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:


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, 
      Richard modestly wishes to be known only as a llama llover.


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

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.