Backyard History

What are the three most historic places you’ve ever visited?

A friend recently posted this question to Facebook; dozens of people commented, listing a wide variety of places. The three that immediately came to my mind were the Colosseum (Rome), Ford’s Theatre (Washington, DC), and Dealey Plaza (Dallas).

Still, limiting my answer to these three places seemed so inadequate. I mean, how, exactly, can “most historic” be defined? The Colosseum seemed an obvious choice, for the sheer number of events which occurred there – including the martyrdom of so many early Christians, which would prove to be the seedbed of the Church’s growth. But is it really “more” historic than St. Peter’s, across town? Think of everything that’s happened there.

Back home in the USA, I gravitated toward the two Presidential assassination sites, because of the dramatic impact each one had on the course of our nation’s history. Each marked a major interruption. But, again, is Ford’s Theatre “more” historic than the White House, just a few blocks away? Or the US Capitol building?

All kinds of other places came to mind: Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, Arlington Cemetery, Faneuil Hall and the Old North Church in Boston, and so on. In the early 1980s, I visited the USS Missouri (when she was mothballed at Bremerton) and stood on the spot where the treaty ending World War II was signed. Historic? Of course, though I’d argue that the “Mighty Mo” made a bigger impact on history through her role in battle than for providing a location to sign a treaty.

As you search your own thoughts, and try to come up with your own list, keep something else in mind: the most profound impacts on history can be set in motion by events that now seem mundane — and in places that are now largely forgotten.

One of those places is lurking in our own backyard, and I had the pleasure of visiting it this week for the first time. Just a few miles from where we live, there is an 88-acre patch of woods called Meridian-Baseline State Park. I’d wager that most people in Michigan (including most people who live near us) have never heard of it. The entrance is not well marked, and I drove past it dozens of times before I even realized it was there. From the small sign along Meridian Road, you wouldn’t guess it included much more than a dirt parking lot and some nature trails.

And yet, on a spot that’s about a half-mile hike from the parking lot, something happened about two hundred years ago which has had an arguably bigger impact on our everyday lives than events which have occurred anywhere else in the state. Deep in those woods are the two bronze markers from which the entire rest of the state was surveyed and platted. Without that survey, we wouldn’t have reliable property boundaries today. Moreover, the roads could not have been properly laid out and aligned. I doubt many of us have stopped to think about how chaotic everyday life would be without the surveying work that was done to establish these lines.

Meridan - Baseline North Initial Point Marker

Why does the park have two markers? Why not a single “zero” point? The state does have only one north-south meridian, but somehow the east-west baseline got screwed up. Instead of a single baseline, we are the only state which has two baseline points along the meridian. The one farther north is the baseline for all points east, and the one approximately 935 feet south is the baseline for all points west. If you look closely at a map, you’ll notice that the Jackson – Ingham County boundary doesn’t exactly align. The 935-foot baseline discrepancy is the reason. (Many of the rural roads around here also take a sharp series of turns right at the meridian; I suspect this is due to the same issue.)

The kids and I had a fantastic time visiting the park this week. The trails are in good shape, and it’s a very pleasant walk through the woods. We got to experience an important (if unsung) historical site — and the “misaligned baseline” provided an excellent teaching opportunity about the importance of paying attention to even the smallest details, and executing one’s work with care. What may seem like a small mistake or oversight can end up having permanent repercussions.

meridian-baseline-park

What hidden historical places are lurking in your own neighborhood?

Mr. Raccoon’s Rocky Return

As usual, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer turned out to be right. In a recent post, I told the story of the odd-looking juvenile raccoon that turned up in our pasture on Sunday afternoon. Given how pathetic it seemed, and how completely non-threatening, I just didn’t have the heart to shoot it. MYF suggested, however, that it could be sick or have something else seriously wrong with it — precisely because it was sitting so lethargically in our pasture, and not running away from me. We agreed that if the animal turned up again, I should not hesitate to dispatch it.

Well, Mr. Raccoon did turn up again. And he did have something seriously wrong. Thursday morning, I found him in the pasture, much closer to the barn than on Sunday. However, I didn’t need to dispatch him. He was already dead.

As I found a paper bag in which to dispose of the body, I was kicking myself for not pulling the trigger on Sunday and putting him out of his misery sooner. Oh well. Live and learn.

Still, I couldn’t help wondering why this disoriented raccoon turned up on our property at all, looking like he had no place to go. Why wasn’t he in a den?

Then I started thinking about what had been going on around us. For the last couple of weeks, County work crews had cut down dozens of trees along our road. Some of these trees were on the small side, but others were enormous (our son counted upwards of 80 rings on one stump across the street from us).

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All this work is being done in preparation for a major re-paving project this coming summer; in the meantime, it’s been like living in the middle of a logging operation. At least we’re getting a year or so’s worth of firewood out of it.

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The County Road Commission crews used a forklift to pile all this wood in our pasture.

Anyway, back to Mr. Raccoon. With all the old trees that have been coming down, I wonder how many raccoon dens came down with them? I’m actually kind of surprised I haven’t seen more disoriented coons wandering around. It’s entirely possible this little guy got displaced from his den, and didn’t know where else to go. Given that he was so young, he may not have been familiar with other options.

It’s also possible that he was injured in some way when his tree came crashing to the ground. It wouldn’t surprise me if raccoons suffer traumatic brain injury in the same way humans do. And this raccoon certainly did look “dazed and confused.”

I suppose we’ll never know for sure exactly what happened to him. But at least we do know that an obviously-sick animal’s suffering is now over.

Temporary Truce

For years, I’ve considered our family to be in a more or less perpetual state of war with the local raccoon population. They’ve found ways to kill so many of our chickens, ducks, and turkeys … if I see a raccoon on the property, I tend to shoot first and ask questions never.

Until this past Sunday.

The weather here in Michigan has been unseasonably warm for mid-February, so my eldest daughter and I were able to get out for a wonderful 45-mile bike ride. We returned around 5pm or so, with about an hour of daylight to spare.

Before putting our bikes away, we gazed out over the property. Several of our ducks were still out in the pasture, splashing around in a flooded drainage ditch, having the time of their lives.

Then both of us spotted something just beyond the ditch: a smallish, dark-colored animal moving around. At first, I thought it might be one of our barn cats; she frequently goes out to the pasture to hunt field mice. “It’s not walking like a cat,” my daughter observed. I agreed. It was too far away to tell for sure, but it also seemed a bit too big to be a cat.

I decided this was worth checking on — especially since the animal could be stalking the ducks. They were so happily splashing in the drainage ditch, they seemed oblivious to all else. We hastily put our bikes away, I exchanged my cycling cleats for Muck boots, and then I grabbed the shotgun and a few shells of 00-Buck. Still wearing a cycling jersey and Lycra shorts, I then trotted out to the pasture. Our 14-year-old son, realizing something involving guns and wild animals was afoot, immediately stopped shooting baskets and trotted after me.

The noise we made with the gate evidently alerted the ducks that something was up, and they immediately abandoned the drainage ditch. As the flock waddled back toward the barn, I was relieved that at least none would fall victim to predators today. But I still needed to see if this intruder was in fact a predator — and take appropriate action if so.

As my son and I drew closer, it became clear that the animal was not a cat. It was too big, not carrying itself like a cat, and didn’t have a coat like any of our cats’ coats. Surprisingly, it was so intent on digging in the mud, it didn’t even notice us approaching. We drew to within 25 feet or so, and I chambered a round in the shotgun. At last, the animal looked up and I could see its face. Even more surprisingly, it just stared at us and did not run away.

I still couldn’t tell exactly what it was. It looked sort of like a raccoon, but not completely. The coat, and its coloring, didn’t seem quite right. The eye rings were evident, but not well defined. Its tail was tucked under it, so I couldn’t check it for rings.

Maybe I could convince myself it was a raccoon, but I wasn’t really sure. It didn’t look as clearly coon-like as the others we’d encountered (or even seen as road kill). If it’d stood and begun walking, I could’ve gotten a good look at its feet — and at its gait. That would’ve given me a much better signal. But the thing wasn’t moving. It just sat there, staring at us. Being in the middle of the pasture, I didn’t even have the option to pick up a rock to throw at it.

I drew a bead on the animal, but ultimately could not bring myself to squeeze the trigger. The way it looked at me, with its completely non-threatening demeanor, I just couldn’t kill it — especially since I wasn’t absolutely sure it was a raccoon.

But if it wasn’t a raccoon, what was it? My son and I went back to the house. I changed clothes, unloaded the shotgun and put it away, and jumped on the internet to search for “Michigan wildlife.” A long list came up, with pictures, but nothing really matched my memory of the thing. I looked at pictures of raccoons. I could see a resemblance, but also differences.

I returned to the pasture, this time with a camera — and my usual concealed carry pistol, in a holster. Much to my surprise, the animal was still in the same spot. I drew even closer than before, but it still didn’t run away. I took a few pictures. This is the best one:

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Now, you might look at this and say, “Oh, that’s a raccoon!” Mrs. Yeoman Farmer did, when I showed it to her that evening. But trust me: when I was there, looking at the thing in person, under the fast-approaching twilight, it was ambiguous enough to raise questions. MYF and I decided it’s probably due to it being a yearling, emerging from its first winter with its first winter coat. Besides, I never got to see it walk around.

Standing there in the pasture, looking at how small, nonthreatening, and pathetic the thing was, along with some nagging doubts about exactly what kind of animal it was … I decided I just couldn’t shoot it. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, or because we haven’t had a coon attack in a while. Regardless, I simply couldn’t bring myself to put a bullet in this animal.

When Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I discussed it later that evening, she had an additional thought: given this little raccoon’s behavior (lethargic, just sitting there in the open for so long, not running away), it’s quite possible the thing is sick. We decided that if it were to show up again, it would be a good idea to dispatch it. I commented that if it were still out in the pasture now, in the dark, after all these hours, it definitely had something wrong. I grabbed the rail-mounted tactical light for my pistol and went out in the pasture to take a look. But by then, there was no sign of the raccoon. I shined the light all over the field, and even into the trees. No beady little eyes reflected anything back.

I wondered where the raccoon had gone, where it was now, and if it were healthy or not. Having been face to face with the little guy, and having looked into its eyes, I realized I didn’t really wish it any ill. As I walked slowly back to the farmhouse, under the stars and the moonlight, I even hoped it gets to enjoy a long and happy life — far, far away from our farm.