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Voices of Spencer Creek

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Raccoons and a Poem

For two years the coons picked all the Brooks prunes off my young fruit tree before they were ripe enough to be edible.

By Lois Barton

Posted on Jan 27, 2003

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Drawing of a Raccoon, courtesy of the University of Washington News
As a child I lived on a small family farm in Ohio. The cultural norm then, about 80 years ago, included an understanding that several of the small wild predators were adversaries to the farming process.

Squirrels and rats could lay waste to stored grains, and must be kept out. Groundhogs could seriously decimate the family food supply growing in a summer garden. The poultry flock must be protected from ferrets, raccoons and foxes. Other specifics depended on individual circumstances.

Occasionally a farm boy would make a pet of a "coon", that charming masked critter with the attractive banded tail. Such a pet was always caged or chained to a post that limited its movements safely.

Several decades later in my home in rural Oregon among suburban farmers and gardeners I found a similar attitude. Raccoons in particular were considered a serious nuisance.

Coons dig around the garden irrespective of what they dig up or cover. They invade chicken houses, eating feed and killing chickens that are not shut away from them, especially at night. Our daughter lost her small 4H flock of laying hens to raccoons while we were away on vacation. One fall our last picking of sweet corn was stripped from its stalks the night before we had it scheduled for our table, now that it was finally ripe enough to eat.

Not only we, but neighbors have been pestered by coons trying to get to bird feeding stations. They upset standing feeders, climb trees, posts, and walls toward suet feeders as well as seed sources. A mother raccoon and her three half-grown youngsters made a shambles of our deck one night. They made muddy footprints all over the lawn chairs and as high as they could reach up the wall above. They "washed" muddy food in the cat water dish, leaving it unusable. They upset flower pots and dug most of the dwarf daffodil bulbs from a planter where a few bird seeds had fallen. They regularly rearranged a pile of mineral sample rocks and jasper-agate collections not far from the hanging bird feeder, gleaning bits of fallen seeds among them.

For two years the coons picked all the Brooks prunes off my young fruit tree before they were ripe enough to be edible. Last week when I got up one morning I noticed that part of an old cedar plank on the deck had been pulled apart so the coons could get at the bird seed stuck in the crack below the bird feeder.

The other day I visited briefly with a neighbor I seldom see. As we sat by her kitchen table she asked, "How are your coons?" I answered noncommittally that I hadn't seen one in the garden for a month or more. Her question turned my attention to a 50 pound bag of dog food at the end of the counter. Observing that, and knowing she didn't have a dog, I asked, "Do you feed raccoons?"

"For many years," she said. "I used to use cat food until the price went out of sight. It raised healthier coons than dog food does. More protein. They grew bigger. Had thicker coats, more energy."

This retired science librarian has lived alone in a rural setting for many years. She doesn't grow a garden. Nor do any of her near neighbors as far as I have observed. I learned from her that distemper epidemics which have struck twice in the last ten years have killed off many of her familiar "pets" both times.

Why would anyone feed raccoons--wild animals? Does this give them the pleasure of observing small animals outside their door without requiring ongoing responsibility for a household pet? The young man next door says feeding them allows their number to multiply until distemper thins the ranks again to a naturally sustainable population.

What about raccoons in suburbia? A rule of thumb states that feeding wild animals is detrimental to them because it disturbs their natural ability to survive on their own. Their natural habitat is no longer available in suburbia. There is cover enough for them to thrive by raiding household pet food sources. I think many residents find them cute even though a nuisance. Does their overpopulation with its likely distemper epidemic carry a threat to feline pets? Where would an informed environmentalist stand on this issue?

It seems there is no simple answer to this situation. I will conclude by telling a story that comes from my book Through My Window:


Just after daylight the old coon waddled cautiously down toward the garden, pausing every few feet to sniff the air and listen. "There's a big old coon coming down across the orchard," I told my husband as we dressed.

"He must be the one that ate that last mess of sweet corn," my man replied. "I wonder if he'd like some lead for breakfast." Tying his second shoe, he took the rifle and quietly left the house.

Soon the old coon came around the garden shed, went off across the orchard, climbed through the fence and disappeared in the woods up beyond the spring. My man is short-sighted and I felt relieved that he hadn't been able to get a bead on the animal. But when he came back to the house he announced,"I let the wild one go, and fed my lead to the one waiting in the garden."

Then I understood the coon's daring daylight foray. His mate had entered a live trap baited with apples sometime earlier, and was frantically pacing her cage when the man appeared with his gun. The old coon's return to the woods was a helpless, despairing retreat.

Now he faces the hunger and cold of the winter without her. How little we, in our heated cocoons, know or care about the wild creatures who were on this land before us.

The E-mail Connection
by Lois Barton

For many years this household
was abustle with eight children and their friends.
Now we are two octogenarians,
and the man of the house
is a man of few words -- a loner--
whose interest is focused primarily
on the daily news and political issues.

I miss the stir and enthusiasms
of a houseful of young people
and I feel very fortunate
to have found a satisfactory substitute
in the e-mail connection.

Every morning I face the lovely prospect
of messages from friends and family
all over the world.
Folks who care about me,
share the ups and downs of their daily affairs.
A deaf cousin in Florida depends on
our daily exchange to keep him in touch
in an otherwise largely isolated existence.

It might be messages from Denmark or Australia or Korea
or some far flung place in this country
that is waiting for me each day.
The anticipation brightens waking hours
all day long and during wakeful periods at night.
I am challenged to develop ideas and recall
details for inclusion in replies
when I get back to the computer.

My circle of correspondents includes
local spiritual friends whose messages
enrigh my soul's yearning
for the Presence in my life.
My daily schedule formally includes
an e-mail interlude, a period of time
which nourishes relationships of great importance to me.

(December 30, 1997)

Visit the Heron Rookery and other stories of The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte at Voices of Spencer Creek with Lois.

Writer and historian
Lois Barton
Lois Barton is an 84 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household and garden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil. Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.

See more of Lois Barton's Articles in West By Northwest
Sauerkraut and All That

Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?

The Midwife - The midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.

The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.

Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.

Books by Lois Barton

History and stories of the peoples of the Northwest.

© Copyright 2000-2004 by West By

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