The Books: Essays of E.B. White, “Coon Tree”

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Next book on my essays bookshelf:

Essays of E. B. White

Obviously, E.B. White felt an affinity for animals, and observed them at close range, during his years running a small farm in Maine. You can feel that background knowledge in Charlotte’s Web, with the rhythms of the farm and its seasons dominating the animals’ lives, as well as the farmers in charge of them (“Time to kill the pigs,” etc.) Some of his best essays are these intricate and yet simply-told observational pieces about the behavior of the animals that he can see from outside his window. You know, the geese waddling down to the pond, the pigs, the two heifers he has in the barn. He takes care of all of these animals. It is his job as a farmer. So when it snows, he has to shovel a path for the geese so they can tromp down to the little iced-over pond for a morning walk. Close proximity to animals. You get to know them. You get to almost communicate with them. It’s not anthropomorphizing, although When E.B. White does anthropomorphize it is usually in the form of an analogy, which makes the moment extremely funny (example below: the raccoon like a woman who doesn’t have a baby-sitter and yet still has a date that night). Animals do what they need to do to survive. They also fight, relax, make noises, retreat, sleep, feel pain, they do all kinds of fascinating things. Anyone who has a pet knows that. My cat has a ton of emotions. She gets worked up, she relaxes, she gets startled, she chills out, she feels pleasure when she lies in the sun, her purr so loud I can hear it in the next room. She likes to be close to me. She needs to be in my lap. Until she doesn’t. She leaps off when she’s had enough. It’s all according to her needs. Writing about animals can be either way too cutesy or so clinical that you forget these are creatures who are alive. E.B. White somehow makes his morning chores at the barn sound like a delightful and very funny communing with all of these clamorous little beings who have needs that it is his job to meet. (He does laugh at himself for shoveling out a path for the geese. It’s like he’s their valet.) He is not sentimental about the animals. He kills the pigs when it’s time. It’s part of the job of raising farm animals. But he does describe himself as “impractical,” not in a reckless way, but in a way that you can see in the excerpt below.

There is such acute and sensitive observational power in this essay, which describes a mother raccoon who has made her home in the hollow of a tree outside E.B. White’s house. She has given birth in the hollow of the tree, and every night, around dusk, she crawls down the tree trunk and goes off into the darkness to hunt for food. White watches her routine. He memorizes it. “Oh, she likes to do things this way … and here is when she likes to have a nap …” and all of the little things she does that have great meaning, for her, and for the babies she is raising. She is just doing what a raccoon does, but later in the essay when one of the babies grows up and starts crawling down the tree, that baby does it differently than the mother. The baby does it how IT prefers to do it. So there is some individuality there.

I mean, this essay was written in 1956 and that raccoon pops off the page. She lives, she is now eternal.

There is more to the essay, as there usually is with E.B. White’s stuff, and that’s why his essays are so important and are studied in school. This is how you do it, basically. As the world of nature continues on outside his window, inside the house he and his wife are making improvements. They modernized the kitchen, putting in a new sink. He misses the old sink but they had to move on with the times. There are thoughts here about progress, and technology, all as that raccoon climbs up and down the tree trunk outside his window. Meanwhile, over the years, the hole in the tree starts to get larger, meaning it is disintegrating, losing its integrity. Soon it will not be a proper raccoon nest anymore. But that will be the raccoon’s problem to deal with. It’s not didactic. E.B. White never is. He does not lecture. He does not pontificate. He has too much humor for that.

It’s lovely. I love it because you are really given time to just be with the raccoon. Get into her rhythms, her concerns, her body language, what she does.

Here’s an excerpt.

Excerpt from Essays of E. B. White, “Coon Tree”

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 enlarges. 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 performance 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 tail first; 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 tail first. 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.

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3 Responses to The Books: Essays of E.B. White, “Coon Tree”

  1. Sylvia says:

    Wonderful! (And what about the male…?!)

  2. Sylvia says:

    Absolutely!

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