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A Raccoon at Murfee Spring

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

The first warmth of 2019 descended on the Percy Priest Lake shore as I tiptoed across the jagged rocks in my LL Bean boots. Fixated on the large blue heron in the distance, I paused to unload my camera equipment and set up the shot, but to no avail.  The heron drifted to the closest island as I nibbled on my Nature Valley bar, defeated. It was the only heron I’d seen all morning. 

After a while, I packed up my stuff and drove to the Discovery Center at Murfee Spring off Broad Street in Murfreesboro. At least here, I could practice my photography skills on sun-loving turtles. I hadn't been to this exquisite wetlands area since September, and I was curious whether the day's abnormal warmth would summon forth frogs.

No luck on the frogs--great news, they were still hibernating and weren't tricked by the temps to think it was spring--but I did see female downy woodpeckers (not to be confused with the larger-billed hairy woodpecker) and logs full of turtles. I strolled the rest of the way around the boardwalk, marveling at the currents of unending grasses parting stagnant films of alien green.

I waited until a group of photographers with much heavier, fancier equipment than mine left their post in front of a nubby tree to attempt my own capture of the tree’s inhabitant: a sleeping ball of fur.

I took some dark and depressing photos of the fur, then waited. Show your face little guy, I thought. I scanned the wetlands for more turtles and birds and then noticed the fur was moving— and a small, sleepy face lifted just above the concavity. A raccoon! (For the sake of this post, I'll assume it was a "he".) I pressed a lot of buttons on my camera, trying to figure out if aperture mode was better than shutter mode for this shot, and whether upping the ISO would blank out the guy entirely. I was still experimenting when he tucked his head back between his legs and disappeared into the shadows.

I walked away, frustrated that the pictures I took were dark and grainy. After strolling around the adjoined wetlands by the Discovery Center (a children’s museum), I walked back to the raccoon’s lair. If he woke up once, he’d wake up again (a confident assumption, since raccoons are nocturnal and can sleep for weeks at a time), and this time I’d be ready. 

As I approached the tree, I saw the raccoon moving in circles, trying to resituate himself. His whole body was out of the shadows! — I ran to get closer, then leaned my camera and small, portable tripod against the boardwalk’s rail for balance and snapped away. The raccoon was scratching and staring right at me, unfazed by the spotlight. He even hung his arms out of the tree, a coy Sunday model. 

Raccoons, or the less-flattering “trash pandas”, are frequently associated with overturned tin garbage cans in scantily lit alleys. Their opportunistic diets and dexterous paws, after all, make them extremely adaptable. But their traditional habitat is among Tennessee's hollowed trees, caves, and rocky ledges, in and around swamps and marshes and forests, where they can feast on nuts, berries and even frogs. February falls in their breeding season, and come spring, a handful of babies called kits will emerge from their mother's burrow.  

As I snapped more pics, a couple of other visitors gathered around the tree, including a biologist who is approaching 1,000 observations on the iNaturalist website/app. (The website is a platform for citizen and career scientists alike to record their nature sightings and advance our understanding of species' habitats and seasonal geographic variations. I only have a few observations listed so far, but you can find them here.) 

He told me he was searching for Cedar Gladecress, a small flower that only grows in the Central Basin of Middle Tennessee.

Later,  just as I was packing my stuff in my car, he showed me a photo he had just taken on the boardwalk of a Red-shouldered Hawk with a snake in its beak. I responded with a mix of envy and excitement, thrilled that a seemingly accidental patch of wetlands— so close to one of Murfreesboro’s main roads that you can see highway garbage dispersed in the green—can support such a divine variety of wildlife. But that's just the lesson nature teaches us, that even the smallest spaces can be sanctuaries.

Days like this, when I plan to watch herons but find a sleepy raccoon instead, remind me not to build expectations but to temper or even erase them— to anticipate only the thrill of searching and discovering what I didn’t set out to find. 

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