Lewis Shiner, squirrels, owls

Today’s post is part of an email (used with permission) that Lew sent to me in response to my recent book. Lew is an old and cherished friend as well as being a great, great writer. His most recent novel, Dark Tangos, deals with Argentina and some of its more terrible histories. He writes:

We have squirrels on our back deck whom we feed (we buy dried corn on the cob and put it on little squirrel feeders–okay, we haven’t done it in a while, but we have done it and will again), and who share the bird seed we put out. One day I was standing in the kitchen, watching a squirrel sitting on the deck railing, when an owl swooped down and took him. I was maybe ten feet away. I could see the squirrel’s face as the owl flapped upward, still alive, her talons buried deep in his neck, the awful resignation.

How do I reconcile my love of owls with my love of squirrels? How do I reconcile the love I feel for the generations of doves we have watched hatch and grow up and fly away on our front porch (we have two nests in the eaves that are regularly used–there are two week-old babies out there right now) with the knowledge that our cats, whom we love, would torture and kill those babies without hesitation if they could get their claws on them?

Elias Lindert, coyotes

A few years ago, Elias Lindert was one of my students in a workshop at UC Santa Cruz. He has covered a lot of miles since then, living first in Asia and then in South America, and is about to take off again. He is an extraordinarily talented writer for whom I have high hopes. He sent me, at my request, the following:

Coyotes

When I was thirteen my father gave me two things: a dog and a gun. The gun was a.22 caliber Browning pistol, with which I plinked away at empty cans and rotted tree stumps in the infinite backyard of ours that was the northwoods of Wisconsin. The dog was a black lab and pit bull mix that we named Layla. My father had found her as a puppy curled up in the snow of a parking lot while driving home from California, where we would soon move. But for the time being, we lived in northern Wisconsin, thirty minutes from the nearest town when our road wasn’t snow, slush, or mud, as it was for most of the year.

The coyotes had been a constant presence for the many years we’d lived there, their howling and yapping echoing across our lake, reaching a frenzied pace whenever they made a kill. Alternately beautiful and bloodcurdling, they were just another sound of the wilderness, always safely in the distance. It was not until the warm summer months of our final year in Wisconsin that they began to close in on us.

Each day the noises of the pack sounded a little closer and started a little earlier. Layla, whom we usually let roam our property freely, was dismayed when we began keeping her inside during the twilight hours and, as the coyotes drew nearer yet, in the afternoon as well. When she heard them bark and howl her fur would stand on end and she would run to the door, her tail wagging even as she growled, perhaps unsure if she wanted to fight or play with these strange canines who sounded as though they were right outside of our house.

One afternoon I was home alone when the coyotes started up. I hardly paid them any mind, since this was by now a daily occurrence, until I heard the unmistakable sound of Layla’s barking among that of the coyotes: I’d forgotten to bring her in. I ran to the window and called her, but the manic din overpowered my voice. I dashed into the closet where we kept our guns and grabbed my .22 before running outside and into the forest, in the direction of the frenzy, screaming Layla’s name while bloody scenarios raced through my mind.

Branches whipped my face as I ran through the thick woods toward the yowling cacophony, still calling for Layla, a bullet in the chamber of my .22 and the safety off, when a dark shape came barreling out of the underbrush toward me. It was Layla. Her tail was wagging and she was panting happily. I flicked the safety on the gun and knelt down to hug her, trying to inspect her for wounds while she licked my face, but there were none visible, not even a drop of blood. Then I looked up, and through the foliage, not twenty yards away, I saw a lone coyote; it was watching us.

I told Layla to heel and crept toward the coyote. It did not move. Layla too was eyeing it intensely, but she obeyed and stayed at my side. It was small, perhaps not fully grown. I wondered where the rest of the pack was. I scanned the woods around us, but they were gone and it was silent but for Layla’s heavy panting and the buzz of mosquitoes. When we were less than ten yards from the coyote it turned and began to trot away. I thought that would be that, but then it stopped again at about the same distance as it had before, and we continued to follow. This pattern kept repeating itself, the coyote scampering ahead, then pausing to let us catch up, leading us ever deeper into the forest. The sun was setting, and as the woods grew darker around us, I began to have paranoid fantasies. What if the coyote was leading us into a trap? What if the entire pack were to leap out from hiding and devour Layla and me alive? But it seemed content simply to observe us silently, staring at us just as we stared at it.

We continued following the coyote until dusk, when I realized we needed to turn back or risk getting lost in the woods, as I had no flashlight and we had by this point entered the sprawling national forest that bordered our property. Before turning around, Layla and I stood watching the coyote for one more minute. In my memory I am close enough to see the green-brown irises of its eyes. It is a devious predator, the devourer of pets, the trickster of legend. It is a playful, curious little creature not far removed from the dog who curled her little body into a ball in my lap when my father brought her in from the cold.

Roy DeGregory, dogs, rabbits

Roy DeGregory and I went to high school together, but it was a large high school and we only met many years afterwards. Still, by now we have known each other long enough to be old friends. Roy writes:

I have had many run-ins with dogs, especially as a telephone company repair person, and once a cat trained me to fill his food bowl and open the door on command ( a series of gestures, really) but that seems pretty mundane.
The dog story goes like this. I was thinking of hopping over a short chain link fence to enter a yard with a telephone pole in it that I needed to work on. There was an angry, snarling, spitting dog in the yard, and he made it quite clear that 1.) he knew what I was thinking, and 2.) he didn’t like it. Finely honed instincts caused me to decide to drive around the block and try getting to the pole from the other street, but then another dog appeared. He came right up to the fence where I stood, tail wagging, and stood with paws on the top bar to let me pet his big head. I did, and then before I could turn around and go back to my truck, he did something interesting–he began barking at the angry dog and then made him back away, in other words, he herded him back through the yard to the far corner, where he stood and blocked and checked his every move, trapping him there. Then he turned his head and looked at me and wagged his tail.
I figured I was being given safe passage, so I hopped over the fence and went to the pole and climbed it, unimpeded by the angry dog, who was still trapped in the corner. They both came to the pole to watch me, eventually, the good dog wagging his tail, the angry dog barking and snarling, but when I started down the pole, my new friend again herded his yard-mate over to the corner, and I descended and crossed through their territory again. The good dog came over and stood again by the fence so I could scritch him between his ears, and I left, sure that I could not ever repay him, and all the more impressed with his nobility because he probably knew that.
But those are just stories of animals, being like humans, that belie the underlying assumption of superiority that colors most of our encounters with animals. The real story is very tame and anti-climactic, but something that sticks in my mind. We live in an old, old suburb of Kansas City. Our streets were put in 60 years ago, and we live under a canopy of enormous oak trees. While walking along in the shaded tunnel on my evening walks, I would watch squirrels tearing back and forth and spiraling their way up tree trunks, see birds sailing through the halls of air above me, and of course the occasional rabbit dining on someone’s imperfect lawn. One day I saw one such rabbit sitting very close to the sidewalk, nibbling on some sort of clover, probably. I chose to hold my course and let him decide how best to make himself feel safe. As I walked by, within just a few feet, he kept on nibbling the clover and making no move to run off. I passed him completely and never interrupted a single bite. It made me realize what forest dwellers we really are–I was on a human trail, and the hungry rabbit had no real reason to flee. I was his encounter, I suppose, if he had a blog, and it made me feel in a quiet but profound way like I belonged.

Richard Kirschman, llama

Today's wonderful post comes via Richard Kirschman of Point Reyes, 
California.
      Richard modestly wishes to be known only as a llama llover.

Karen,

Here's a story I wrote that you might enjoy. It's about our llama  
Quentin.

I've never been on the receiving end of an animal's resentment before,  
and I can assure you it's quite disconcerting. I hesitate to attribute  
human emotions to animals, but there seems no other way to explain our  
llama's change in attitude directly following a recent incident.

Quentin is a 17 year-old gelding who has been with me and my wife,  
Doris, since he was 2. Originally, we bought him to protect our small  
herd of sheep and goats. Except for a short period of confinement  
following a mountain lion attack many years ago, all our animals have  
enjoyed unrestricted access to our acreage of forest and lush  
meadowland. We liked to think of them living free in a huge salad.

A few years ago, we stopped breeding sheep and goats, and eventually  
all our animals died of old age. Not counting the deer that regularly  
graze alongside Quentin, our llama was now all alone. Every morning we  
found him somewhere on the property and gave him his daily medicine  
hidden in a banana, along with other treats. In the evening he found  
us for his ration of alfalfa pellets. Overall, things seemed fine. But  
two veterinarians and Quentin's breeder counseled against keeping a  
herd animal alone. "It's cruel," they all agreed. "He needs companions."

And so we bought two adorable 4-week-old lambs for Quentin. We knew  
that he was fond of young animals, as evidenced by an old photograph  
of him with one of our goats, Juanita. As a kid, she used to ride on  
Quentin's back and he would carry her under oak trees so she could  
reach the leaves. A pair of baby lambs seemed a perfect idea.

Not to Quentin.

No sooner did our llama hear the plaintive baaing of the two barely  
weaned lambs than he bolted for the open gate to our property,  
something he has never done before. If Doris hadn't reached the gate  
and closed it in time, Quentin would have been passing traffic on the  
highway and speeding toward the national park.

 From that moment on, he wouldn't look at us or eat from our hands. He  
ignored our calls, backed away from his beloved back scratches and  
slept in the woods, far away from his usual bed near the house. When  
we tried to approach him, he bared his teeth, flared his nostrils and  
made a mournful, pitiful cry of distress. In Quentin's eyes, my wife  
and I had become chopped liver.

We could only guess that bringing other animals into the family had so  
upset him, he had no desire to associate with those who had betrayed  
him. It felt like anger. Not the spitting and kicking kind of physical  
anger, but the emotional kind.

After 48 hours, we returned the lambs to their likely destiny as lamb  
chops and began the slow process of regaining Quentin's trust and  
confidence. Time - in this case eight days - heals even llama pain.

Peggy Townsend, steer

When Peggy Townsend offered me this post, she said she guessed I would have no other entries about steer. So far she is on the money with that.  Peggy is an award-winning journalist who added “novelist” to her resume when her marvelous first book, Safe Landings, came out in 2012.

 

A NEEDLE FULL OF LOVE

 

I stood beside Irving with the needle in my hand. My fingers trembled. I didn’t want Irving to die.

Irving was my then-500-pound Hereford steer and he was as close to a best friend as I had. I’d met him when he was six months old and I was 13. We both had spindly legs and an awkward gait but it wasn’t long before Irving blossomed into a handsome, muscular steer. I, on the other hand, stayed skinny and ungainly. Some of the girls at school called me “grasshopper.” It wasn’t too far off the mark.

But now, Irving’s handsome head was drooping and he had a hot, horrible cough. Old Mr. Beard, who owned the dairy down the road, had come over as a favor to my family and listened to Irving’s chest.

“Ah-yep,” he said, “he’ll need something for that. He’ll die if you aren’t careful.” He’d seen too much to sugarcoat the truth. My stomach gave a Richter-scale lurch.

From a toolbox, Mr. Beard selected a thick needle, a plastic syringe, a brown bottle. He drew a syringe full of medicine from the bottle, gave Irving’s neck area a couple of sharp slaps, then slammed in the needle on the third blow. Irving jumped and skittered sideways. Old Mr. Beard stepped aside and waited. When Irving had calmed, Mr. Beard fitted the syringe to the needle and pushed the plunger.

“There you go,” he said and handed me the accouterments. Mr. Beard had 200 head of Holsteins to look after. I was supposed to give Irving another shot on each of the next two days.

I felt sick at the thought of Irving dying. Over the past months, I’d poured my heart out to him about the mean girls at my school, about the fact I barely had breasts, about my parents ordering me to chop off my long hair. I’d press my face into his warm bulk and sob at my miserable life. He’d turn and blown soft alfalfa breaths against my arm.

The next day, I stood beside Irving, the needle in my hand and the medicine-filled syringe resting on top of a post in his pen. My father was nearby but being a 4-Her meant I supposed to learn to be a rancher. I thought I might throw up.

I took the needle and gave Irving two slaps but when it came time to slam in the sharp sliver of metal, I couldn’t do it. What if I accidentally stabbed the needle into an artery and Irving bled to death? What if it broke inside him? What if Irving hated me? I was always an imaginative kid and now my mind was at full gallop.

I thought of Irving lying dead in the pasture and tried the needle again. This time, it bounced off Irving’s thick hide and fell into the straw. Tears blurred my eyes but I found the needle and tried again, then again. Each time, the needle ricocheted off Irving like he was made of granite.

I called for my father. He told me to do what needed to be done.

By now I was desperate and sobbing.

Only later, when I became a mom, would I realize why I was crying. That the side effect of loving something is bearing a gut-wrenching responsibility for it. That it is a burden that is beautiful and passionate and frightening. Back then, I could only feel the scary part.

I looked at my father through my gulps and hiccups, and turned to Irving. I gave him two great slaps and, with a sob so huge it nearly ripped my scrawny chest open, I plunged the needle home

I wiped my eyes and fixed the syringe to the needle. Then I pushed the plunger and filled Irving full of love.

 

 

Molly Gloss, dalmatian, dog

Molly Gloss is one of my favorite writers.  She can do anything, any genre, any time period, and make it the best book you’ll ever read, but she is known for The Jump-Off Creek and The Hearts of Horses.  A new book, much longed for, has been recently finished which is the greatest news a reader can get.

Here is her entry:

When my husband Ed was dying of cancer, our dog Buddy was 13 years old. These three events occurred during the last month of Ed’s life:

1. Ed was napping on a pulled-out futon in a room at the back of the house, with Buddy lying on the rug beside him. When our primary hospice nurse, Marcella, arrived, I was washing dishes in the kitchen—I told her to go on back to see Ed. Buddy knew Marcella—she had been coming to our house once or twice a week for two months. But when she stepped into the room he rose partway up and voiced a deep and ominous growl I could hear from the kitchen. He was ordinarily such a mild-mannered dog that in thirteen years I had never heard him growl except the play-growl he brought out for tug-of-war games. Marcella of course was startled and backed out of the room—it was clear this dog wouldn’t allow her anywhere near Ed. It wasn’t until I came into the room and said, “Buddy, it’s all right, it’s just Marcella,” that his anxious expression relaxed and he lowered himself down again. Ed had been worsening in recent days and I can only imagine Buddy was on guard duty—that he didn’t trust anyone outside the family, not even Marcella, unless I was there too, and could give the okay.

2. In the last two weeks of Ed’s life we had friends coming every day to bring meals and take Buddy for his walks. He never objected to these various strangers taking hold of the end of his leash—he went out twice a day happily.  One day the designated dog walker was Joy, who was not only our friend but also a hospice nurse herself. And my sister Pat was with me that day. This was February but the weather was unexpectedly mild and sunny. I hadn’t been out of the house for more than a month, so it occurred to all of us that, with both Joy and Pat at the house to keep an eye on Ed, I might get outside for half an hour and walk the dog myself. Buddy was reluctant to leave the house, though, and when we got to the sidewalk he simply stopped and sat down. I spoke to him, encouraged him, and finally pulled hard on the leash, but he stiffened his neck and wouldn’t budge. And again, that anxious look. So I took him back into the house. And when Joy took his leash he went happily out for his walk. It was clear: He and I were sharing guard duties. Both of us could not be gone at the same time.

3. In the last week of Ed’s life my sister stayed at our house to help me with care-giving. At night we spelled each other in three hour shifts. Ed by then had fallen into a coma but we had not yet seen the signs of imminent death that Marcella had prepared us for.  On this morning Pat and I were putting together something for breakfast—I had checked on Ed not more than a minute earlier—when suddenly Buddy began to bark and race through the house, from the back door to the front door and then back again, barking in a high, anguished way, a strange bark I had never heard from him. I went to the back door, checking for someone there, thinking someone must have rung the door bell, when my sister called to me from the living room, “Oh, Molly, I think Ed is gone.”  Marcella’s belief in the science of medicine and her belief in pain-relieving drugs was equally matched by her belief in the spiritual and the unknowable. It was Ed’s angel arriving, or his soul departing: this is what she told me Buddy had seen or sensed. I only wish I knew.

Molly Friedrich, dog

The incomparable Ruth Ozeki has sent a counterpost, a riposte, if you will, to MOLLY FRIEDRICH, cat.

Dear Karen,

I just read the wonderful post entitled “Molly Friedrich, cat” and felt compelled to respond with “Molly Friedrich, dog.”

Now, I’m not saying that Molly Friedrich is not a fabulous agent. She is, and I love her. I’m just warning you that if she ever tells you that the dog ate your book, it’s not a lame excuse or a figure of speech. She’s serious.

love,
Ruth

Mollys_dog

Molly's_dog_2

Joann Rose Leonard, deer

For today’s post, I am deeply grateful to Joann Rose Leonard, author of the haunting and highly recommended novel, The Healer of Fox Hollow.

 

 

“I know this sounds silly,” I said. “But tomorrow I’m doing a workshop in a rural school. And I’m worried about driving a brown car through the woods in deer season.”

 

“Just don’t wear antlers,” my husband replied.

 

The next morning, a white sign was taped to the car’s antenna. PERSON. DON’T SHOOT!

 

It was raining as I headed south on I-99. A cold, steady, late November rain. Still miles from my exit to the hunter-filled woods, I was lulled by the rhythmic swoosh of windshield wipers and the hypnotic red and white lights mirroring from the slick asphalt.

 

Suddenly a brown blur hurdled from the far side of the highway. The bounding doe slipped on the wet macadam and skidded on her flank across busy lanes. Flat on her side, she came to a stop directly in the path of my fast approaching headlights. With cars in front and to the side of me there was nowhere to veer. No way out. That’s when I felt it. The sharp stab pressuring through my flesh, driving to bone. Skin ripping off curves that fit in and around those I love.

 

Then, an instant before impact, the thrashing deer righted itself, leaped across the highway and disappeared into the trees on the side of the road. For the longest time, I couldn’t stop shaking. Two animals colliding with death. How swiftly it came, how unexpected. And a reprieve…at least for the time being.

Molly Friedrich, cat

I mentioned to my completely fabulous new agent, Molly Friedrich, that I was surprised to have gotten no cat posts.  Dog posts arriving at a fair clip, but nothing about cats at all.  Within hours, she sent me the following.  Talk about a full service agency!  And she can write, as this lovely entry demonstrates:

 

Something that has always interested me is watching the ways in which we divide and sub-divide our worlds. Those who are pregnant and those who aren’t. Those country mice as opposed to the city slickers. Those who have cancer and those who don’t. The girls who grow up riding horses as opposed to those who are obsessed with ballet. But the greatest divide of all seems to be the dog people versus the cat people. I’ve always been a dog person, inarguably. But once our cat Sammy arrived, I certainly didn’t switch my allegiances, I just watched over the course of years as he managed to completely blur the lines of my dog-centric world. Let me explain how this treacherous behavior evolved: first, his arrival. When 9/11 happened, bringing Manhattan to its knees, my writer Sheri Holman was nine months pregnant. She crept out into her Brooklyn, postage-stamped sized backyard on that devastatingly beautiful late summer afternoon, wondering how she was ever going to manage to raise her baby into a world that had tipped over onto itself. When Sheri heard a feral cry, she spotted Sammy and caught him just before he could scramble away into the hedges. She brought him to a vet for shots and kept him for another week or so. Finally, sensing the pending arrival of the baby, her husband insisted that Sheri give the kitten away. “We already have four cats and a baby on the way! That’s not counting Ibrahim!—(their parrot of a decade, who calmly ate dinner from their plates)—You have to find a home for this kitten. Call Molly.”

 

 

I’d always heard that cats were notoriously independent and stand-offish; Sammy was different. He communicated with all of us, not plaintively meowing into the winds, but guiding us to learn his feline calls for food, water, whole fat milk, NOT two percent, sardines, the back door open, please, etc. He jumped on the trampoline with the little kids and insinuated himself into our hearts and daily lives. He tolerated the two undisciplined pound dogs who seemed sloppy and imbecilic in contrast to his sleek, athletic elegance. He quickly identified himself as my daughter, Lucy’s cat, sleeping on her chest when she was home, waiting for her to arrive, when she was not. They developed a distinctly secret language; certainly, I’ve never known any cat to come when he is called! Sammy seemed to know how to flourish in a large, distracted and noisy household. All was well until two Springs ago, when he first encountered what I can only call THE NEST.

 

 

Cats and birds, well, yes, it was inevitable, I suppose! But nothing prepared me for the viciousness and violence that marked that Spring. A couple of sparrows began building their nest right in the upper corner of our front porch. We all tried to discourage them but they persisted. Mud crud was removed, only to be re-attached to the porch corner the next day. Lots of daily bird shit, lots of territorial scrambling. THE NEST got built in spite of our efforts and one sad afternoon, I came home to what I’ve come to call The Great Homicide: Sammy had crept up a gutter spout and tipped over the nest, toppling the five baby birds onto the porch floor. None survived the fall and I’m afraid a couple of them were calmly decapitated by Sammy. That’s horrid, of course, but here’s what struck me as so weird: the sparrows never forgave him. For the rest of that Spring, and right through Summer, Sammy was tortured. When he went outside, the sparrows in the Hemlocks would somehow signal to one another that The Enemy had arrived. They would gather as a vast army and rush to attack him from all angles. Scores and scores of them. When he went outside, he could barely make it to the car, where he’d spend most of the afternoon, peering nervously to see if the coast was free. It never was; he’d have to wait until a person arrived to guard him back to the front door. It was like Alfred Hitchcock in Technicolor. Sammy went slightly mad during that season, we actually got him some tranquilizers; he’d wake up startled and hysterical, unrested and jittery. He’d hear the cries of the Sparrows and whirl about in tortured circles.

 

 

The following Spring, the Sparrows reappeared but this time, we blanketed the porch ceiling in chicken wire, we over-populated the porch with fake owls, we played calming videos for Sammy, hoping the birds would find a new home. Anywhere but here, indeed! These days, Sammy still goes outside, but he lurches for the odd field mouse, he keeps to himself when it comes to birds. Chasing dental floss along a rug is just about his speed, he’s finally mellowing into a new normal and that’s just fine with all of us!

 

 

Me, ticks

Since I’ve gotten no entries yet from the bug community, I am stepping in.  This is a post about ticks, but the ticks of yesteryear, before they became famous disease vectors and back when they were just gross.  My father and mother were great campers, so we were none of us strangers to the post-camping tick search.

We lived in Indiana then and we went very occasionally to the big city of Chicago to buy my mother’s shoes.  She was a polio survivor and needed custom-made footwear.  So this is a memory from one of those trips.  Two memories, actually.

The first is that I saw a plush purple lion in a store window and wanted it desperately.  I did not get it (in retrospect it was probably extremely ugly, because… purple lion) but I like to think my parents would have provided if they’d known that at the age of 63, out of all the ceaseless requests of my childhood, this is the one I’d remember.

Secondly, I found a tick in the hair near the base of my skull and freaked out.  My father removed it immediately with tweezers and dropped it onto the sidewalk.  It was enormous – I don’t think I’d ever had a tick go undiscovered for so long.  It was a balloon of blood; you couldn’t see its appendages at all.  I know that I must have been quite young, because I have a vivid visual of the busy Chicago street and my perspective appears to be about thigh-high.  Dozens of legs, dozens of shoes, hurrying towards and past me and in the midst of all that city busyness, completely out of place and out of time, the very large, very bloated tick on the sidewalk.