-oriented person has to give them a boost if possible. We stopped in front of the police chief's house one time, and he came out just as we were depositing a turtle on his lawn. We explained. One of the rules is that you have to put the fellow on the side where he/she is heading — otherwise the determined creature will just start over.

We were happy a long time ago to graduate from the stage where one of our daughters would shriek for brakes when she saw a wooly-bear caterpillar crossing. She always insisted on taking it to the side where it seemed to be going and liked it when it curled its fuzzy self into a ball in her palm. It does tickle.

We've waited for a string of goslings on Route 41, where a driver was helping. We've waited for a slew of gawky young turkeys, one hen in the lead and one or two following. They apparently travel in extended families. And it's not a bad idea to pause when a deer crosses well in front of the car — a second may not be far behind. In Ashfield once, with an accident of lucky timing, I had one on the road in front of me, with a second following just behind my moving car.

We hear a lot these days about mindfulness, which at first sounds New Age, something you do at a weekend retreat at Kripalu. You think of yoga and Buddhist monks and people being silent. But its simplest definition is "paying attention to the moment." Not a bad idea behind the wheel. Kripalu, incidentally, recently linked mindfulness with birdwatching as part of a special program, which made me realize that one step outside the door these days means the birds wipe out whatever else is worrying my brain.

The first look is at the bluebird house and last week the dad was there with food, first thing. As he left to get more, his brilliant blue crossed paths with the electric orange of a Baltimore oriole. By late afternoon the five bluebird babies (nearly full size and quite brown) had fledged, learning to fly and forage.

In the back yard, a phoebe daily swoops off a dead branch to catch a flying insect, perches again, twitches its tail and flies toward the woods, probably to a nest. One year phoebes nested in the garage, were in bed before dark and didn't start to flutter in the morning until the door went up. That brainy bird couldn't be herded, no more than a bunny, but with about a week of passive training, she learned to exit and enter via an open window so we could go on vacation. Talk about mindful.

Ruth Bass is author of three historical novels. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.

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