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A black bear is photographed at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina.
A black bear is photographed at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. (Dana Dunne)

Nature is big and small. It is playful. It can be both odd and beautiful, but it is also fleeting and sometimes unpredictable.

Earlier this week, what started as an online chat about nature became an amazing story session. It started after I’d read a list of surprising nature facts, putting me in the mood to talk wildlife. While the online facts were the stunning sort — things like “More people are killed by cows than by sharks,” and “There are 12 times more trees on Earth that stars in the Milky Way” — the real life stories were so much more.

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My Chincoteague friend, Janet Bernosky told me about a time, nearly 30 years ago, when she was a graduate student at Penn State University. While visiting her boyfriend in a little town just north of campus, the pair stepped outside and looked up at the sky. There they saw the Aurora Borealis, a phenomenon that rarely makes it that far south.

“We were just mesmerized,” she said. “It was just this fantastical (that’s fantastic plus magical) and out of control spiraling of whites, reds and greens again a clear black sky! We were like little children, ooohing and aaahing at nature’s sky show.”

Reading Janet’s description, I could picture a legion of angels armed with paintbrushes, working so hard to create a colorful gift to share with their charges below. For me, this is what nature is all about — something that big. But it is also about something so small.

Fellow Carroll County Times correspondent, Gabrielle Schoeffield shared how one day, when she was bringing a new hummingbird feeder outside to replace an empty one, she met a hummingbird up close and personal.

“As I walked down the steps to the hook, a hummingbird came right up to the feeder, looked at me, then proceeded to collect from each ‘flower’ on the feeder, stopping to look at me as he moved from one to another.”

Gabrielle said the hummingbird was so close that she could hear the beating of his wings. A moment like that is so magical that it lives on in your heart and your mind forever.

Many friends shared stories about meeting animals on the trail — deer and hawks, and the black bear cub that my Virginia friend, Dana Dunne and her husband Gary saw on a hike one day.

“When we stopped, the bear stood up to get a look at us,” Dana said. “Then she sat back down. I raised my arms and she stood up again. I started saying, “so big” and putting my arms up. Every time I did it, she stood back up. We “named” her So Big and [we] found her several times on other trips. She continued to stand every time I called out “so big” and raised my arms!”

You have to wonder if that little bear, like so many other babies, truly was playing a game with Dana.

My North Carolina friend, Sharon Lupton recalled standing on the dock off Main Street on Chincoteague Island in 2001.

“It was very dark, but my friend and I noticed something huge that seemed to be moving under its own power [and] coming toward the dock. My first thought — being from NC — was alligator, and my urge to flee was strong, but just as I suggested we get out of there, the giant creature surfaced just enough for us to see it was a manatee!”

Sharon said she and her friend looked at each other in disbelief. But sure enough, they soon heard from others that a lone manatee had been hanging around Assateague Bay, so far from home.

But this wasn’t the only story Sharon shared. The second story sent me on a research tangent. I had to learn more.

“Close to 40 years ago, I was on my way home from work in a small town in eastern North Carolina,” Sharon said. “I had to stop suddenly because an animal and its young calf jumped onto the dirt road to cross. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was a female elk.”

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Sharon said elk are not native to Pamlico County, NC, but this was not a deer.

“The calf was tall enough that it's back was well over the hood of my 67 Chevy Nova,” she said. “I sat there and watched them disappear into a cornfield, completely dumbfounded.”

When she got home, Sharon called the DNR, who asked her how much she had to drink that day. Sharon, who was 100% sober, knew what she’d seen.

“Years later I found out, in the 1800s, a circus barge carrying several exotic animals had crashed and sank in the nearby Bay River. Many of the animals escaped, including elk, a breeding pair of black Panthers, and several monkeys,” she said. “Black Panthers are still sighted today, with the most recent being last month.”

Panthers in North Carolina? I had to learn more, so I went online where I found many articles about sightings of panthers in Pamlico County and neighboring counties. Even though DNR says it is impossible, multiple people have come forth with sightings in nearby Onslow and Craven counties, near Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base in nearby Jacksonville, and south of Pamlico Community College. There was even a group sighting in the late 1960s near Camp LeJeune, when a large group of Marines all sighted a panther while in the field, training.

This made me recall stories I’d heard of bobcats and coyotes in and about Carroll County, and about the coyote I saw in Union Mills.

When we moved to Union Mills 38 years ago, we heard a story about a coyote who had killed several sheep on Silver Run Valley Road. I was skeptical at the time, but then, about five years ago, I saw a coyote right in our own yard.

My Shetland Sheepdog Ryley was outside on his runner at the time and began to bark like mad. I went out to see what the ruckus was about, and there it was. Under my neighbor’s spotlight, a gray coyote stood perfectly still, staring at my Sheltie. The moment he saw me, he took off. With the light on him, there was zero doubt in my mind that I’d seen a coyote.

With nature, there is always a surprise, yet, somehow, nature makes sense of everything around us.

Albert Einstein once said, “Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better.”

It’s true. Nature is beautiful, it gives us stories, and it shows us the way. It gives us light and darkness, color and gray.

Famous artist, Claude Monet once wrote, “My wish is to stay always like this, living quietly in a corner of nature.”

I wonder if Monet developed his style after observing the way nature paints, with a broad and colorful brush, streaks of happy and strands of gray. And within it all, lessons, on any given day.

Lois Szymanski writes from Westminster. Her Life & Times column, The Great Big World, appears every first, third and fifth Sunday. Email her at loisszymanski@hotmail.com.

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