Why do animals and wildlife figure so prominently in my writing? An interviewer asked me that question recently. At the time I answered the best way I could, but I have thought a lot about that question over the past few weeks as I’ve absorbed the tragic and painful news that lately assaults us daily in the United States.
In the face of the political upheaval, natural disasters, and shootings, why do I write about blue jays and whales?
Why is my latest project a children’s book about a feral cat?
Little White: The Feral Cat Who Found a Home was released two weeks ago by Writer’s Coffee Bar Press. I should be writing a blog post solely about that, celebrating the small successes of its first weeks on the market and enjoying the photos I’ve received of children reading the book at bedtime. But it’s difficult, at the moment, to put on my author’s hat. I have been frozen in recent days, left numb by the news of 11 deaths in a synagogue, a tragedy that echoes the events of World War II that my father experienced firsthand. Two African Americans were gunned down at a shopping mall in the act of living their lives. Explosive devices were sent to numerous political figures and a news outlet. Innocent country music fans were killed at a nightclub in Los Angeles, and now highways in California are jammed with cars fleeing from unrelenting fires that have claimed lives, homes, and natural habitat.
These events feel so overpowering, so frightening, that the fact that they are passing in and out of the headlines in a day is even worse.
How, in the middle of this, do I write a blog post about a children’s book?
This morning I stepped outside, as I always do, and placed birdseed and peanuts on top of the back fence. I lifted the birdbath off its base and poured out yesterday’s dirty water. A large oak leaf browned by the fall season had been floating in the birdbath. I re-filled the bath from the rain barrel and angled it back onto its base. Then I looked up and saw a cluster of sparrows perched on the branches of a tree, waiting patiently for their chance at the seeds. A squirrel that had been waiting for breakfast since the first hints of sunlight, sat on top of the fence eating one of the peanuts.
I watched the squirrel turn the peanut over and over in its small paws, chewing on it happily. Then I returned to the house and stood in the kitchen, watching the squirrel for a while longer through the window.
I saw something in that squirrel’s eyes. Something that seems to disappear from my day as soon as I turn on my computer, read the news, and then glance through the things people are saying to each other on various social media channels.
The words of some of our leaders and the vitriol I read online leave me stunned. People spout insults at each other with no appreciation (or concern) for the fact that their words can deeply wound – or catch fire like the flames currently scorching California.
Words can hurt strangers. Words can end friendships. Words can grow into movements. Words can prompt violence.
In the face of all this, I ask myself again, why did I write a children’s book about a cat?
I think about the firefighters. I think about the men and women who are risking their lives to save people and communities and land and animals. I think about the young man who lost his life shielding his friends from bullets and telling them when to run. I think about the doctor in the synagogue who ran toward the victims and ended up becoming one himself. I think about the Jewish nurse who cared for the murderer as he shouted, “Kill all Jews.” I think about the woman who stood up to a bully in a supermarket who was hassling two women of color, and then chased the bully out of the store. I think about the people offering rooms to neighbors whose homes have burned down, and spaces for their frightened pets.
In the middle of the chaos there is something I am trying to save, something I have never been able to quite put my finger on. I am coming to a slow but growing understanding that this thing is the central focus of my life’s work – my years working with environmental organizations, my efforts to save strays and wildlife, my writing.
It is something that exists in the space in the middle of all this pain, something not affiliated with any side.
That something – whatever it is – is in the moment when someone shields a frightened person from a bullet. It exists when a firefighter rushes a cat out of a burning house and straps a tiny oxygen mask on its face. It is in the moment when a staunch conservative sends a note to an outspoken liberal actress who may lose her home and says, “I don’t agree with your politics, but I’m so glad that you and your horses are safe.”
I haven’t found a word, or words, for it yet. Some might be tempted to call it love, and I think that’s a big part of it, but it doesn’t seem to be quite that simple.
I don’t know what this thing is that I’m reaching for, but I do know where I never fail to find it: in the eyes of every bird, or whale, or animal I’ve ever seen. And right now, I’m seeing it every day in the green eyes of a still-wild feral cat who has learned, against all odds, to trust me.
I guess that’s why I wrote a book about her.
That’s also the real answer to the question that interviewer asked. I write about animals and wildlife because what I’m searching for – what I’ve been trying to express and help save my whole life – is inherently a part of who they are. And although I’ve written many essays and stories at this point, and even a couple of books, I still haven’t found quite the right words for that thing – words that might somehow be a part of dousing the fire instead of fueling those unforgiving flames.