Sitting on the porch rail, the coon looks, in the shadows, implacable, his rump as solid as a rock. Past the hour when they usually cry to be let in, our tabby cats are nowhere to be seen. I shrink back from the screen door, caught in the coon's stare, the coon caught with its hand on the handle of the garbage can.
When dogs strew our trash across the grass, we are furious, but this interloper only takes me aback. Our cats, after all, hunt in his domain. All summer we find remains on our doorstep -- mice, moles, baby possums. This August, we found only one bird, but it was a wood thrush, its wing feathers scattered on the step, its speckled throat slashed.
In our suburban neighborhood, tamed and untamed loosely mix. During the day, dogs eye the squirrels that ignore the cats, who watch the cardinals fly from orchard to hedge and back. At dusk, bats circle and insects hum. Landscaped plots erode into pools of darkness that run beneath and between houses. Through them, the cats set out in search of prey. From them, this old raccoon has emerged to forage for bones and rinds in lieu of prey.
Beneath his dark mask, the coon's face is impenetrable. Wild animals are wary of discovery -- and rightly so. Five hundred years ago, Columbus ''discovered'' America. He was followed by Europeans who ''dis-covered'' the continent in a far more literal way, logging and burning their way from sea to shining sea.
In 1492, the land between the eastern Alleghenies and the Rockies in the west was lush -- woodland, wetland, prairie -- though, wrote Alexis de Toqueville a half-century later, ''this vast country may justly be said, at the time of its discovery by Europeans, to have formed one great desert. The Indians occupied without possessing it. It is by agricultural labor that man appropriates the soil, and the early inhabitants of North America lived by the produce of the chase.''
As the settlers pushed westward, thick forest cover gave way to fields and farmland that became the range for livestock that grazed in the open -- and in the light of day. Stone walls and rail fences made it clear to whom cleared land belonged.
Agriculture, as it evolved, would deplete the land. In modern-day cities and suburbs, most soil would be appropriated in ways that de Toque- ville did not foresee. If early inhabitants failed to ''own'' land because they left no traces of themselves upon it, then our possession of land would become patent: Land is the surface on which stand the structures we create.
I lean back against the door frame of a house that rests on a sector of soil whose richness is largely irrelevant. The coon has come from a strip of woods, slated to be stripped for town house development, that runs along a city parkway, a habitat already much diminished. I am not prone to chase a hungry old raccoon, who is quite prepared but not inclined to chase me. He does not move, but neither do I. I do not begrudge him the husks and bones he will find when he lifts the lid, but I regret his discovery.
I would he were stalking through woods, not staring me down, even though I am thrilled to have come upon him as upon deer or pheasant, fox or hawk or skunk. We meet in the dead of night when the land that lies quiescent between houses seems to stir and rise up. In the darkness, I hear wind blow through the pine trees up and down the block and the rustle of leaves in the yard next door.
On such a night, the words of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce stir and rise too: ''The earth was created by the assistance of the sun, and it should be left as it was. . . . The country was made without lines of demarcation, and it is no man's business to divide it. . . . Do not misunderstand me, but understand me fully with reference to my affection for the land. I never said the land was mine to do with it as I chose.''
Whose is the land that lies beneath our feet? Should it belong to those who choose to use it only as location? Beyond the strip of woods where the raccoon dwells, an empty parking lot flows gray as a cold November sea, but from the lot, the patch of woods looks like a deep and leafy shore. The new world is still the old world, I think, as the branches sway against the moon and I turn to go in.
As I put out the kitchen light, I hear the thump of a can that has been summarily dumped. We live on a layer of land divided and laid waste. We need to recover our sense of the whole earth. Implicit in discovery should be recovery.
Barbara Mallonee teaches writing at Loyola College.