2022 Year in Review: Kate Schmitt, Wildlife Care Academy Coordinator

It’s time to look back on 2022! Check our blog between now and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2022 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

Before I came to the Wildlife Center, I spent a lot of time on the Rivanna Trail—sometimes with my neighbor who seems to know every inch of the trails (at least the ones that snake out from our neighborhood in variously hidden spots), but mostly I was alone enjoying the sounds, hearing and then sometimes finally locating a Pileated Woodpecker hammering into a nearby tree; a rushed crush of leaves telling me I’d startled a squirrel or fox; and still my favorite sight since moving to Virginia: groups of deer. Most of the trails I walked on are far enough from any road or parkway to make it feel for a few moments as though the human world might not exist.

My world had felt broken, and so did most of the world around me. I had tried to leave it more than once. Wendell Berry writes about despair for the world beautifully in his poem “The Peace of Wild Things”— about waking in the night “at the least sound / in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be­­” and his answer in that poem is to “come into the peace of wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief” (2-8). And so with that in mind, my husband and I packed our things in a truck, lured the dog in the car for yet another fifteen-hour drive from Florida, and headed back to Charlottesville for the second time in two years.

That same neighbor I walked with every week told me about The Wildlife Center early on, so I knew about the Critter Cams and had watched a lot of the Center’s videos before I started work here in mid-November. (The 2012 Bear Release video is still one I return to frequently.) I returned to Mary Oliver’s poetry and tried to get back into the kind of mindset Berry references in his poem: a sense of wonder about the natural world. When I started coming to the Center every day, I found a myriad opportunities to cultivate that, whether it was watching (and listening to the noise of!) opossums eating or holding an adamantly displeased vulture when I spent a morning shadowing in the “hospital side” of the building. The fact that Clover, one of our future animal ambassador kestrels, sits on a perch near my desk during some afternoons creates an office ambiance I wouldn’t have imagined existed—never mind the number of animals ushered through the front door for treatment. Just hearing phone calls to the front desk and knowing that so many strangers care that they accidentally pitchforked a toad and are willing to drive an hour for it to have surgery is heartening. And getting messages from the hospital staff that a patient hasn’t survived is heartbreaking.

Mary Oliver introduces her poem “Lead” with a question for her readers: “This is a story / to break your heart” she writes, “Are you willing?” (1-3). At the time I first read this poem, I didn’t know anything about lead bullets, sinkers, or the collateral damage they cause to wildlife. I didn’t even know the most obvious don’t-throw-your-apple-core-on-the-side-of the-road rule or think overly much about outdoor cats. No one in my family hunts, so lead toxicosis wasn’t on my radar; maybe it wouldn’t have been anyway.

This will make my post far too long for someone who’s only worked at the Wildlife Center for a month, but Oliver’s poem best expresses the necessity and beauty of what every single person here does, so I’m including it in its entirety with my thanks to all who are here working and who support its mission.

LEAD

Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
Just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

— Kate Schmitt, Wildlife Care Academy Coordinator

Check out all of our year-in-review posts!

Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. The Peace of Wild Things.” The Peace of Wild Things and Other Poems. New York: Penguin, 2018.
Oliver, Mary. “Lead.” Devotions. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.