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The World Health Organization had just declared the coronavirus a pandemic, and we had entered a world of lockdowns, social distancing, and extreme hygiene. The tremors from the outbreak had touched human populations everywhere, even in the remotest areas. But there was another side to this undoubtedly calamitous situation. The silence of lockdowns brought the beauty of the natural world closer to city dwellers, especially those fortunate to live in relatively less populated communities. It was as if you could listen to the breath of the universe for the first time. As winter in Montreal receded and migrations began in the Spring of 2020, it was stunning to see flocks of snow geese arriving in numbers I had never seen before. Their orchestrated flight bejeweled the morning skies for a few days. Seagulls flew with abandon across quiet streets free of the ordinarily busy traffic patterns.

It was around this time that I first saw Amik from a window of our apartment, which faces the grounds of a heritage building in the heart of Montreal. She was strolling about a patch of grass, and the rays of the afternoon sun illumined her form. She seemed cautious and alert, quickly hiding if she sensed danger. But once every so often, she would stand still, listening in the warmth of the sun, looking upwards, seemingly into the beyond. I texted my niece a description of the scene in front of me. We discussed beavers and groundhogs and the differences between them. At the time, my niece was a student of the Anishinaabemowin language. The beautiful creature before me was a groundhog, but by the end of the conversation, we had decided to call her Amik, the Ojibwe word for beaver. The name seemed to suit her well, and for a few days after that, I would see Amik in the same spot every afternoon.

Many locals found sanctuary in the green spaces of the grounds during lockdowns. And while mallards, robins, and squirrels dotted the landscape abundantly, Amik seemed to have disappeared after those initial appearances. Then one day, she came out into the open to graze on the grass and dandelions near a pond in the western part of the grounds. A family of mallards had made their home on the pond. They snoozed on its banks while a robin splashed about on its edges. A young boy chased Amik into a burrow. She disappeared into the earth but emerged a few moments later. I watched her, as discreetly as I could, as she stood on the mound close to her burrow. A toddler went by in a stroller, pointing at her. Amik was extraordinarily sensitive that day, noticing everything. She looked at families laughing and talking, at young boys skateboarding, and kept a wary eye on dogs on leashes. A small head popped out of the burrow. Her little one came out and joined her on the slope, shy but curious. Submerged by a sea of human activity, they seemed so alone but somehow extraordinarily alive.

The little one was independent within days, and when seen from a distance, Amik and little Amik were nearly indistinguishable. Over time I noticed that they had created an impressive array of dwellings. I would come upon a burrow at different locations on the grounds, often next to a large tree, exposing its roots. The tree’s sturdy intertwined roots created an impenetrable entrance to the burrow. This construction seemed to provide a natural defense against their larger four-footed friends, perhaps unwelcome guests of an evening. It is rare to see groundhogs up close as they are essentially shy creatures. When threatened by exposure, all you see are their portly bodies whizzing by at surprising speeds to their nearest home. But one hot summer’s day, little Amik, tired and weary, had plopped himself in full view on a grassy path. As I approached him, he lifted his head once and looked straight at me, then slowly lowered his forehead to the ground and drifted off into sleep. I withdrew quietly.

An independent high school, which occupies part of the grounds, came into session in the Autumn with many precautions, but there was often the cheerful sound of children playing and chattering. Many regulars stopped taking their walks to avoid exposure to the virus, but I couldn’t resist the beauty of the place, so I timed my walks during quieter periods. Some evenings, when the students had all left for the day, one could only hear the soothing, metronomic chirping of crickets. On one such an evening, little Amik was bustling with preparations for the winter. He gathered great chunks of grass and transported them into his burrow on the mound. A chipmunk on a tree with tiny acorn-like fruits was also stocking, busily chomping as he clung to the edge of a light branch of the tree. Bees, little white butterflies, and wasps floated in the early autumn light; there was still warmth, and flowers were still in bloom.

Amik and her ever-increasing family continue to live on the heritage grounds. The seasoned members of her family are less shy but treasure their privacy all the same. One evening this past summer, I took my usual stroll and found a place to sit at the top of some stairs. From a bush nearby, following a loud rustle, Amik emerged and made her way to the foot of the stairs. She may have been the original Amik, for she appeared considerably older than the other groundhogs. She looked up and took a tentative step toward me. We stared at each other for a few moments. She took another step, and I saw for the first time the weather-beaten, hardy face of an animal for whom survival each day meant constant alertness and vigilance. I saw, in a flash, both the incredible beauty and harsh reality of her life. As she took another step toward me, I slowly walked away. Her trust moved me, and I was humbled, but I couldn’t bear her intensity. My existence appeared somewhat small and insignificant in the mirror of her profound and palpable presence.

Anna Mallikarjunan writes from her love for the natural world and gratitude for the wisdom of the ancients. She has recently started contributing her creative writing to a non-profit magazine in Canada. She is overjoyed to find a home for her writing at Honeyguide and hopes the sojourn continues.

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