Alas, Poor Squirrel Nutkin

I am writing from Scotland. My husband, David Tarbet, and I are fortunate enough to spend many months every year in the village of Tongland, which is outside Kirkcudbright in Southwest Scotland. We’ve been coming here for twenty years and stay in our wee cottage, built in 1812. Rose Cottage, that’s its original name, was built for, and granted to, a pensioned-off nanny by her employer, the Earl of Selkirk. And yes, roses still grow in our front garden.

Rose Cottage

Rose Cottage

We spend as much time as we can in Scotland–between three and four months a year. The “news”–local, national, and international–dominates our conversations. Six or seven national newspapers and at least one local newspaper are available in Kirkcudbright every day. We could also, if we had the stamina, listen to hourly updates of news on BBC 4 and BBC Scotland. And of course, we gather local gossip along the way. When they are not remembering the June 6th D-Day celebrations and the part the brave British played in the successful invasion of Normandy, my neighbors are probably discussing, or at least wondering about, President Obama’s dismissal of the Scottish campaign  for independence.

His position puzzles Scottish observers who remember that the United States of America was founded on principles of self-determination that resulted in the American War of independence. I’ve tried in a desultory Internet sort of way to find out if Obama had ever visited Scotland. I only found an invitation from First Minister Alex Salmond to visit his ancestral homeland. The American President seems to be related to several Scots. His maternal ancestor, Edward Fitz Randolph, is said to have emigrated from Scotland to America in the 17th Century, while some historians trace Obama’s ancestry back to William the Lion, ruler of Scotland from 1165 to 1214.

Wonderful possibilities abound for ways to imagine Obama a Scottish patriot. But that Scottish identity becomes immediately complicated by the impending election, one that Obama hopes to influence. He is starting to seem more like an interfering interloper than a statesman. Kind of like another American poking his nose into business that does not belong to him. Kind of like the infamous American Grey Squirrel.

At last, an Animal you are saying—and about time!

But as many of you know, it’s difficult not to  talk about Animals without being, on some level, political.  The war between squirrels, the red and the grey, has been waged for many years all over the United Kingdom. One of the first things I learned from my Scottish neighbors was how dastardly and infectious the dangerous grey squirrel could be. This interloper, often described as an immigrant from America, is often blamed for the destruction of the beloved red squirrel. As an American interloper, I try not to be personally affronted by the attacks made over and over on the invasive American grey.

Besides, who can resist falling in love with the red squirrel, wee native. Just flip through the pages of Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. (The reproduction of the illustrated text, published in 1903, can be found online). Like all children’s tales, it comes with a stiff and unyielding moral axe to grind, punishing—snip-snap—cheeky and rebellious Nutkin for mocking his powerful, ponderous elder, Mr. Owl, with irrepressible riddles and rhymes. Order reigns when Nutkin’s magnificent swishy tail is reduced to a penitent stub—a pathetic wee stub that reminds him never to riddle or rhyme again.

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin

We are still supplied with moral and political tales involving transgressive squirrels, but these days, in the UK, it is the grey squirrel, not the rebellious red, who is found guilty of crimes against natural and social mores. Quite simply, the grey squirrel doesn’t belong in Britain. The facts vary, depending on their source, but most reports agree that the alien Grey Squirrel has been causing trouble since 1876 when Thomas Brocklehurst, of Henbury Park, Cheshire, brought back a pair of grey squirrels from his business trip to America.  The talk of Cheshire, they inspired neighbors and visitors to breed  grey squirrels for their own edification and amusement.

Brocklehurst, in a scientific experiment of his own devising, released the grey into the wild to see what would happen.  Not surprisingly, those cheeky and irrepressible immigrants were made of tougher stuff than native Squirrel Nutkin. The greys flourished. Today up to five million grey squirrels inhabit the woodland across Britain, while there are probably 120,00 to 140,00 red squirrels living in in the UK. 75% of these reds live in Scotland.

“Exterminate the Greys!,” the Red supporters cry. They argue, accurately, that grey squirrels carry a virus that can kill red squirrels. The decline of the red squirrel is often blamed on this parapoxvirus. They also argue that grey supremacy is, well, just not fair. Grey squirrels can digest acorns better than the reds. Hardy greys, full of acorns, breed more easily than their stressed, delicate red counterparts. To solve the problem, many red squirrel supporters try to curb the grey population and sometimes work to eradicate it entirely.

Most of the reds live in Scotland, but I see very few of them, and none so far in Kirkcudbright or Tongland. A friend in Gatehouse-of-Fleet, up the road and closer to the Galloway Hills, sees them often in her garden, and feeds them peanuts. When I asked her about the red’s difficulty digesting acorns, she shook her head. Not only, she told me, do they eat acorns, but they gather them and bury them every fall. And then she displayed her truly scientific mind. Hmm, she said, thinking for a while, now that you mention it, I haven’t actually seen a red squirrel dig up or eat an acorn. I’ve only seen them bury the nuts. She also told me that villagers were advised to let authorities know where and when they see a grey squirrel. Why, I asked, really knowing the answer before she gave it. They will be shot, she answered. Oh, I said, offenders will be punished and the breed will be disciplined, just like Squirrel Nutkin.

And so we turned to lighter topics, like the wonderfully illustrated Beatrix Potter books. And I sent her to the online site where she could reread Nutkin’s adventures. Sometimes literature is more comforting than life. It is difficult for even the best of friends to talk about shooting a grey squirrel for the crime of being, well, a grey squirrel.

Here are some links to learn more about the war between the reds and the grays. The Richmond report seems the most balanced, at least to me, but then I love grey squirrels. They perform acrobatic feats in our garden in Jamaica Plain, where they often trap themselves into squirrel-proof bird feeders, only to free themselves like airborne Houdinis.


This post is dedicated to Bonnie Burns, one of the bloggers on the Amazing Blog Tour. I hope you have visited all three bloggers that I introduced you to in my last post. If you missed out, here are the links to their excellent blogs: Bonnie Burns; Joel FishmanAnna Vodicka. Bonnie is a lover of live squirrels and a dedicated and careful curator of her collection of squirrel memorabilia. Here is a small sample of her collection:  


Red and Grey Squirrels living in harmony

Red and Grey Squirrels living in harmony

The Amazing Blog Tour

  Today my post will be something different.  I leave the familiar terrain of the real life animals that fill my memoir The Animals to join the Writing Process Blog Tour. The tour is designed to gather writers of all sorts, comic or tragic, gentle, or bombastic. There’s only one requirement.  Participants must answer four questions to explain how “the writing process” works for them.  Then it’s up to each of us to invite three more writers to keep the tour on the road. That way we will eventually cover the world with our exponentially expanding creativity. Writing is a craft practiced by civilized animals, the kind who may occasionally snarl and bite, but who also know how to use well-edited words to howl in protest or in praise. So first let me give a big shout of praise, indeed a howl, for Don Mitchell, anthropologist and creative writer, who invited me to be part of this blog tour. Be sure to look for Don’s blog and his most recent work, a collection of short stories, A Red Woman Was Crying: Stories from Nagovisi.  His brilliantly original stories, inspired by his own anthropological work in Bougainville in 1969-70, are told by the men and women from the village of Pomalate. His subtitle, “from Nagovisi,” makes clear his debt to the people he celebrates. Their stories are not “about” the Nagovisi, but literally come out of their complex interactions with each other and with their colonizers. Don’t miss it.

What am I working on?

Three Things:

1) My new novel in progress: “Can We Know that Jesus Saves Us?” begins on an island in Southwest Scotland, at the funeral service of Kathleen (Leeny) Archer. Her art gallery in Hackney, London has set trends in post-modern art over the last fifteen years. Before that she owned a gallery in Chelsea, New York. The novel’s narrator, Veronica (Ronnie) Leighton, age 28, Leeny’s Personal Assistant for the last four years is now in charge of her employer’s funeral. It’s a complicated affair mixing feuding relatives from America, quarrelsome stepchildren from London, and mysterious ex-husbands and lovers. The funeral ceremonies crash to a halt when Ronnie plays a video Leeny made before her death. Leeny informs the quarrelsome members of her many families, as well as Ronnie, that she’s leaving her fortune to her only daughter, born out of wedlock in 1985. The daughter—Veronica Leighton, aka Ronnie. “My dearest friend, my impeccable Personal Assistant, and my own dear  lost girl.”  Chaos ensues.

The novel traces Ronnie’s search for the truth. What sort of person could Leeny have been all those years ago? How could she have given her daughter up for adoption? Who was Ronnie’s father? Her quest takes her to Chicago, her home town, and to the art galleries of New York and London. She’ll enter deep into the heart of the religious right, at a summer camp nestled in the Colorado foothills of the Collegiate Mountains. Leeny’s favorite stepchild will assist her on her journey. He’s a barrister named Jeremy Atkinson, and he’s witty, intrepid and gay. I want to examine the power of the religious right and the challenges that confront women and men who dare to be different.

2) A novel that needs to be revised: “The Burnt Hills, set in Berkeley in 1969-70, looks at the costs and benefits of political and personal change, and the way the women’s liberation movement transforms—everybody. My text needs to be cut or expanded. This summer I’ll learn which needs to be done.

3) My blog:  You’re reading it.  My wonderful publishers at Saddle Road Press, suggested that I write the blog to spread the news about my memoir, The Animals.  I’ve had excellent help, especially from Bonnie Burns and Debbie Hemley, women with strong brains and big hearts.  They taught me essential tips about blogging. To my surprise, I like the way “the blog,” like “the essay,” can expand and contract while being both provocative and forgiving. I taught Addison and Steele’s Spectator Papers at New York  University and Tufts University. In my blog I can be MS. SPECTATOR, observing the ways that animals big and small, wild and domesticated, live and die in our complicated post-modern world.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? Romance and politics don’t often go together unless scandal mixes them up. I an bringing the two genres together in both The Burnt Hills and Can We Know That Jesus Saves Us. The romantic mystery usually ends up with lovers standing alone, finding their place on a blasted landscape. In fact that’s how I ended my first novel, the noir mystery set in 1938, Washed in the Blood. These days I want my lovers to grow in strength and wisdom, ready to reinvent the world and fill it with generous people.

Unlike most memoirs, The Animals uses stories about the animals that my family owned to tell our story.  In my first marriage, we raised all sorts of animals, pigs, chickens, goats and ducks, in somewhat reckless attempts bring us closer together.  We failed most of the animals, and never could  figure out how to make the marriage work. It ended in divorce. I was luckier in my second attempt to find domestic happiness. Like many so families in the seventies, my partner David and I created a new “blended” family. We were two nervous people trying to coax two teenaged boys and two teenaged girls to come together to become part of one sometimes awkward arrangement.  In our second time around, full of love and good intentions, we still kept trying and failing to train our cats, our Border collie, and our two Akitas, one too aggressive, and one dear, deaf and epileptic. But our new family endured. You could even say that it has thrived.

The Animals looks at the way that we humans imagine that animals can expand our personal lives. There is nothing sinister about the promises we make, the transactions we extend to bond us with our animals. But too many times we fail to deliver what we promise. The Animals resists telling the often-told story of the heroic animal and the heroic family succeeding against all odds. This is a memoir that owns its failures and celebrates the small and quiet things that love can accomplish. It shows how one family  learned how to forgive and how to grow. 

Why do I write what I write? I write about things that obsess me: animals, political power structures, and children and their needs. I write about women and their shifting sexual and political identities, and I investigate the changes that families everywhere are experiencing. I can’t stop thinking about these categories. David tells me that I talk in my sleep. I know that I dream about the division of power and the struggles that families endure in this new century. I am obsessed with the recent Supreme Court decisions turning PAC money into a form of “Free Speech. I imagine that soon I will write something about our new problems in a country where political rights seem to be up for sale. I like the phrase “Dark Money.” Maybe I’ll use that.

How does my writing process work? Sometimes writing can take me years to complete. I started working on my Berkeley novel in 1978 when I walked up and down the streets and hills of Berkeley, and mapped everything out. I still have the map I used. I think with my body. I like to know how many steps it takes somebody to walk the hills in Berkeley and in Scotland. I do a lot of research. Often facts I learn can drive the work into a place I didn’t expect to be. Google can be murder then, because it can lead me to make speculations that don’t always fill their promise. But I wouldn’t give search engines up; they’re too helpful. So is the encyclopedia and the old newspapers and the dusty books piled in my attic. Likewise the library.Dusty matter, dark matter: it’s all there if you know where to look.

I write and I dream and I walk and I write some more.Then I revise and restore. Sometimes the process drives me wild. And sometimes it makes me happier than almost anything else can in this world. I tend to hyper focus. Not deliberately, but that’s the way my mind goes. It can be a good mind for fiction, for obsessing over quantities of facts and dreams and desires.


I am delighted to introduce three exciting writers joining the Blog Tour:  Bonnie Burns, Anna Vodicka, and Joel Fishman.

Bonnie Burns published her poetry in Sojourner and Bay Windows during the heyday of the women’s and gay rights’ movements. After receiving her doctorate in English from Tufts University in the 90s, she published several critical articles on queer theory, Victorian literature, and film published by Duke, Indiana and New York University Presses. For many years, she worked as a senior writer for Ellucian before launching her own marketing communications firm in 2013.  Bonnie writes fiction in several genres including fantasy, paranormal, historical fiction, and mystery. She’s currently working on two novels: a mystery set at a girls’ boarding school in 1920s Washington, D.C. and a paranormal adventure story set in present-day Boston and the occasional otherworldly realm. You can find out more about her writing process at her thoughtful and hard hitting blog, Creative Thinking. Strategic Writing.

Anna Vodicka’s wonderful essays have appeared in Brevity, Guernica, The IowaReview, Michigan Quarterly Review, Ninth Letter, Shenandoah, and other national literary magazines. In 2013, she won The Missouri Review audio competition for prose, received a Pushcart Prize Honorable Mention and  a “Notable” nod in Best American Essays. She currently writes from Palau, in western Micronesia. You must look this location up in your atlas or on the web. Now that I think of it, she doesn’t live that far from Bougainville, where Don Mitchell did his anthropological work.  Anna is working on her first book, and blogging when the internet connection allows. Don’t miss reading her thoughtful, perceptive and sometimes hilarious blog, The Coconut Wireless. You can also  find  her on Twitter @AnnaVodicka.

Joel Fishman aka JE Fishman is author of the critically acclaimed and Amazon bestselling novels Primacy, Cadaver Blues and The Dark Pool. This year he launched the Bomb Squad NYC series of police thrillers with A Danger to Himself and Others, Death March and The Long Black Hand. A former Doubleday editor and literary agent, he also contributes occasionally to the Nervous Breakdown and the Huffington Post. He divides his time between Chadds Ford, PA, and New York City. Learn more about the new series at Bomb Squad NYC.  His blog can be found at: Check out our three writers in a week or so, when they officially join the Blog Tour.

Deer in the Headlines


When we lived in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, deer hunters wandered the back roads every weekend in the fall.  Carrying their guns or their bows and arrows,  the men walked with confidence over our land, vigorously disregarding the no trespassing signs we posted over our five acres.   I wouldn’t go outside in October unless I was covered in orange clothing.  If you didn’t wear orange, you could be mistaken for a deer and, if you were shot, well, that was just your own stupid fault.

The former owner of our country house named it Deer Haven.  She placed a kneeling deer made out of plaster next to the driveway.   The lady was dead serious about the “Haven” part.  She became famous for running out her front door at the first sight of hunters, waving her hands, and yelling at them to get the hell off her property.   We were never so bold.  As weekend and summer visitors, we didn’t feel as if we’d earned her native privilege to protest so vigorously.   Besides, we  knew that even if we did chase them away on a Saturday, they’d be back on our land Monday morning, hours after we’d gone back to New York.  Guns blazing, Bows humming. We did keep her iconic deer statue in place, peeling and discolored from the hard winters.

Hunters were always ready to defend their actions.  They weren’t killers, they argued, but noble warriors who suffered for their sport, rising at the crack of dawn to track down the white tailed deer.   They admired their prey and would only hunt down the fit, the brave, and the wily, never the weak or the sickly.  Their stories were full of the powers of mind and body that the deer possessed.   It was an honor, they insisted, to cull such noble creatures. That was the inevitable reason for shooting a deer.  Too many of them would ravage the land.  They needed to be kept under control for their own sakes.

And there were indeed noble hunters in the land.  Doc the Vet was one, a man who valued the life and the death of the animal he hunted. You can read more about Doc in my memoir, The Animals.  One year I asked him what he was having for Christmas Dinner.  “Bear heart,” he said.  “It’s only fitting, a noble dish for an important holiday.  And it’s tasty.”

But some of the hunting that I witnessed those days in Pennsylvania seemed  ignoble and unheroic.   Every fall Bow and Arrow hunters would make trips to the cider mill to buy apple peels, cores and pulp that had survived the fruit press.  They paid good money for these leavings.  Some cider mills refused to cooperate, but most could be talked into supplying the hunters with their bait. Hunters would deposit the fragrant mash around a tree large enough to hold a man and small enough to climb.  Attracted to the good smell, deer would trot on over to scarf up their treat.  Local hunters could seed their deer lures every other day.  Weekend hunters weren’t so lucky and had to imagine that their tree would remain in their quarry’s memory all week long.  After about a month of careful seeding, as soon as the Bow and Arrow season opened, the hunter would place his apple mash once more around the tree.  Then all he needed to do was sit happily in his tree waiting for his unsuspecting quarry to arrive.  It was guaranteed.  The deer would inevitably be drawn to the sweet smell of rotting apple.  Just as  she bent her head down to feed, the hunter would pull his bow string back and let the arrow fly straight into her body.  Like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.

I never witnessed this primal scene.  I knew that hunters seeded our trees in our absence, but whenever we were staying for the weekend, we made loud noises as soon as the hunters trespassed onto our property.  No deer  would go near apple mash  as long as we made our noises.  It was when we weren’t present that hunters trespassed onto our land to practice their sport with vigor.  You can google “Bow and Arrow hunting” and see many videos showing the hunters sitting in the trees, sometimes making their hit.  It just takes one arrow to pierce the skin of a deer and bring that animal crashing down to the ground.  

These videos do not show hunters seeding trees with apple mash.   I am not suggesting that the hunters who videotape  their  kills use unfair methods.  In fact some  claim that they hunt to provide meat for the poor.  Others explain that they are culling  deer to keep them from overpopulating.  Their videos can emphasize the beauty of the deer as well as the deadly power behind the bow–power transmitted into an arrow that can set an animal spinning into the air before it falls down dead.  Beauty is juxtaposed to heart stopping scenes of death while a banjo picks out a tune in the background.  Cheering us up or unnerving us?  It depends, I guess, who listens and watches.

The saddest hunting stories I heard around Newfoundland  involved the great black bears that lived in caves nearby.  The most famous bear in the 1980′s was Frieda, an elderly lady past childbearing.   She was seldom seen, but when sighted, behaved with great formality.  All of the Black Bears were tagged.  We could always find out approximately where they were in the neighborhood.  In fact they were as close to being neighbors as animals could be.  But during the short black bear season, about four days in late fall, and another four days in the winter, our friend the bear became Game.  That’s when some hunters would hang bags of meat in the trees near Frieda’s cave.  A hungry bear, attracted by the stench, would rear up on his back legs, swat the bag, and bring it down to devour it.   As the bear ate up the bloody meat, it could be shot dead by a hunter sitting high in a tree.  Nobody every killed Frieda, at least not when we lived in Newfoundland.  She was too old and too smart to be taken in so easily.  But younger bears could, and did, fall for such cheap tricks.

I’ve had ambivalent feelings about hunters for years, long after I left our house in Pennsylvania.  It’s not all negative.   I can understand  the lure of tracking an animal.  And I can always identify with hunters being out in nature in all weathers, taking risks to make contact with another species.   But last weekend I read a long and complicated article about hunting written by Ryan Sabalow, a reporter for the Indianapolis Star.   I urge you to click on the link to Sabalow’s well-researched and fiercely-written article.  Ryan Sabalow is the real thing.  I love newspaper people.   My brother Tom Houlihan and Patricia Briske Houlihan, my sister-in-law are both extraordinary journalists. They worked in the Chicago area for many years on the late lamented Star and other South Suburban newspapers.   Everything they wrote and edited was done with respect and care and passion.  Sabalow is their kind of writer.

Sabalow and others on the Indianapolis Star spent eighteen months researching and writing the story of hunters willing to pay up to $40,000 to shoot penned in deer.  Sometimes the decrepit deer is barely able to walk under the weight of their oversized antlers.  The buck is shot while enclosed in a high-fenced pen.  You might say it is “executed.”

Why are they treated so badly, these antler bearing deer?  Because they are bred to grow unnaturally large antlers for hunters who want something significant to hang on the wall.  What could be more telling than giant antlers, the sign of a buck’s power.  In the wild, a buck with a large rack of antlers has lived a long life.  His antlers truly are a sign of his cunning and his staying power.  It takes a talented hunter to take down such a wise beast.  You could even argue that the buck’s power can be magically transmitted to the hunter who brings it down.

In our brave, new genetically-enhanced world, there is a much easier way to nail large antlers to the wall.  All you need is money.  Hard Cash.  Money to pay for the right to point a gun at a young buck with fast-growing antlers who is penned in, unable to run away.  The buck pictured below has antlers so large that they look deformed.  He is named X-Factor.  Nobody shoots the X-Factor.  He’s far too valuable as a source of sperm to produce heavily-antlered prey.  Sabalow’s article includes a video showing eager, almost reverent suppliants surrounding another genetically engineered buck, waiting to buy sperm being milked from him.

grotesque antlers

photo credit, Russ Bellar, from Ryan Sabalow’s article in the Indianapolis Star.

Shooting deer in a pen may be more problematic than shooting fish in a barrel.  “High-fence hunting” can lead to the spread of a debilitating deer disease.  Penned deer greatly magnify the threat of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).

Russ Bellar, the hunter who brought X-Factor into the world, laughs at the threat of CWD.  His critics from the Department of Natural Resources are simply jealous.  They know that they can never earn the hundreds of thousands of dollars that he can.  How much money do you think that DNR inspectors earn, anyway?   Who gives them the right to complain?  It would seem that money grants rights.  And in high-fence hunting, it’s all about money.  What does the DNR know, anyhow?  If you don’t have enough money, you don’t have the right to complain about people smart enough to invent such a noble sport.

The entire business makes me nostalgic for the hunters seeding our trees with sweet apple pulp. They at least were required to climb into a tree and wait for their prey.





Ira Glass’s Pit Bull

I’ve been a fan of This American Life since 1996, when it first came to our NPR stations in Boston. Ira Glass has become part of my generation’s family – the bright younger brother with so much to say, and with so many fascinating points of view to juggle.  I don’t exactly look for the program.  It’s on WGBH and WBUR so often enough that parts of it seem to float into my brain when I’m either in the kitchen cooking or in the car driving around.  I often half-hear the program, and look for it later online.  That’s what happened last week when I heard Ira Glass oh so tentatively and carefully answer questions about his Pit Bull named Piney.

After I listened to Glass, I read the many blog and personal responses to the broadcast.  Of course they varied wildly.  When he’s not being named the sexiest man alive for taking a shelter Pit Bull into his home, Ira Glass is being roundly condemned for keeping a “walking time bomb” alive and well.  I was most affected by Glass himself when he spoke about his dog and the way he loves him.  I heard in his voice the tightly controlled weariness that marks the lover of a difficult and complicated animal.   How could he not be worn out?  He and his partner Anaheed have not had a single guest visit their apartment in many years.  Nobody for dinner or for coffee or for drinks.  This is hard for me, Glass admits.  How could it not be?  Who on the air seems more gregarious than our friend Ira? Everybody would like to have dinner with him.

The couple cannot receive guests because Piney has bitten several people, including two children, and must wear a muzzle when he walks out of the front door of their fifth-floor apartment.  Back home, Piney can and will go after Ira  if he dares to enter Piney’s domain when Anaheed is sleeping.   You see, Piney is protecting her, keeping her safe from his own ardent protector.

Glass would be the first to admit that it is kind of crazy to defend a dog for protecting his mistress from his master, especially such a gentle master.  But Glass takes his dog’s ambivalence very seriously and tries hard to understand his dog’s fearful biting.  And believe me, when you find yourself “feeling” sad for the neuroses of an aggressive animal, you’re in for the whole count.  I know.  I’ve been there.

Not with a pit-bull, but with a border collie: the world’s smartest dog.  When Ben, for that is his name, displayed aggressive tendencies, I worked all the harder to please him.  Even after he bit me.  You can read about our struggles in The Animals. At best, you could call our adventures mock-heroic.  My husband David and I devised complicated strategies to curb the dominating nature of a dog too smart for us.  After two years of extensive training with dog trainers, therapists and handlers, after trying every known device and exercise, we finally gave him away to a wonderful woman who lived on a farm.  The experience was one that I will never get over.


I still sometimes dream of making the right move, saying the perfect command, of teaching Ben and me, mostly me, how to behave.

One of the best stories about a Pit Bull comes from James Thurber.  In 1935, Thurber wrote eloquently and with great generosity about the life and death of his boyhood dog,  Rex.   His Pit Bull was  “a tremendous fighter, but he never started fights. I don’t believe he liked to get into them, despite the fact that he came from a line of fighters. He never went for a dog’s throat but for one of its ears (that teaches a dog a lesson), and he would get his grip, close his eyes, and hold on. He could hold on for hours.”   Thurber exults in his dog’s “Homeric” exploits, but then he writes his story the same year that Jimmy Braddock, The Cinderella Man, wore down Max Baer after fifteen battering rounds to become Heavy Weight Champion of the World.   I wouldn’t argue that our culture is less bloodthirsty now, but we more often seem to prefer our violence to be “virtual.”  Homeric dogs clamping down on their bloody enemies for hours, like Homeric Boxers, priding themselves on never letting go, are rare.   In the 21st century, writers who defend pit-bulls tend to celebrate the breed’s gentleness.  It’s the writers who fight hard, going fifteen rounds and more over conflicting statistics about pit-bull bites and their outcomes.

It’s rare that dog defenders are honest about how much their animal costs.  I love dog owners, and see them on a daily basis in the Arnold Arboretum where I used to walk Ben. They usually seem to adore their dogs, no matter how much time and energy and money that their animals extract from them.   I salute Ira Glass for being honest about the price he pays for  love.  And for  making us think about the consequences of devoting ourselves to the care of animals who, given the chance, just might bite us. 




With a Chick Chick Here

March 12, Nicholas Kristof made a searing well-reasoned attack in the New York Times on an old enemy: the commodification of the meat we can’t stop eating.  He begins with Christopher Leonard’s new book, “The Meat Racket,” an expose of the atrocities committed by Tyson Foods.  Every week Tyson slaughters 135,000 heads of cattle, 391,000 hogs, and 41,000,000 chickens.  Animals all suffering so that we can eat them on the cheap.  Let me say that again.  41 million battery chickens live in horrible conditions so that they can be  consumed in our homes, in fast-food restaurants, (and in most slow food restaurants), in the work place, in school cafeterias, on airplanes, in hospitals, really anywhere we grab a bite.

We’ve known for too long about the miseries that these chickens endure. Just put into your browser “factory farmed chickens” and wait for the onslaught of images and paragraphs designed with good reason to turn your stomach.  Chickens de-beaked and full of antibiotics are crammed into cages so tightly that they are unable to turn around.   Chickens are tortured so that consumers can buy them for little or no money.  Kristof reminds us that chicken used to be such a luxury that it meant something when Hoover promised his voters that he would put a chicken in every pot.   In today’s currency, the 1930 chicken cost $6.48 a pound. The Tyson chicken costs $1.57 a pound.  That’s why it’s popular.  It’s cheap enough to feed a family that can’t afford to spend more.

If we are able to spend more, we can buy chickens who spend their relatively short lives in relative comfort and dignity.   “Misty Knoll” chicken costs $4.99 a pound.  Misty Knoll Farms assures me that its delectable chickens are free to roam in “spacious, specially designed chicken houses, with access to abundant feed, water and fresh air.”  Every week I buy one whole chicken that costs around $20.  Roasted, it feeds four for one sumptuous meal, and can still leave enough meat for sandwiches the next day, and sometimes enough for a salad the following day with grapes and kale, and red pepper.  Then I make stock from the carcass and its bones and I use that for soup or risotto.  This all takes time for chopping and slicing, but the result is well worth the thirty minutes it take to do this work. Roasting and simmering stock takes another kind of time.   All you need to do is turn the chicken in its roasting pan or watch the stock so it doesn’t simmer away.  Work you can do with relative ease  while you’re doing something else–overseeing a child’s homework, paying bills, or if you’re lucky– reading, writing, or even talking to a friend  The work  honors the chicken, getting every piece of goodness out of its sacrifice.

I am not entirely easy about eating animals.  I knew a few chickens very well when I lived for a time on a farm in the Pocono’s.  I write about these chickens, particularly Henrietta the Rhode Island Red, and the magnificent Brahmin’s, Alexander and Cleopatra, in my memoir, THE ANIMALS.  What surprised me most about these amazing creatures was the sense of humor that the hens exhibited when they played together.

Molly feeding Henrietta and her daughter

Molly feeding Henrietta and her daughter

The hens tended to gang up on the rooster, a magnificent creature who seldom displayed much intelligence.  He seemed too beautiful to do much more than swagger.  Whenever he tried to mate with  the hens, they only laughed at him, bouncing him off their backs with all the flair of dancers doing the rhumba. As if they were all in a cartoon.

Alexander the Brahmin

Alexander the Brahmin

Henrietta ruled the farmyard.  She liked to fly up into the pigsty to visit Wilbur the boar, and Sissy and Jessie, the sows.  Sometimes she stood on their broad backs, making conversation,  her clucking, them grunting.  And she spent hours talking to the mallard ducks.

When you know animals like Henrietta, it’s almost impossible to eat a chicken without knowing its history.  Was its beak torn off, was it filled with antibiotics?  Was it ever free enough to tell a joke to a fellow chicken?

One way to solve animal guilt is to become a vegetarian or vegan.  Sometimes I try doing that, but I always seem to end up going back to chicken and fish, and once in a blue moon I find myself sucking on the bone of an enormous porterhouse steak.  But even when I do eat animals, I only consume creatures certified to be raised or caught ethically.  When I go out to a restaurant, I don’t eat meat or fish unless it comes with guarantees about its provenance.   Farmed fish only tells one more version of the same horror story.  Once I sat on a pier in Scotland waiting for a ferry and watched salmon leaping fruitlessly for forty-five minutes trying to jump out of their circular prison.  They kept banging into each other over and over again in their desperate and futile attempts to escape.  Put me right off farmed salmon. Continue reading

The Mother of All Whales

Since this is my first blog, I would like to make this a space where we can talk about animals.  This imagines first of all that I am going to have readers who will want to talk to each other.  And that I will even have readers besides the friends I have platooned into this project.  Bonnie, David, Judith, Sheila, Patrick, Kari, Emily, Andrew, Joyce, and Molly. Yes Molly, you too.  I know you will read me, but the others will need to materialize.

Last Saturday night, March 8, I saw The Whale, and he was immense, beyond understanding, most gigantic and malignant. I saw this whale both glorious and terrifying, in Moby-Dick, the opera, at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.  On its last night, the opera provided me with an unexpected beginning for my blog celebrating  animals, great and small.


Rockwell Kent’s Moby Dick

You see, I read Moby Dick over and over as an undergraduate, five times, and one more time in graduate school at Brown. Only then did I tire of reading the book, becoming in fact so tired that in 1968 I ran away from the great American novel to find myself in Berkeley working in the British 18th century. Reading and writing about even bigger novels than Melville’s, novels obsessed with women raped and ravaged and imprisoned in and out of marriages.  But that’s another story.

The opera Moby-Dick thrilled me, down to my bones, getting into my sinews, almost stopping my heart.  But even more, the memory of its story drove me back to the novel. Not back to the “real” novel; that is at home in Boston in my bookcase.  I fled instead to the Internet looking up quotes and fragments from Melville’s text.  Here is one I found: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea.”

My memoir, THE ANIMALS, does not descend to the flea, but it does rejoice in the newt, the turtle, and the guinea pig.  We cannot all be giants grappling with Leviathan.  What I care about is how we love and battle, cherish and sometimes fail our children, our partners, and yes our animals.  It is that particular struggle that became even more telling while I was watching the opera last Saturday night.  Watching the doomed sailors wait for the whale, I was struck by the way that love shaped the action of the opera.

The grandiosity of Ahab’s loving hatred of the whale, the largest mammal on earth, was countered by the men’s sense of love, a domestic passion, for each other.  This love was tenderly expressed in song, in dance, and in lazy hours on the ropes, as the men watched for the whale that would undo them all. Just in the way that loving animals can enlarge us and undo us.  That, you must know, is the point of my own wee book.  Wee is a small word, a tender word that speaks lovingly of the failed grandiosity in us all.  And love does endure.  Deep down Melville probably knew that.