When you grow a garden in the woods it is a little like living in a state of seige. The deer are the worst. Gray and silent as ghosts, they wait until flowers are in bloom ready for my wife to bring them in and arrange them in her artistic way. It is just then that the deer take them, maiming what they don’t eat to save room for another bright flower a few steps away. Lillies are among the favorites, but hostas top the list. We try to grow those every year and just when they send brave flags up with blooms soon to follow the deer get them.
“Shoot them!” John Updike’s wife cried when they saw deer plundering the garden. “Shoot them!” I don’t recall whether he was gun in hand at the time in this non-fiction piece, but he didn’t shoot while fully understanding her fury. All the work you do, planting, fertilizing, watering over the weeks and months, not too much, not too little, all for nothing in the end. Mrs. Updike was a nice woman, the kind who wouldn’t hurt a fly but drew the line at deer. Better dead than fed.
There are sprays and a dust that has a frankly nauseating smell to humans when applied that are supposed to repel deer, but they not a reliable defense when there is a lot of rain as there is hereabouts. Even when they do work, the deer often spit out what they have just sampled; the plant is disfigured and ruined as a result.
I walked out the back door the other morning and two speckled fawns began dashing in a panic around our small fenced garden. The had come for the dahlias and got caught red handed. After some rushing about, one cleared the fence and the other butted through a loose slat I had been meaning to fix but kept putting off. (I have a procrastinating side). His other option was the open gate and I was prepared to give it an admonitory rap on the rear with a shovel handle as it passed. As always with deer, they ran off a bit and looked back as if to say, “What’s your problem?”
White-tailed deer are plentiful here; everywhere, actually. I read somewhere there are more of them in North American now than when the continent was discovered by Europeans. I know in advanced circles they put quotes around discovered, but I’m old school. Nobody who mattered knew at the time knew it was here except Indians, who were usually at war with one another, on the brink of it, or had just finished adding to the string of scalps at the council lodge. I further know I’m supposed to say Indigenous People, Native Americans or, in Canada, First Nation. But like I say, I’m incorrigibly old school. Prelapsarian-like it wasn’t when the Vikings sailed into sight, every bit the savages but better armed than those in the New World. There was no nonsense about the veneer of civilization back then. Nature was red of tooth and claw and humans were complicit. Centuries had to pass before white guilt emerged from the bubble of academic theory and became a thing for the professors to pound into the empty heads of students. White guilt somehow manages to co-exist on the campus with a non-judgmental attitude toward other cultures. I’m thinking now of an article in Science magazine where the author has no opinion about the Aztec practice of tearing the beating hearts from victims, splitting their heads apart, and then stacking the skulls by the tens of thousands. Who are we, pinned like butterflies on a board by the guilt assigned to us for the sins of colonialism, to say one culture is better than another? That the Spanish conquistidors, cruel as they were, conquered and extinguished an ever crueler society, is not to their credit by today’s reckoning.
The village abounds with squirrels, gray like the glossy, well-fed deer who travel in herds up to twenty. Ever now and then a squirrel takes it into its head to gnaw through one of our walls. They give up after taking paint off down to the bare wood. A chipmunk lives on the property, digging tunnels faster than I could close them up before I thought it’s his home as much as ours and ceased my pursuit. Old school but soft hearted. In the winter I feed it birdseed in the cleft of a stump that only he or she and the smallest squirrels can reach. It makes the chipmonk aggressively territorial and he chases off squirrels four times bigger. Sometimes there are staring contests at the stump.
The other night I got up for something and when I switched on the hall light there was a black spider as big as my hand on the floor bound for one of the bedrooms. The very embodiment of sinister, it froze as if it knew in the sudden light that escape was impossible and doom was at hand, which it was. I looked him up on Google and one very much like him was listed as poisonous. From his size, he must have lived with us quite some time. My wife just now called me into her office to dispatch a smaller look-alike on the curtain.
Something is always trying to get in. Birds fly at the windows, knocking themselves senseless and falling to the ground. My wife Googled the problem and learned we are not supposed to interfere, so we watch them slowly return from a heap of feathers with wings jutting at an angle until consciousness is regained. It took twenty minutes in one case.
We were driving to town the other day and by the side of the road I saw a bird acting so strangely that I stopped the car to watch. It was fluttering above the ground, at times diving down claws first. Then I saw the black snake moving at a good speed for cover. I was stopped with traffic due any second and my wife pointed out the danger of being rear ended, otherwise I would have waited to see the outcome and figure out what kind of bird it was. One of the smaller raptors with an appetite for snake is what I thought. We see turkey vultures on our street from time to time tidying up a squirrel flattened by a car. Dozens meet that fate in our village; it’s commonplace to see birds feeding on them, crows in particular. They are a highly intelligent species, admirable in their way. We hear them talking among themselves some mornings; ornithologists say they have a grammar of their own. Their caws and cackles sound scornful and mocking to my ear, even ironic, but perhaps it is only imagination. They will take everything from our bird feeder if we let them; their eyesight is keen and take wing at the slightest movement at the window. They are said to have excellent memories and will avoid fields for years where one fell to an aggrieved farmer or a teenager working on his marksmanship.
The left is reshaping our culture to their liking, removing statues and names on buildings with a potential for hurting the feelings of the young or inciting the fury of the grievance trade and its virtue signallers. The cleansing movement has moved into the book industry, claiming the scalp of Laura Ingalls Wilder of “Little House on the Prairie” fame. Failing to peer into the future when a vengeful touchiness would hold sway, she described things and expressed the attitudes of her time. The children’s library people have ordered her books removed from the shelves because what might have been true when Indians were a threat to life and limb cannot today be mentioned because of the certified victimhood that has been extended in recent times to transgender people. They are .0003% of the population, by the way, though from the media you might hazard the guess they are fully a quarter of the whole. In Britain, the book publishers have decreed that by 2030 fiction will be published according to the demographics that prevail at the time. Caucasians be be allotted a quota as will the other races. Better to channel fiction in approved directions at the source rather than wait for it to be written and rejected on account of the pie chart.
In this country, the employment rolls in book agenting and the publishing houses are 78% female. That means the New York City bottleneck familiar to anyone who writes is now the size of a pinhole for white males like Yr Obedient Servant. My “The Horror Writer” has as a main character a man who sold his self-published books from a wheelbarrow on Market Street, tap dancing to draw customers. I joked about doing that to my agent at the time and she asked in all seriousness, “Would you be willing to do that?” The book did well in the early going, getting a 10 out of 10 score and a “Superb” from the reviewer in the BookLife contest that Publishers Weekly runs every year. But I was edged out in the semi-finals by a woman who had a man masturbating in her first paragraph. The old school me set aside at that point. Philip Roth, the fountainhead of this kind of writing, said late in life he didn’t care for “Portnoy’s Complaint” and wished he hadn’t written it. It was decades before he was fully forgiven by Jews for disgracing them.
A bat has resumed evening residence after the hunt , dropping little black turds in the breeze way to inform me of this fact. He and I have contested his right to that corner for years. Moth balls work for a while but lose their potency. I have a awakened in the wee hours and flashlight in one hand and broom in the other dislodged him. I could have finished him off as he collected himself on the ground where he landed, but old softy me couldn’t bring myself to lower the boom. They look like fanged and furred origami with wings like partly unfolded umbrellas. So I will hang some fresh mint from the garden–the deer never bother that. Its strong, sweet smell works on bats as well as moth balls. But when it withers, he will return. They can live as old as forty years. I read somewhere that they are an endangered species. But not by me. He has been with us fourteen years now. Time flies.
I went to the dentist today for a successful extraction of a good deal of money and to take care of some minor cavities. “These are really tiny,” he said. If I’d known that I would have passed on the appointment. Like chiropractors, dentists want you to dangle on the string indefinitely. My previous dentist, the genial old former general who got cancer and pined away, isolating himself until he died, used to say I had “a beautiful mouth,” which I took to mean well cared for over the years. You can’t be too careful with your teeth, as a friend learned this summer. He went in for an abscessed tooth and the infection spread to his heart and put him in the hospital for weeks. It’s hard to come back from shocks to the system like that when you are older. What a blessing good health is. You go through life not thinking anything about it and then you hit a wall. You don’t have to stand on tip-toe to know there is a wall beyond that and another and so on to the last one. I took a book to read by Ryszard Kapuściński, one of the great journalists and travel writers of the 20th Century. He would be better known if it wasn’t for the Polish name, one of the many problems of writing in a small language, but still he was a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Working for a Polish news agency, the greater part of the world was his beat. He was responsible for covering 50 countries, meaning he saw a lot of action. Kapuściński reported on 27 revolutions and coups, was jailed 40 times and survived four death sentences. He died of a heart attack in 2007 while being treated in a hospital for some other disorder. Avoid hospitals at all costs. Salman Rushdie wrote about him: “One Kapuściński is worth more than a thousand whimpering and fantasizing scribblers.” But who remembers him now? The dentist, noting “Imperium” on my lap as he went about his business, had never heard of Kapuściński and wasn’t impressed when I said he was one of Poland’s greatest writers. Instead, our talk turned to the fine singer and composer Glen Campbell. He was born and raised in a rural hamlet a few miles north of here where his family still runs the Campbell Cafe. The food is decent, he said, nothing special. That can be said of any restaurant within a day’s drive of our sleepy little village where the guards at the gate are told to wave as we drive in. “They milked him when he was famous,” the dentist said about Campbell’s family. If I had been a little quicker, I would have said at least it was money that didn’t go up his nose. Is there anyone who doesn’t welcome the revelations about the filth and corruption of Hollywood? Just now the creative director at Pixar and Disney Animation said he was taking six months off to reflect on his behavior. “It’s been brought to my attention that I have made some of you feel disrespected or uncomfortable,” he said. Is there an Apology Factory? They all sound alike coming from these titans. I’m enjoying every minute of this and also the hilarious falls from the pedestal of all these media personalities who have made careers tut-tutting and lecturing us from the moral high ground. I’m looking at you Bill O’Reilly and you Charlie Rose. The blowhard and the brow-furrowed interrogator so earnest and sincere, brothers under the skin, which they are only too happy to show unwilling women hoping for career help. Reporting what is known of the facts, which is never very much, and letting us reach our own conclusions–whatever happened to that business model? Too barebones, I guess, lacks pizazz; it’s gone like Kapuściński, never to be seen again. Meanwhile, Hillary–enabler of the paradigmatic horndog himself–seems to be serious about running again. You couldn’t invent this stuff.
Having spent the greater time of my life making a living in it, I can tell you these are grand times for the news business or what’s left of it. The news is always bad for someone or other and at times for everyone. This is meat and drink for the journalist. Good news doesn’t sell because it is usually dull except for those lucky enough to make it–the lottery winner, the lost hiker who is found, the athletic conqueror and the followers if it is a team sport, even the new parents who return to obscurity after the blessed event unless they are celebrities or related to one, in which case the tabloids dog them through life unless there are career reverses, in which case obscurity claims them as well. But good news has the duration of a firefly while bad news has a long life–months and even years. The people who will turn out to howl at the sky on the first anniversary of Trump’s election are just one example. They wept openly when the results were in. Not satisfied with his victory, the other side, its appetite for revenge ravenous, calls for Hillary’s trial and imprisonment, her disgrace being inadequate for what they perceive as her monstrous crimes. A segment of her own constituency despises her for putting the fix in during the primaries and then losing, “unexpectedly,” after the news trade had jubilantly spread the news she had the election locked up.
Like a chef in a kitchen, the journalist can mix any number of ingredients into the soufflé of bad news that make the day’s papers, the evening network news, or cable, which regurgitates it 24/7 with a spicing of invective tossed in by news personalities whose specialty that is. To name just a few at hand, there is North Korea led by a seeming madman; climate change; racial conflict; the rise of the machines which will leave all but the privileged without work, a circumstance that has already turned many to hopelessness and drug addiction; the disturbing timidity of college students who require safe places when upset by micro-aggressions all but invisible to a healthy mind; the antifas (rebranded anarchists); the gross disparities in wealth, which seem to be embarrassing even some of its possessors, though not enough; the slow devolution of the European Union back to nation states despite their centuries-long history of war and mass murders in that form; China feeling its oats as an emerging superpower and Japan planning to rearm against this threat; economists already asking one another when the present bubble of prosperity will burst; Hollywood’s beastly depravity being exposed, as it is from time to time with no lasting result, and with pedophilia likely to be the next focus; the realization that the two-party system, which has created a class every bit as permanent as the administrative state itself, and which doesn’t seem to get anything done but self-enrichment; super germs that create incurable infections; Islamic fanatics as willing to die for their religion as unquestioningly as the kamikaze pilots and barbaric soldiery of the late empire and emperor; illegal immigration leading to the creation of walls… well, I could go on and on and so could you. In ordinary times, the journalist would gorge on this feast and be satisfied that he or she–increasingly she–was performing a vital public service. But the days when journalists merely observed events and provided what we called the first draft of history are over. Now the journalist is no longer an observer but a participant in events, hoping to shape them through the way they select their stories, write and edit them, and choose their placement. The uniformity of opinion found in the news business has often been remarked on. Some might find in it a conspiracy when in fact it is only the result of group thinking of the sort you find among social workers or in another form in police forces, where the distancing cynicism about human nature once shared by journalists still exists to restrain zeal. Today’s news gatherers are ardent progressives, impassioned believers in causes that bring to mind the spirit of Communists in the ‘Thirties. At that time, with capitalism prostrate, nearly everyone in the intellectual classes (which, stretching a point, included journalists) sympathized with the Soviet Union as it strove to haul a medieval society into the Twentieth Century no matter how many millions had to die. Eggs had to be broken or the omelet couldn’t be made, that was both explanation and justification. The New York Times correspondent declined to report the deliberate famine Moscow created in Ukraine and no doubt many other crimes of the regime, and was rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize for his body of work. At that time, many if not most newspapers had conservative ownerships, but the bosses who were raking in fabulous wealth couldn’t be everywhere or inspect every article, and sly journos, who after all were members of the working class, managed to insinuate a progressive point of view into the product. I worked with an editorial writer who boasted that he presented the publisher’s occasional thoughts on the issues of the day in language so dull as to be unreadable. Being a dull man himself, the publisher didn’t notice. Today there are no conservative newspapers to speak of and only FOX is available to express that point of view, less forcibly since the crash and burn of boorish Bill O’Reilly, the right’s approximation of the barely sane Keith Olbermann, who was cast into the darkness not for his opinions or for bothering women with unwanted attentions, but because he was so unpleasant that everyone he came in contact with ended up hating his guts. FOX’s cable audience, however, is miniscule compared to the mighty networks, which are strongly liberal in orientation, not to mention the noisy choirs at MSNBC and CNN that gave up even the pretense of objectivity at some point. Objectivity was the ostensible goal of journalism in the past, but that fantasy was abandoned long ago. Now the media boast of their partisanship. “Democracy Dies in Darkness” the Washington Post proclaims in its new slogan. It offered me a month of free readership, but I canceled after two days because it read like a reverse of the wall poster days when Mao led the country in The Great Leap Forward. Instead of extolling The Great Steersman as the Chinese media were required to do under the penalty of being sent to the countryside to suppress weeds with hoes or to bring in the harvest, the Post was stuffed with stories hating on Trump. Or Mr. Wiggy Piggy to use one of the many names the left has for the president.
But my point is not the present prostitution of the press, but the amazing persistence of this kind of bad news that is found in declining empires over the past three thousand years. They last on average 250 years, or ten generations, before they collapse. The United States is 234 years old, so it would seem we’re right on track.
Up next, as they say in TV news, is what happened back then happening now? Hint: the worship of celebrities is a tell-tale symptom of social degradation and civilizational collapse. Seriously, you guys.
I try to watch this once a year. Meanwhile, The Horror Writer heads into the semi-finals for the BookLife 2017 Prize against tough competition.
A spider spun a web on an azalea bush outside our window this summer as it did last year and hung motionless for days on end waiting, I assumed, for larger prey than the miniscule insects that occasionally became caught in the silken snare, which had a funny little corkscrew swirl in like an artist’s signature on a painting. My interest in arachnids is not large and there the matter stood until I discovered another web of the same species strung out front between the privet hedge and another azalea. It was smaller than the first, but I remembered it too from last year; it too had the trademark swirl. I had swatted it away then with a broom like a batter does a heater right down the middle because it inhibited my weed whacker path. Are they like settlers, homebodies occupying the same space year after year?
My last serious encounter with spiders was in Montana when we were selling our place in the Bitterroot Valley. The real estate lady said a couple was coming the next day to take a look. “Make sure there are no spiders,” she said, “she’s terrified of them.” I said no worry, there are none I’ve seen. And it was true, I regularly commuted on knees and elbows in the crawl space beneath the house to change the filter on the central air where you would expect the flashlight’s beam to see them prospering in the silence and darkness. This chore performed with my bum knee was one of several reasons we decided to up stakes after five years and leave for a more congenial clime. It is no country for old men unless you were born there and a kind of jaw-clinched resignation or religious fatalism is bred in the bone. Or unless you owned one of the mansions in the ultra-luxurious planned community created by Charles Schwab for his fellow moguls in the commanding heights above the scratchy little western town of Hamilton. Gated and an 18-hole championship golf course? Of course. You could still drive about and gaze at the bespoke homes when we were there, but now the entry gate and security guards have put an end to that and the wealthy have the loveliness of that view all to themselves on the odd occasions when they fly in on their private jets. This was one-percenter territory before the slogan was created. There is no need to mix with the folks who live beyond the gate, nor in most cases would you want to. My wife was born in Montana and feels a kinship with the people, but I found them distant and even cold. Call it rugged individualism. It was hard country originally and it took a certain kind of hardness to survive and hard times never really go away. The drug problem is severe. The people are quite a contrast to the warm Southerners we live among now.
Back to the spider and the people coming to see our house. We had a shed with a window to the east that we had the idea of turning into a writer’s cottage when we first moved in. The contractor we had said if it was up to him he would take a backhoe to it, so it remained in a suspended state of possibility and I kept tools there. When the woman opened the door, she spun on her heel and in one stride was running full speed. The enormous spider in the middle of a web was like one of those fake rubber things you buy at Halloween. We never saw that couple again. I took a shovel to the web and we never saw the spider again, either. We ended up selling to an Air Force nurse who was born in Montana and her husband, a German physicist. They also had a home in the Black Woods where so many fables of the Grimm Brothers kind were spun. You could somehow tell she was born on the range while he was handsome and charming, very sophisticated, the best kind of German, a phrase that fell out of use after World War II. Speaking of which, in between property management — we had a pond with reeds to which leeches clung for years, barely alive, waiting for something with warm blood to come by–I spent years collecting a library about the war, gradually becoming convinced that FDR and a close circle in the White House and War Department (Army) and Navy Department knew the Imperial Japanese Fleet was at sea to attack Pearl Harbor but kept it quiet. The only irreplaceable ships, the carriers, quietly slipped out to sea before the blow fell. The attack on the Pacific Fleet, hung out there in Hawaii for no good purpose except as bait, was the bloody nose needed to unite our fractious country and get us into the war before the British threw in the towel and we stood alone with the British, French and Italian fleets all possibly absorbed into the Third Reich. Charles Beard, the distinguished Harvard historian, wrote a fine book about this conspiracy in 1949 that was published by the Yale University Press. It has been forgotten by time. People today find it unbelievable that a president could perform such a cold-blooded act of treason, but there you are. My The Great Liars is a novel about it; fiction in one sense but not so in another. It is a cheerful, slight thing about war, a tough sell. But I got an email from Amazon yesterday saying they thought it might be right down my alley.
The spider outside the bedroom window, I haven’t forgotten it. It was beautiful in a lethal, Art Deco way, all clean angles and a canary yellow body. Finally bestirred to find out what it was, I googled dangerous spiders of Arkansas. There was its picture, a German brown recluse, a real horror. Your flesh disintegrates after its bite and the poison keeps digging a deeper and wider hole if you don’t get treatment. There are photographs if you have the stomach for them.
I went out with a can of bug spray that supposedly killed on contact and nailed it with a fog-like talc. The spray didn’t kill on contact; instead the spider began a fight for life, climbing up its web, falling back, climbing up again. I gave it shot after shot, but still it fought for survival and then was still. I killed the other the next day and the same struggle went on, and I didn’t mind so much this time. Except I’ve been thinking about it now for weeks.
A cloudy day after dawn with brief spells of rain and now thunder overhead as I peck this out with fingers more clumsy and uncooperative as time goes by. I passed yet another armadillo dead in the roadway. People don’t see them, I guess–but how could you miss the little comic-book creatures with funny, long snouts trundling across the road? On the back road to Little Rock we have stopped to move turtles so they are not smashed by the speeding cars and trucks. A woman who parks by the lake in the same crushed rock area we do has two signs on the back of her car that say I Stop for Turtles. A warm heart although her cross face says otherwise. It is a mistake to judge by appearances. My son knew a young man who went out of his way to run over turtles. “Why’d you do that?” Justin cried out with horror and indignation when he witnessed it. I forgot what he said the teenager’s reply was, but it was along the lines of “I felt like it.” There are people like that even unto adulthood. One hopes they burn fiercely in hell. Four deer ran gracefully across the fairway into the trees. I like them better seen at a distance than engorging themselves on our landscaping. They nipped the heads off half our day lilies before they came into bloom.
Our tuxedo cat Picasso is looking slightly decrepit these days, no longer able to groom a large part of himself, which gives him a seedy look. The vet guessed he has diabetes and we feed him food that comes in a six-pound bag and is as expensive as dinner for two at a mid-range restaurant, about the only kind we have hereabouts. Vets offer a range of costly tests which we decline. You read of people spending fortunes to keep their pets alive out of the deep love they have for them. Surgeries, specialists, chemo treatments, radiation. That’s not for us; we’ve kept our dogs and cats alive so long even without extreme intervention that in a sense it has amounted to animal cruelty. Stella, our valiant Parson Russell Terrier (they have the wiry coats as opposed to the smooth-coated Jack Russells; together it seems they are in every other print ad and TV commercials) was feeble for the last couple of years of her long life and beginning to suffer from dementia. One day she slipped out a door left open and disappeared. We were frantic and drove around through the afternoon and night looking for her. There is a missing animal service that sent out an alert and the following day around noon we got a telephone call saying she had been found. Nice people not so far away said she turned up thirsty and exhausted. She was sleeping, utterly spent, on the floorboard of the animal control truck when it arrived. What terrors she must have experienced through the night, alone and in the dark. She seemed confused when I picked her up, not seeming to recognize me at first. She slept a long time afterward, but then she had been doing that, awake just long enough to eat and lap at her water dish. A week after she got lost she suddenly awoke and ran around the house mad with fear. She knocked into furniture in her frenzy to escape her demon, battering her head on the sharp legs of a metal coffee table legs on each circuit. I finally caught and held her, but she would not be calmed. The first tranquilizer we forced down had no effect and we gave another. This put her into a deep sleep and I held her on my lap through the night until the vets opened the following morning. Two technicians agreed it was time she was put down. Her poor face was swollen from the collisions and one of the techs gave the other a meaningful look I interpreted as saying we had beaten Stella. I still burn with anger when I think of it; in retrospect I wish I had ordered her from the room. But Judy and I were overcome with emotion at the time. They slip away so quickly after the lethal injection. So at 16 ended the adventurous life of plucky Stella, who spent her best years in Montana roaming a circuit of open land that took most of the day before her patrol ended and she came back home. I saw her once being stalked by an aggressive magpie; Stella’s look of amused contempt as it fluttered threateningly overhead is engraved on memory. Once as we walked with old Ollie, our good-natured yellow Lab who we also had put down at that same vet’s office after he could no longer rise to his feet, she took on a porcupine and got a faceful of quills for her pains, four or five in her tongue alone. It was lucky she wasn’t blinded. I tried to pull them out with plyers after carrying her home, but quickly gave up and drove her to the vet in Hamilton where she was put under anesthesia while he pulled them out. Anyone who has had a dog or cat has felt the anguish when at last the courage is gathered to do the merciful thing. Stella, Ollie, Jake, Felix, Parker, Snerd–it is a long roll call. In most cases we plucked them from a warm bundle of puppies or kitties. I read somewhere that the fattest at the bottom of the pile where it was warmest was the best choice, so that is what we went for. That was the case with Jake, who was called Buddha for his girth when we got him, “I’m not leaving without him,” Judy warned. Then the years passed and they died and it seemed each time we took it harder. So, no more dogs and cats for us.