E. B. White -- Coon Tree

E. B. White -- Coon Tree
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The temperature this morning, here in the East, is 68 degrees. The relative humidity is 64 percent. Barometer 30.02, rising. Carol Reed is nowhere in sight. A light easterly breeze ruffles the water of the cove, where a seine boat lies at anchor, her dories strung out behind like ducklings. Apple blossoms are showing, two weeks behind schedule, and the bees are at work—all six of them. (A bee is almost as rare a sight these days as a team of horses.) The goldfinch is on the dandelion, the goose is on the pond, the black fly is on the trout brook, the Northeast Airliner is on course for Rockland. As I write these notes, the raccoon is nursing one of her hangovers on the branch outside the hole where her kittens are.

My doctor has ordered me to put my head in traction for ten minutes twice a day. (Nobody can figure out what to do with my head, so now they are going to give it a good pull, like an exasperated mechanic who hauls off and gives his problem a smart jolt with the hammer.) I have rigged a delightful traction center in the barn, using a canvas halter, a length of clothesline, two galvanized pulleys, a twelve-pound boat anchor, a milking stool, and a barn swallow. I set everything up so I could work the swallow into the deal, because I knew he would enjoy it, and he does. While his bride sits on the eggs and I sit on the milking stool, he sits on a harness peg a few feet away, giggling at me throughout the ten-minute period and giving his mate a play-by-play account of man’s fantastic battle with himself, which in my case must look like suicide by hanging.

I think this is the fourth spring the coon has occupied the big tree in front of the house, but I have lost count, so smoothly do the years run together. She is like a member of our family. She has her kittens in a hole in the tree about thirty-five feet above the ground, which places her bedchamber a few feet from my bedchamber but at a slightly greater elevation. It strikes me as odd (and quite satisfactory) that I should go to sleep every night so close to a litter of raccoons. The mother’s comings and goings are as much a part of my life at this season of the year as my morning shave and my evening drink. Being a coon, she is, of course, a creature of the night; I am essentially a creature of the day, so we Cox and Box it very nicely. I have become so attuned to her habits—her departure as the light fades at quarter past eight, her return to the hungry kittens at about 3 A.M., just before daylight, after the night’s adventures—that I have taken to waking at three to watch her home-coming and admire her faint silhouette against the sky as she carefully sniffs the bark all around the hole to learn if anything has been along during her absence and if any child of hers has disobeyed the instructions about not venturing out of the hole.

My introduction to raccoons came when, as a child, I read in a book by the late Dr. William J. Long a chapter called “A Little Brother to the Bear.” I read all the books of William J. Long with a passionate interest, and learned the Milicete Indian names for the animals. (Dr. Long always called a bear Mooween; he always called a chickadee Ch’geegee-lokh-sis. This device stimulated me greatly, but if I remember right, it annoyed Theodore Roosevelt, who was also interested in nature.) I must have read the raccoon story twenty times. In those days, my imagination was immensely stirred by the thought of wildlife, of which I knew absolutely nothing but for which I felt a kind of awe. Today, after a good many years of tame life, I find myself in the incredibly rich situation of living in a steam-heated, electrically lit dwelling on a tarred highway with a raccoon dozing in her penthouse while my power lawn mower circles and growls noisily below. At last I am in a position to roll out the green carpet for a little sister to the bear. (I have even encountered Dr. Long’s daughter Lois in my travels, but it was not among raccoons that we met, and she seemed to have no mark of the Milicete Indian about her whatsoever, and never in my presence has she referred to a great horned owl as Kookooskoos, which saddens me.)

There are two sides to a raccoon—the arboreal and the terrestrial. When a female coon is in the tree, caring for young, she is one thing. When she descends and steps off onto solid earth to prowl and hunt, she is quite another. In the tree she seems dainty and charming; the circles under her eyes make her look slightly dissipated and deserving of sympathy. The moment she hits the ground, all this changes; she seems predatory, sinister, and as close to evil as anything in Nature (which contains no evil) can be. If I were an Indian, naming animals, I would call the raccoon He Who Has the Perpetual Hangover. This morning, conditions inside the hole are probably unbearable. The kittens are quite big now, the sun is hot, and the hole is none too roomy anyway—it’s nothing but a flicker hole that time has enlarged. So she has emerged, to lie in full view on the horizontal limb just under her doorway. Three of her four legs are draped lifelessly over the limb, the fourth being held in reserve to hang on with. Her coat is rough, after the night of hunting. In this state she presents a picture of utter exhaustion and misery, unaccompanied by remorse. On the rare occasions when I have done a little hunting myself at night, we sleep it off together, she on her pallet, I on mine, and I take comfort in her nearness and in our common suffering.

I guess I have watched my coon descend the tree a hundred times; even so, I never miss a performance if I can help it. It has a ritualistic quality, and I know every motion, as a ballet enthusiast knows every motion of his favorite dance. The secret of its enchantment is the way it employs the failing light, so that when the descent begins, the performer is clearly visible and is a part of day, and when, ten or fifteen minutes later, the descent is complete and the coon removes the last paw from the tree and takes the first step away, groundborne, she is almost indecipherable and is a part of the shadows and the night. The going down of the sun and the going down of the coon are interrelated phenomena: a man is lucky indeed who lives where sunset and coonset are visible from the same window.

The descent is prefaced by a thorough scrub-up. The coon sits on her high perch, undisturbed by motorcars passing on the road below, and gives herself a complete going over. This is catlike in its movements. She works at the tail until it is well bushed out and all six rings show to advantage. She washes leg and foot and claw, sometimes grabbing a hind paw with a front paw and pulling it closer. She washes her face the way a cat does, and she rinses and sterilizes her nipples. The whole operation takes five to fifteen minutes, according to how hungry she is and according to the strength of the light, the state of the world below the tree, and the mood and age of the kittens within the hole. If the kittens are young and quiet, and the world is young and still, she finishes her bath without delay and begins her downward journey. If the kittens are restless, she may return and give them another feeding. If they are well grown and anxious to escape (as they are at this point in June), she hangs around in an agony of indecision. When a small head appears in the opening, she seizes it in her jaws and rams it back inside. Finally, like a mother with no baby-sitter and a firm date at the theater, she takes her leave, regretfully, hesitantly. Sometimes, after she has made it halfway down the tree, if she hears a stirring in the nursery she hustles back up to have another look around.

A coon comes down a tree headfirst for most of the way. When she gets within about six feet of the ground, she reverses herself, allowing her hind end to swing slowly downward. She then finishes the descent tailfirst; when, at last, she comes to earth, it is a hind foot that touches down. It touches down as cautiously as though this were the first contact ever made by a mammal with the flat world. The coon doesn’t just let go of the tree and drop to the ground, as a monkey or a boy might. She steps off onto my lawn as though in slow motion—first one hind paw, then the other hind paw, then a second’s delay when she stands erect, her two front paws still in place, as though the tree were her partner in the dance. Finally, she goes down on all fours and strides slowly off, her slender front paws reaching ahead of her to the limit, like the hands of an experienced swimmer.

I have often wondered why the coon reverses herself, starting headfirst, ending tailfirst. I believe it is because although it comes naturally to her to descend headfirst, she doesn’t want to arrive on the ground in that posture, lest an enemy appear suddenly and catch her at a disadvantage. As it is, she can dodge back up without unwinding herself if a dog or a man should appear.

Because she is a lover of sweet corn, the economic status of my raccoon is precarious. I could shoot her dead with a .22 any time I cared to. She will take my corn in season, and for every ear she eats she will ruin five others, testing them for flavor and ripeness. But in the country a man has to weigh everything against everything else, balance his pleasures and indulgences one against another. I find that I can’t shoot this coon, and I continue to plant corn—some for her, what’s left for me and mine—surrounding the patch with all sorts of coon baffles. It is an arrangement that works out well enough. I am sure of one thing: I like the taste of corn, but I like the nearness of coon even better, and I cannot recall ever getting the satisfaction from eating an ear of corn that I get from watching a raccoon come down a tree just at the edge of dark.

Today I’ve been rereading a cheerful forecast for the coming century, prepared by some farsighted professors at the California Institute of Technology, and published not long ago in the Times. Man, it would appear, is standing at the gateway to a new era of civilization. Technology will be king. Everything man needs (the report says) is at hand. All we require is air, sea water, ordinary rock, and sunlight. The population of the earth will increase and multiply, but that’ll be no problem—the granite of the earth’s crust contains enough uranium and thorium to supply an abundance of power for everybody. If we just pound rock, we’re sitting pretty.

It is a splendid vision: technology the king, Jayne Mansfield the queen. (It is also the same old conflict.) Right in the middle of the forecast, the professors paused long enough to let drop a footnote. Their prediction, they said, applies only if world catastrophe is avoided. At any rate, the civilization at whose gateway I am said to be standing will pose one rather acute problem for me: What position am I going to take in the matter of rock? I have taken my stand on raccoon; now I have to take my stand on rock. These acres on which I live are well supplied and underlaid with rock. The pasture is full of granite, the vegetable garden has some splendid rocks in it, the foundation of the house is granite, the doorstone is granite, there is a granite outcropping in the lawn where the whippoorwill comes to sit and repeat himself in the hour before daybreak, several of the fields are ledgy in places, and if you wander into the woods, you come on old stone walls made of tons and tons of rock. A ton of granite, according to my advices, contains about four grams of uranium and twelve grams of thorium. Is my next move to extract this stuff, or can I leave my stones be? I assume that if I am to dwell contentedly and adjust to the new era, I must pick the uranium and thorium from my rocks and convert them into power, but I’m not sure I am ready to fall in with any such harebrained scheme. The only time I ever fooled with rocks in a big way on this place, I simply made a lot of noise, created a memorable era of confusion, and ended up about where I started. (I got fooling with rocks because I had bought a cow, and in the country one thing leads to another.) The only place for a nuclear reactor here would be the brooder house, and I need the brooder house for my chicks. If the modern way to get electric power to run my brooder stove is to tap the energy in my pasture rocks, I may very well consider returning to the old natural method of raising chicks, using a couple of broody hens—in which case I am standing at the gateway to the long past rather than the long future. There is one big boulder down in the pasture woods where I sometimes go to sit when I am lonely or sick or melancholy or disenchanted or frightened, and in combination with sweet fern, juniper, and bayberry this old rock has a remarkably restorative effect on me. I’m not sure but that this is the true energy, the real source of man’s strength. I’m not sure rocks would work out so well for me if I were to drag them up out of the pasture and pry the fissionable materials out of them.

I am not convinced that atomic energy, which is currently said to be man’s best hope for a better life, is his best hope at all, or even a good bet. I am not sure energy is his basic problem, although the weight of opinion is against me. I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority. Almost every bulletin I receive from my county agent is full of wild schemes for boxing Nature’s ears and throwing dust in her eyes, and the last issue of the Rural New-Yorker contained a tiny item saying that poultrymen had “volunteered” to quit feeding diphenyl-para-phenylene-diamine to chickens, because it can cause illness in “persons”—one of the tardiest pieces of volunteer activity I ever heard of. Yesterday, it was reported in the news that atomic radiation is cumulative and that no matter how small the dose, it harms the person receiving it and all his descendants. Thus, a lifetime of dental X-rays and other familiar bombardments and fallouts may finally spell not better teeth and better medicine but no teeth and no medicine and a chicken dinner may become just another word for bellyache. The raccoon, for all her limitations, seems to me better adjusted to life on earth than men are: she has never taken a tranquilizing pill, has never been X-rayed to see whether she is going to have twins, has never added DPPD to the broiler mash, and is not out at night looking for thorium in rocks. She is out looking for frogs in the pond.

Dr. Fritz Zwicky, the astrophysicist, has examined the confused situation on this planet, and his suggestion is that we create one hundred new planets. Zwicky wants to scoop up portions of Neptune, Saturn, and Jupiter and graft them onto smaller planets, then change the orbits of these enlarged bodies to make their course around the sun roughly comparable to that of our earth. This is a bold, plucky move, but I would prefer to wait until the inhabitants of this planet have learned to live in political units that are not secret societies and until the pens on the writing desks in banks are not chained to the counter. Here we are, busily preparing ourselves for a war already described as “unthinkable,” bombarding our bodies with gamma rays that everybody admits are a genetical hazard, spying on each other, rewarding people on quiz programs with a hundred thousand dollars for knowing how to spell “cat,” and Zwicky wants to make a hundred new worlds. Maybe he gained confidence to go ahead when he heard that in Florida they had succeeded in putting an elephant on water skis. Any race of creatures that can put an elephant on water skis is presumably ready to construct new worlds.

Dr. Vannervar Bush, who is in a far better position to discuss science and progress than I am, once said, “Man may, indeed, have evolved from the primordial ooze, and this may be accepted as good if we assume that it is good to have complex life on earth, but this again is an arbitrary assumption.” Many of the commonest assumptions, it seems to me, are arbitrary ones: that the new is better than the old, the untried superior to the tried, the complex more advantageous than the simple, the fast quicker than the slow, the big greater than the small, and the world as remodeled by Man the Architect functionally sounder and more agreeable than the world as it was before he changed everything to suit his vogues and his conniptions.

I have made a few private tests of my own, and my findings differ somewhat from those of the Cal Tech men. We have two stoves in our kitchen here in Maine—a big black iron stove that burns wood and a small white electric stove that draws its strength from the Bangor Hydro-Electric Company. We use both. One represents the past, the other represents the future. If we had to give up one in favor of the other and cook on just one stove, there isn’t the slightest question in anybody’s mind in my household which is the one we’d keep. It would be the big black Home Crawford 8–20, made by Walker & Pratt, with its woodbox that has to be filled with wood, its water tank that has to be replenished with water, its ashpan that has to be emptied of ashes, its flue pipe that has to be renewed when it gets rusty, its grates that need freeing when they get clogged, and all its other foibles and deficiencies. We would choose this stove because of the quality of its heat, the scope of its talents, the warmth of its nature (the place where you dry the sneakers, the place where the small dog crawls underneath to take the chill off, the companionable sounds it gives forth on cool nights in fall and on zero mornings in winter). The electric stove is useful in its own way, and makes a good complementary unit, but it is as cold and aseptic as a doctor’s examining table, and I can’t imagine our kitchen if it were the core of our activity.

The American kitchen has come a long way, and it has a long way to return before it gets to be a good room again. Last fall, the American Society of Industrial Designers met in Washington and kicked the kitchen around a bit. One of the speakers, I remember, said that we will soon get to the point of eating “simply and fast.” He said we would push a button and peas would appear on a paper plate. No preparation at all.

It really comes down to what a man wants from a plate of peas, and to what peas have it in their power to give. I’m not much of an eater, but I get a certain amount of nourishment out of a seed catalogue on a winter’s evening, and I like to help stretch the hen wire along the rows of young peas on a fine morning in June, and I feel better if I set around and help with the shelling of peas in July. This is all a part of the pageantry of peas, if you happen to like peas. Our peas didn’t get planted until May 9 this spring—about three weeks later than the normal planting time. I shall hardly know what day in July to push the button and watch them roll out onto the paper plate.

Another speaker at the designers’ conference said, “The kitchen as we know it today is a dead dodo.” (One solution this man offered for the house of the future is to have a place called a “dirty room.” This would be equipped with appliances for all cleaning problems, and into it would be dumped everything dirty. But in most American homes the way to have a dirty room is to have a small boy; that’s the way we worked it for a number of happy years.) I think the kitchen, like the raccoon, is a dead dodo only if you choose to shoot it dead. Years ago, at the time I bought this house, I examined my kitchen with a wondering and skeptical eye and elected to let it live. The decision stands as one of the few sensible moves I’ve made on this place. Our kitchen today is a rich, intoxicating blend of past, present, and future; basically it belongs to the past, when it was conceived and constructed. It is a strange and implausible room, dodolike to the modern eye but dear to ours, and far from dead. In fact, it teems with life of all sorts—cookery, husbandry, horticulture, canning, planning. It is an arsenal, a greenhouse, a surgical-dressing station, a doghouse, a bathhouse, a lounge, a library, a bakery, a cold-storage plant, a factory, and a bar, all rolled up into one gorgeous ball, or ballup. In it you can find the shotgun and shell for shooting up the whole place if it ever should become obsolete; in it you can find the molasses cookie if you decide just to sit down and leave everything the way it is. From morning till night, sounds drift from the kitchen, most of them familiar and comforting, some of them surprising and worth investigating. On days when warmth is the most important need of the human heart, the kitchen is the place you can find it; it dries the wet socks, it cools the hot little brain. During heat waves, the wood fire is allowed to go out, and with all doors open the kitchen sucks a cool draft through from one side of the house to the other, and General Electric is king for a day.

Our kitchen contains such modern gadgets as an electric refrigerator, a Macy cabinet, and a Little Dazey ice smasher, and it contains such holdovers from the past as the iron stove, the roller towel, the iron sink, the wooden drainboard, and the set tubs. (You can wash a dog in my kitchen without any trouble except from the dog.) It is remarkably free of the appliances that you see in exhibits whose name ends in “ama.” It does have an egg beater, an electric mixer, and a garbage can that opens miraculously at a slight pressure from the toe. It also has the electric stove, with the dials that you turn. I can’t read these dials without my glasses, and it is usually more practical for me to build a fire in the wood stove than to hunt up my glasses. For that matter, the wood stove almost always has steam up, our climate being what it is, and is all ready to go without any fire-building. You just add a stick of wood, open the draft, and shove the kettle a few inches to the left, toward the heat.

I don’t think I am kidding myself about this stove. If I had to go to the woods myself, cut the wood, haul it out, saw it, and split it, I wouldn’t be able to afford a wood stove, because I lack the strength and the skill for such adventures. In a way, the stove is my greatest luxury. But I’m sure I’ve spent no more on it than many a man has spent on more frivolous or complex devices. A wood stove is like a small boat; it costs something to keep, but it satisfies a man’s dream life. Mine even satisfies all the cooks in this family—and there are half a dozen of them—which is a more telling argument and a more substantial reward.

I read a statement by Jim Bailey not long ago, after he had run his mile in 3:58.6. “I have no sensation of speed when I run,” he said, “and I never know how fast I’m going.” Such is the case with most of us in this queer century of progress. Events carry us rapidly in directions tangential to our true desires, and we have almost no sensation of being in motion at all—except at odd moments when we explode an H-bomb or send up a hundred new planets or discard an old stove for a new one that will burn thorium instead of spruce.

My stove, which I’m sure would be impractical in many American homes, is nevertheless a symbol of my belief. The technologists, with their vision of happiness at the core of rock, see only half the rock—half of man’s dream and his need. Perhaps success in the future will depend partly on our ability to generate cheap power, but I think it will depend to a greater extent on our ability to resist a technological formula that is sterile: peas without pageantry, corn without coon, knowledge without wisdom, kitchens without a warm stove. There is more to these rocks than uranium; there is the lichen on the rock, the smell of the fern whose feet are upon the rock, the view from the rock.

Last night, to amuse the grandson who is presently handling the problem of our “dirty room,” we read the first chapter of The Peterkin Papers, and I was amazed to discover what a perfect fable it is for these times. You recall that Mrs. Peterkin poured herself a delicious cup of coffee and then, just as she was ready to drink it, realized that she had put salt in it instead of sugar. Here was a major crisis. A family conference was held, and the chemist was called in on the case. The chemist put in a little chlorate of potassium, but the coffee tasted no better. Then he added some tartaric acid and some hypersulphate of lime. It was no better. The chemist then tried ammonia and, in turn, some oxalic, cyanic, acetic, phosphoric, chloric, hyperchloric, sulphuric, boracic, silicic, nitric, formic, nitrous nitric, and carbonic acid. Mrs. Peterkin tasted each, but it still wasn’t coffee. After another unsuccessful round of experimentation, this time with herbs, Elizabeth Eliza took the problem to the lady from Philadelphia, who said, “Why doesn’t your mother make a fresh cup of coffee?”

The lady’s reply is arresting. Certainly the world’s brew is bitter today, and we turn more and more to the chemist and the herbwoman to restore its goodness. But every time I examine those Cal Tech elements—sun, sea, air, and rock—I am consumed with simple curiosity, not about whether there is thorium in the rock but whether there is another cup of coffee in the pot.

P.S. (March 1962). Six years have elapsed. It is a pleasure to report that the coon tree is still in business and so is our black iron stove. When I wrote that a coon comes down a tree headfirst and then reverses herself when near the ground, touching down with one hind foot, I had observed only one coon in the act of leaving a tree. The coon I wrote about is no longer with us; she was ousted by another female (probably a younger one and perhaps her own daughter) after a fierce battle high in the tree at the entrance to the hole, both females being pregnant and ready to lie in. The new young coon, the one we have now, descends the tree headfirst but does not reverse when near the ground. She continues headfirst and steps off onto the lawn with one front foot. Moral: a man should not draw conclusions about raccoons from observing one individual. The day may come when we’ll have a coon that completes the descent of the tree with a half gainer.

Every year the coon hole gets larger, from wear and tear and from the tendency of balm-of-Gilead trees to grow hollow in their old age. The chamber, or nursery, now boasts two openings, the big one that serves as entrance in the south face of the tree and a smaller one higher up in the northeast face. The smaller hole is of occasional interest to woodpeckers—hairies and pileateds—who stop by and inspect it. They peer in, and soon become agitated. If the chamber contains a raccoon with kittens, the visiting bird is jolted by the unexpected sight of live animals inside a tree. If no coons are there, I think the bird is surprised and disappointed by the light that enters from the larger aperture, making the chamber unnaturally bright and unsuitable for woodpecker occupancy.

Last spring, when the young coons were about three weeks old, we had a torrential three-day rainstorm. It was so bad, even the coon hole shipped water. The mother made the hard decision to evacuate the young ones, which she did by carrying them, one by one, in her mouth down the tree and depositing them a few hundred yards down the road in a drier location under the floor of a neighbor’s house. Three days later in broad daylight she brought them all back and reinstated them—a monumental job of planning and execution over an obstacle course bristling with dogs, men, and vehicles. There were four kittens, which meant for her a total of fourteen trips over the road, all told.

As for my kitchen, it is really two kitchens—the front one and the back one. The front kitchen, where the black stove is, has survived the pressures of time; it is the same as ever, warm, comfortable, convenient, and unimproved. The back kitchen, however, fell on evil days and modern appliances, as I knew it would eventually. It now looks like the setting for a television commercial. We removed the old black iron sink and substituted a shiny stainless one. We rebuilt the counters, covering them with Formica, or Micarta, or something that ends in “a,” I forget what. We threw out the old wooden drainboard, which had grown almost as soft as a sponge, and replaced it with a yellow rubber mat that has no pitch. We tore out the set tubs; in their place is an automatic washing machine that goes on the blink every five weeks and an automatic dryer that blows lint into the woodshed through an exhaust pipe every time it is used. Next to the new sink, under the counter, we installed an automatic dishwasher. This machine works quite nicely, but it celebrates each new phase of the wash with a great clanking noise; it grunts and groans incessantly at its labors, and it leaves a hot smell of detergent in the wake of its toil, so that when you pass it on your way out to the woodshed the air in the room tickles the inside of your nose. It takes the design off the china and leaves ring marks on the glassware. Strong detergents have replaced weak soaps in the back kitchen, vibration has replaced quietude, sanitation broods over all, the place smells of modernity and Ajax, and there is no place to wash the dog. (I give our current dachshund one bath a year now, in an old wash boiler, outdoors, finishing him off with a garden-hose rinse. He then rolls in the dirt to dry himself and we are where we started.)

I liked the back kitchen better the way it was before we improved it, but I knew it was doomed. I will have to admit that the old wooden drainboard had quite an impressive accumulation of gurry in its seams. Germs must have loved it. I know I did. Incidentally, I was pleased to learn, not long ago, that children in unsanitary homes acquire a better resistance to certain diseases (polio and hepatitis among them) than children in homes where sanitation is king. Whether or not our old drainboard was a guardian of our health I will never know; but neither my wife nor I have enjoyed as good health since the back kitchen got renovated. I would hate to think that it’s just a coincidence.
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