Free Hands — Heather Durham

I tasted blood. Must have been picking at my lips again. Scraping that bump in the middle of my top lip as if to smooth a seam, or pulling away any chapped strips. Which leaves more uneven surfaces to mess with, more topography for my fingers to find and excavate when I’m not paying attention. I looked down to see red on the tips of my index finger and thumb. Guilty.

Raccoons are mammals in the Carnivora family. You may know them as the bandits who raid your trash cans or cat food dishes left outside, who drive your dogs crazy from just beyond reach in trees or under porches, who have learned to open latches and turn doorknobs and are bold enough to invite themselves into your home for a midnight snack. As with other adaptable, omnivorous, wily scavengers like coyotes, crows, rats, and humans, their populations are on the rise throughout North America and as introduced invasive species in Europe and Asia.

I never wanted to put my hands in those black boxes at Halloween parties labeled worms or eyeballs or brains, because even though I knew it was just cold spaghetti or wet grapes or molded Jello, it gave me the willies anyway. We learn young that cold and slimy is icky.

We had black boxes at the nature center where I worked in my 20s, but they held drier mysteries, wild nature mysteries like a shelf mushroom, pine cone, scrap of deer hide, or deer antler. Kids didn’t want to put their hands in there either. Darkness is icky too.

The ancestors of modern raccoons evolved around riverbanks and lakes in South American tropics but migrated farther north about 4 million years ago, settling in similar regions in more temperate climates. Until European invasions, they were mainly found in the southeastern United States, rarely far from water.

Raccoons will eat worms, yellow jackets, baby birds and eggs, small mammals, fruit, nuts, frogs, insects, fish, human food and trash, but they really love crayfish. They are experts at plunging their hands into murky waters and coming up with their shrimpy little snacks.

We had a snake at the nature center too, a beautiful four-foot ball python named Isis who I would take out from under her heat lamp to wear around my neck and encourage the kids to come touch her. They usually expected her to be slimy, but she wasn’t. Snake and other reptile skin is a lot drier and smoother than ours, I would explain. Isis could move across the ground without picking anything up, whereas we could move our hands along the same area of earth and come up with dirty hands. Technically, that makes us slimier.

Raccoon tracks, especially their front feet, look a lot like tiny human handprints. They have five fingers and five toes, and similar to humans and bears, raccoons place their entire foot pads, or heels, flat on the ground when walking. As opposed to dogs and cats who walk on their toes. Unlike bears, raccoons have long, slender fingers. Their thumbs aren’t technically opposable but that doesn’t seem to stop them; raccoons have dexterity to rival most primates. They can climb, grasp, pick up and hold, turn, dig, and probe. If you could teach them to shake, they’d put your dog to shame.

For two years in massage school and five years at work, my hands learned the human body from head to toe. They felt the discreet shapes of muscles, learned to feel tension and the many ways to soothe it away. Kneading, digging, shaking, knuckling, squeezing, rocking, drumming, or sometimes, simply holding, my hands seemed to know exactly what to do. My hands were good at their work. My hands could have done that work for many more years.

The rest of me? The brain to run a business. The voice to say the right words, to suggest solutions, calm anger, soothe grief, even chat about the weather, that didn’t come naturally. My hands knew nothing of bedside manner.

I moved on to other jobs, massaged friends now and then until I sold my massage table. I might give an absent-minded shoulder rub here and there, but now I mostly catch myself kneading my own neck. Knuckling up the opposite arm. Wringing my hands.

If I had to choose, I might say the baby raccoons were my favorite animals I worked with during a wildlife rehabilitation internship. As soon as you walked in the clinic door they’d coo and cry, not the nerve-frazzling screams of human babies but the heart-melting whimpers of puppies. Bottle in hand, I would walk in to the orphans’ closet-sized cage, sit crosslegged on the floor and allow the kits to come to me. Cool little hands padded along my legs, reached up for the bottle.

They were fussy little munchkins, hungry as they were. I couldn’t just stick the bottle in a mouth and be done with it. I had to grip bottle and fuzzy face with one hand, and scratch a back with the other hand. Otherwise, they never calmed and milk went everywhere. When I clamped on and scratched though, the little kit would release throaty purring sighs and gulp the milk right down. One hand on the bottle and the other grasping my finger.

The Latin name for the raccoon is Procyon (doglike) lotor (one who washes), for their habit of taking their food in their hands and dunking it in water before eating. If there’s water around they’ll use it. Even in a dish on the linoleum floor of a rehab clinic. Even if the food is already clean. You might call that obsessive compulsive.

I pull my hair out too. Always have. Thankfully not chunks of it that would leave bald spots and grant me a label from the DSM, but one hair at a time, and only certain hairs. My fingertips smooth and sift, scratch along my scalp, pull thin strands taut in between thumb and forefinger, seeking any outliers. Coarse, curly, crimped or knotted, I’ll find it, single it out, and pluck. Then go back for more. There are always more.

Whether my hair is short or long, styled or ponytailed or loose and wild, I seek and pluck. Usually when nobody is watching, but sometimes even when they are because I don’t notice I’m doing it, I seek and pluck. I must have done it a lot as a teenager, because my friends had a refrain they used on me so often it became a joke: Stop playing with your hair; it looks fine.

It never had anything to do with how it looked. It probably looks worse after I get through with my fussing. It’s just something my hands do, independent of my intentions. Anytime one hand is idle for very long, such as driving, reading, sitting idle at my keyboard, one hand will be in my hair. That is, unless it’s kneading my neck or busy with my lips.

The glabrous, or hairless areas of mammalian skin like the palms of our hands and feet are packed with nerve endings, “mechanoreceptors” they’re called. Different types of mechanoreceptors lie in the ridged topography that give us our fingerprints, others in smooth skin. Some rest near the surface, some lodge deeper. They have important sounding names like “Meissner’s corpuscles,” “Pacinian corpuscles,” “lanceolate endings,” “Merkel cells,” and “Ruffini corpuscles.” The more types of mechanoreceptors, the more sensitive the skin.

The bumpy pads of raccoon hands contain almost all of them, about four to five times the mechanoreceptors found in most mammals. In fact, the concentration and complexity of nerve endings in raccoon hands was found to be similar only to primates, to human hands.

Smooth plastic button of my alarm clock. Cotton clothing. Hair. Ceramic coffee mug, metal spoon. Smooth plastic computer keys. Lips. Smooth plastic cell phone screen protector. Vinyl steering wheel. Hair. Smooth plastic computer keys. Smooth plastic phone. Computer keys. Hair. Computer keys. Lips. Ceramic tea mug, fork. Cell phone screen protector. Computer keys and hair. Lips. Steering wheel and hair. Computer keys, cell phone. Fork. Paper pages of a book, and hair. Flannel sheets. Lips.

The common name raccoon comes from the Powhatan or Virginia Algonquin word aroughcoune or arakun, meaning “one who rubs or scratches with the hands.” Which is a better moniker than “one who washes,” because raccoons don’t actually wash their food.

Raccoons evolved in the living world, and developed unique tools to help them survive here. Their bodies learned how to take advantage of rich food sources in murky waters and muddy crevices. It turns out, moistening their thick footpads increases the sensitivity of all those corpuscles, so they could reach their hands into the blackness and find only the tastiest morsels. Raccoons learned to see with their hands.

The tips of my index finger and thumb are stained and sticky. I bring them to my nose and breathe in the sweet honey smell of cottonwood resin, the golden sap that oozes from late winter buds before they leaf out. I look around the forest floor, notice more branches down, more glistening buds ripe for the plucking, but I have enough. Enough to tuck into a jar with olive oil to sit and soak, then stir into melted beeswax and pour into tins for a rich salve. A salve to moisten and cool, soften and heal chapped lips, itchy rashes, and aching hands.

Raccoon hands refuse to forget where they came from. The muddy waters where their bodies began and long, always, to return. So, are they obsessive? Only in cages.

I feel for the knobby nodules of the licorice fern roots under a mossy maple trunk, find a section between two ferns and snap it off, leaving the foliage intact. I rub off a strand of moss and dirt and place it in my mouth, nibbling with my front teeth to savor the bitter sweet tang.

I seek out the pointed holly-like leaves of an Oregon grape shrub and dig. Fir needles and cottonwood leaf litter, gritty soil, then smooth clay. Dig. I locate hairlike rootlets and course branching roots, then find the joint and snap. Pull it up into the light, rub off soil to reveal rough bark. Scratch a thumbnail under the brown to reveal the buttery yellow inner bark, the medicine. Tuck the root into my bag. Dig for more.

I pluck the pendulous bloom hanging from a bigleaf maple. Shake it clean, flick off a gnat, place it in my mouth and chew the sweetness. Wander toward the river.

I seek out the sharp needle spines of devil’s club and dig. Round river stones and rich black muck. Dig. Cold shock of river water. Dig. I locate finglerlike rootlets and course branching roots, then find the joint and cut. Pull it to the light. I choose a jagged broken rock to scrape away the spines. Carve away a flake of bark to reveal mint green inner bark, the medicine. Tuck the root into my bag.

I feel a sudden itchy sting at my ankles and look down to see new spring nettles emerging. I didn’t bring gloves, but can’t resist free organic greens, healthier than spinach, healthier than kale. I pick carefully, using cottonwood stained thumb and forefinger to pinch off the uppermost stems and tuck them into my bag.

My hands are sticky, soiled, slivered, and stinging. I dip them in the river and let the coolness wash over them, then sit back on a mossy stump. My hands rest in my lap, still.


Heather Durham is a naturalist and nature writer who holds an MS in environmental biology from Antioch New England University and an MFA in creative nonfiction from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. She lives and writes in the Washington Cascades foothills, where she works behind the scenes at Wilderness Awareness School. Her memoir-in-essays, Going Feral: Field Notes on Wonder and Wanderlust, was recently published by Trail to Table Press.