Text and photos by Rosalie Tirella
While eating breakfast today with CeCe …
… I thought about the changes – big and small – happening in Worcester, my hometown. Big change: Quinsigamond Village is getting the Blackstone Visitors Center – a bigger-than-I-expected new building now under construction where the OK Wool mills were once located. And next door, part of this urban renewal project, a park with benches, paths and a sleek slice of the Blackstone River. The park is being carved out of the patch of woods that stretches from the beginning of McKeon Road, behind the OK Wool site, to almost the street’s end, a block before its intersection with Cambridge Street:
The urban ecosystem has been defiled … trees cut down, bushes torn up, wild grasses dug up to make way for the new development. The buzzsaws are whirring in the summer heat; the dump trucks are hauling stuff away; cement trucks, with their huge rolling barrels of cement, are making tight turns in the small parking lot of the teeny, three-store ghost strip mall that’s been vacant since I don’t know how long. Working guys wearing hard hats work a full day. The few store fronts will be gobbled up by the Blackstone Visitors Center, too – part of the project.
A small, but heartbreaking change: the wildlife that called that sliver of nature in the middle of our old blue collar Swedish neighborhood is out of balance, freaking out! Rabbits and raccoons are mowed down by cars on McKeon Road as they flee their noisy, shrinking home. The birds seem to be falling out of the sky (heart attacks?) as the heavy machinery and men move in, taking over …
Their teeny paradise is more fragile than ever as it’s devoured by mankind. Invaded, destroyed, sunny day by sunny day. Good work days for the work crews; deadly days for the deers, rabbits, coyotes – all the wild animals who’ve adapted to the space nature had bestowed upon them, right across the street from Holy Cross college. Across McKeon Road sits Holy Cross or “The Cross” as it is known to the old timers and older alumnae. The small Jesuit school ate up the other side of the woods in 1843.
One of the McKeon Road entrances to Holy Cross.
The animals adapted and pretty much stayed on their side of the road. For all these years, except for the past five or so, there weren’t even street lights! Nighttime you’d drive up McKeon Road, a hill, and it felt a little perilous, the road winding, the college dark on one side, the woods dark on the other. But through the woods there were the city lights sparkling, just over your shoulder, beckoning you to admire them. And you had to turn to look at them and smile at the twinkly prettiness. The Old Worcester. Sigh…
Now it’s all changed. The New Worcester. Gentrified in Green Island with bars and pubs filled with people who eat and eat and take pictures of their plates of food. Things are going the same way in the direction of “The Cross.”
A while ago, in the middle of busy mid-day traffic, I slammed on my brakes to let a leggy, shell-shocked fawn cross McKeon Road to stumble onto the Holy Cross campus, the woodsier side where I walk my dogs almost daily. The fawn was skanky, smudged with dirt. It looked undernourished; it was all legs: skinny, dirty little rib cage body riding atop those sharp-kneed limbs. Still, I could see its white spots – a babe in the Worcester woods! And those big brown melt your heart eyes. You could tell it was terrified as it galloped crazily, obscenely, with those race-horse legs. I was struck by her degraded majesty. I quietly sat in my halted car, even turning off the car radio so as not to further stress her … so she could make her mad, wild, clumsy dash, into Holy Cross, literally falling over her legs sometimes … looking for her “Ma,” no doubt. Poor thing.
Of course, the drivers behind me, got right on their horns and started swearing at me up and down McKeon Road. This being the new, faster, meaner, smart-phone-toting Worcester everyone was in a BIG hurry to get somewhere important. And to photograph the event with their smart phones. Everyone was pissed off. At me for holding them up. They let me know just how they felt with blaring horns and “asshole” this or “bitch” that or FUCK YOU. I didn’t react so as not to send the fawn back over McKeon Road: I wanted her to safely complete her frenzied pilgrimage to Holy Cross, where things would be quieter in the teeny patch of woods there. Maybe she could hide there until her mother found her …
I stuck my left arm out of my car window and dramatically pointed at the fawn, as if to say to the pissed off hordes: See? See how wonderful she is?! Let her cross! Watch this miracle hobble up the hill!
“FUCK YOU!” Whahh! Whahh! went a slew of horns. It was a symphony of hatred. Obviously, my fellow drivers weren’t interested.
I didn’t care how they felt. I just sat calmly in my idling car and, solicitous now because I had fallen in love with her, felt the fawn was mine and that I was responsible for her, watched her scramble up the Holy Cross hill, all sharp-angled beauty and frantic – not at all graceful. She was terrified. When she disappeared into Holy Cross woods – maybe this took all of three minutes – I stepped on the gas, my fellow drivers on my ass now, tooting their horns and STILL cursing me!
It was the first time I had ever seen a fawn in “the wild”! Her white splashes of spots, even darkened with dirt, blew me away! Yes, I’ve seem deers. One even up close in Auburn while walking Jett and Lilac. My dogs, on leads, and I almost literally bumped into a large doe as we turned a building corner. Both parties froze and stared at each other – WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?! – before the doe bolted away.
Last week I was walking the dogs at Holy Cross, at the edge of the school’s baseball fields, right across from the woods, right on the cusp of McKeon Road, when I noticed a ragtag family in a jalopy even crappier than mine driving up and down the college entrance road and then finally stopping by the trees (pictured above). There, father (the driver), mother and baby (in her car seat in back) sat, staring at the clutch of trees. The dogs and I hadn’t begun our walk, so I made us mill about: I wanted to watch the car watching the Holy Cross trees. Finally, suspicious, even though it was none of my business, I asked them sternly: “Can I help you?”
The mother, exiting the car, disheveled, now looking more like a girl (the man’s daughter?), said breathlessly, as if under a spell: “We saw a deer go up here! We saw a deer!”
It must have been big and beautiful and they must have, just like me with my fawn, stumbled across her while driving up McKeon, and seen it very up close and very personal. Their paths had crossed! And the humans were enchanted! I knew the feeling. I smiled and said, “A while back I saw a fawn up this very same road.”
The girl was too mesmerized by her dream – the one that had pranced before her eyes. She got back into the car, and slowly, very slowly, the car crawled up the campus hill once more. Looking for their deer.
Were they planning on, hoping to, capture the graceful animal and drive it home for their very own? Maybe they lived in a house with a big backyard. Maybe they lived in a trailer park surrounded by tin and cement. I lifted my smartphone and snapped a picture of the car, making sure I got its license plate in the picture’s frame. They saw me do this and drove off.
And then last week, this:
I’m walking the dogs at Holy Cross, same path …
… and as we make our way to the practice batting cage, right outside the practice baseball and football fields, I see a young rabbit dangling high from the heavy cord netting of a batting cage. I run with the dogs straight to the rabbit; they want a go at it. BACK OFF! I scream, and they know mom means business. So they back off and lie down in the grass, still excited …
… I try to work the dangling rabbit out of the net. It is limp, not stiff. In shock?? Does it have a chance? Its neck is wrapped three times in the cord netting. It must have struggled like crazy, entangling itself more and more the harder and harder it fought to free itself. Its frenzy only made things worse.
I didn’t take a photo of the rabbit like that because it felt exploitative and cruel. I didn’t have a nano-second to lose if I wanted to save it! So I ran, with the dogs in tow, back to my car, to fetch my big Dollar Store scissors. Stored in my driver’s side cubby, I use them to cut the heavy string that’s tied around my lifts or bundles of CECELIA newspapers on delivery day.
I ran back to the rabbit, a brown sugar cotton tail and commanded Jett and Lilac to lie down and stay, which they did, sensing the seriousness of my voice. I began to cut the rabbit free. First, I took its furry little paws out if the netting. Then I began working on its neck. But the problem was, and it was at this point I realized the rabbit was dead, the netting was wound so tightly around its neck I could barely cut it free. I struggled to get the scissors’ blade between the rabbit’s neck and the batting cage netting. It had panicked, and since it’s head was bigger than the netting “holes” it could not pull its head free. So it kept plunging forward, through a new “hole” in the net – which only ensnared it more tightly. It had done this three times – I felt and saw three bands of the netting cord choking its light brown neck – before it gave up, asphyxiated. Still, I went on, cutting the first cord, then the second, then the third, really struggling to slip the scissor blade gently between animal and rope.
The rabbit looked young and healthy when it softly fell to the ground.
I plopped down on the ground, too, exhausted. Then the dogs and I sat there with the rabbit for awhile, just to be with it … to show our respect … acknowledge the fact that it had BEEN. Mystery achieved!
Then I began cutting the batting cage netting like a madwoman and cut a big chunk of Lilac’s leash for rope (I knew she’d follow me back to the car). I cut and cut that ol’ net and strung it up with Lilac’s leash – making an open tent flap. I tied several knots in the leash to make it super secure so another rabbit or any wild thing wouldn’t get caught in it and suffer and die a horrible death.
With all the cars and trucks thundering by. The noise, the desperate aloneness in all that noise. The hot sun beating down on you as you twisted in the wind choking to death. Coyotes, wolves and dogs (I once saw Lilac kill a rabbit in the woods) kill rabbits quickly, efficiently – go for the throat or the belly. Nothing like what happened here on the Holy Cross baseball fields.
Then my dogs and I got up and had our walk. Nature makes millions of rabbits. I have seen scores and scores of these happy, bouncy little creatures. And always, beneath their cuteness, the strength, the nobility. God.
After our walk my pups and I got into my car to drive home. I looked out of my car window.
I had done quite the number on Holy Cross’s batting cage, but nothing compared to what it had done on the rabbit. Repercussions? I decided there wouldn’t be any. Stroking Lilac who had affectionately stuck her nuzzle under my chin like she always does after our walks, I told my dogs: “It’s a Jesuit college. Jesus would have done the same thing.”
Then we drove down McKeon Road, the shrunken woods to our left and, at the bottom of the hill, the half-built Blackstone Visitors Center, all concrete and corrugated roof tops … me missing the way Worcester was all the way home.