Cats among the Ruins
Due to a neighbor’s egregious lack of biological responsibility, there has been a proliferation of feral cats in our rural neighborhood. We undertook to curtail this smallscale ecological catastrophe with the assistance of a local cat activist, who generously lent us a trap.
In the process of this endeavor to implement an invasive nonnative predator control program, two kittens established permanent residence in our home. Thus we became a two-species family. (Three if you count the horse--but he rarely comes inside.) Because they were feral kittens, it took an extra bit of effort to socialize them; we handled them first with gloves, until it became clear that hissing did not necessarily precede bloodletting.
So we would retrieve them from the back bedroom, where they were initially confined, and hold them on our laps while we sat mesmerized before the relentless coverage of this brave new millennium, in which paradigms and economies have been fractured to their foundations. As normal programming began to reassert itself, the kittens grew, became habituated to their own new cosmos, and began to enjoy the run of the house. We no longer had to sit in front of the television for long hours of recapitulant carnage, the kittens didn’t have to huddle on our laps, and the gloves resumed their occupancy of the garage.
The attacks of September and the events that have flowed from those momentous hours have become the theme of our national life. Politics and economics (if they have ever been in any way separate) might scarcely exist beyond the context of the war on terrorism. First there was a run on American flags, then there was a run on copies of the Koran. We listen to updates on the shifting distribution of power in Afghanistan, interspersed with analyses of how we are coping with our fundamentally altered world.
Meanwhile, the kittens continue to grow. Their distinct personalities emerge and strengthen. Their reach--that is, the things they can grab, leap to, overturn--increases daily. They slip perceptibly from kittenhood into cat adolescence. They are both females. When they approach dangerously close to adulthood, we will have their emergent sexuality terminated with extreme prejudice.
It is a new kind of war. It won’t, we have been promised, look like all those other wars. But it is becoming apparent to me, as I accrue decades, that every war is unique, and every war is the same. Depending on one’s perspective, there is a right side and a wrong side--in the abstract analysis. On the ground there is unimaginable suffering--unimaginable, at least, for those of us who haven’t endured it.
Our cats live in a nice home in the rural suburbs of the Sierra Nevada foothills. They eat the best food. Even their feral relatives, who have been neutered (rendered evolutionarily superfluous), eat the best food out on the back deck; though they have entered into limited competition with local raccoons and opossums. In Afghanistan, other cats will be darting among the wreckage, garnering sustenance--or becoming sustenance. They are of the same species as our contented kittens, though worlds apart.
As we--perpetrators and refugees--are of one species, and worlds and more apart. Beyond our myriad and conflicting configurations of belief, health, wealth, and perspective, we seem to share a broadly common conviction that we are in some way the crown of creation. We all require the necessities of air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat; and we crave the dignities of wellbeing for our children, respect for our rights, a place to stand. Yes, there are those among us who are unequivocally bad. Presumably, there are those among us who are unequivocally good--although upon application of objective scrutiny, these distinctions might lose the absolute clarity we so desperately insist that they display. In any event, for a species that considers itself the pinnacle of evolution--in whatever aspect we drape that particular icon--we seem to have a great deal of difficulty in meeting the job description’s expectations.
Morally speaking, cats--along with the rest of the biosphere--might be the more successful evolutionary experiment. Our fellow species enact the machineries of life, while we punish the innocent for our enemies’ transgressions. (I use the collective we: not some trivial geopolitical division, but the species. Us. Humans.)
I don’t know how to end this. Perhaps there is no fit conclusion. In the days immediately following the attacks, the lyrics of a particular Joni Mitchell song kept resonating through my partially desensitized skull. The song is called The Tea-Leaf Prophecy. It is set during World War II, and the last verse goes like this:
Sleep, little darling,
This is your happy home.
Hiroshima cannot be pardoned,
Don’t have kids when you get grown.
This world, it is shattered,
The wise are mourning, the fools are joking.
Ah, what does it matter?
The wash needs ironing, and the fire needs stoking.
Which might, in the end, be the distillation of how to cope--and why to hope: that someone has to feed the cats. That there is and always will be a reason to do so, though all the rest be ashes.
Lawrence Blair Goral
12 November 2001