The Half-Wild Muse: On Writers and Their Cats
Cats Are Kindred Spirits: Observers, Introverts, Always Practicing Their Craft
Domestic cats can be disturbing to those who don’t know them. Such people usually call themselves “dog people,” but in reality they’re just afraid.
I can relate to this. Cat-lovers posting distracting memes on social media may give the impression that their favorite little pets exist to entertain humanity by making adorable faces accompanied by adorably ungrammatical captions, or to amuse us by leaping up in instinctual terror when confronted by a surreptitiously placed cucumber. In reality domestic cats (felis catus) are fearsome predators, smaller first cousins to pumas, panthers, and saber-toothed tigers. According to a National Geographic DNA study, it’s likely that cats were drawn to farming communities in the Fertile Crescent 8000 years ago. They struck up a mutually beneficial relationship with our human ancestors, controlling rodents in exchange for food, and spread from southwest Asia into Europe as early as 4400 B.C. The process of domestication, according to evolutionary geneticists, hardly changed felis catus at all. In the words of the late Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz, “The cat is a wild animal that inhabits the homes of humans.”
If you watch cats carefully, you begin to appreciate the nuances of what Lorenz is saying. In cities like Havana where many cats live in a feral state they gather in prides, stalking the shadows at night like the bloodthirsty hunters they are, or lounging like miniature lions in the shade of a banyan. Lorenz wrote about a cave in Africa where researchers found the remains of multiple early hominids. Each skeleton had two evenly spaced holes at the base of the skull, a telltale signature of feline efficiency. It seems likely, in fact, that our entire species evolved under constant threat of predation by nocturnal feline hunters. For Lorenz this explains, among other things, why we’re still afraid of the dark.
To see domestic cats in this light increases one’s empathy for mice, squirrels, and birds. Until recently I had two cats, and I was always finding body parts on my doorstep: mouse spleens, squirrel tails, bird feathers. Lorenz offers an explanation for this behavior too: cats deliver their prey to our feet not to garner approval, but to teach us, their ungainly primate allies, that hunting is a thing one can do. In this sense, keeping a domestic cat can give one a visceral sense of connection to the wild—although it is a sad fact also that cats are a major scourge to migratory songbirds. Then again, humans themselves are the greatest menace to wildlife of every kind. Until we can get a handle on the damage we’re doing to the planet and its ecosystems, the feline threat to songbirds will unfortunately remain a second-order concern.
The truth is, it’s hard to see cats as deadly monsters when you live at close quarters with them. Especially if you have the kind of career—as a writer, for example—that allows you to work from home.
Cats are natural companions for writers, not only because they’re relatively independent and undemanding of one’s attention—though there is that—but also because they tend to strike us as kindred spirits. Observers. Introverts. Always practicing their craft—only instead of wordsmithing, a cat’s craft happens to be hunting, and instead of word counts and margin scribbles, the cat’s main concerns are sparring, claw maintenance, and play-hunting: chasing shadows, leaves, laser pointers, and any other facsimile of prey. “The cat does not offer services,” William S. Burroughs wrote. “The cat offers itself.”
“Cats have a way of drawing us out, of renewing our connection to the surrounding world.”
And cats are never false. “A cat has absolute emotional honesty,” Ernest Hemingway wrote (and as the keeper of felis catus multitudes in both Key West and Havana, he would have known). “Human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”
Feelings? Yes, cats do have feelings. Or at least they have easily recognizable moods. They have recognizable personalities too, which I find endlessly fascinating. I live with my family in a forest teeming with predators, where the lifespan of domestic cats is uncertain to say the least. A few years ago we adopted a pair of kittens from the same litter of barn cats, reasoning that such a hardscrabble ancestry would give them a better chance of survival. Charles was long and lean, goofy and expressive, a bit awkward, playful in a fierce yet affectionate way, a troublemaker with more than a little of the devil in him. There was always a little meow as he came into a room, less a friendly greeting than an announcement of his presence. He liked to chew on wicker baskets and shred piles of important papers in the writing studio, watching me the whole time to see how I’d react. When I picked him up his breathing was audible and slightly hoarse, like a small asthmatic.
His twin sister Luna was a petite beauty, the runt of the litter, shy and wild but prone to occasional episodes of surprisingly affectionate cuddling. She had green eyes with a magical flicker, and a strange high-pitched squeak of a meow that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. Once she got stuck in a tree high above the back deck and I had to get out the extension ladder to bring her down, trembling and warm. Luna was too small and beautiful for this world, as it turned out, half-spirit from the very beginning. One morning about a year or so into her life she allowed herself to be groomed by her brother. Afterwards I let them both out, and as usual she hesitated cautiously at the edge of the deck to read the environment before venturing down to the grass. It must have been a flawed reading, because once she was out of sight, she never came back.
It was a sad loss for the humans in the house, but her closest sibling seemed to understand. “Now, you people have names,” Neil Gaiman wrote, quoting his own cat. “That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”
Despite their tendency to congregate in prides, cats are by nature inclined to solitude. For introverted writers constantly in danger of disappearing into ourselves, this is another reason cats make fitting daemons. “If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem,” Muriel Spark wrote, “you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work . . . The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding.” And though cats seldom obey commands and act only when the insouciant spirit moves them, they do have a tendency to alight upon our writing desks at precisely the moment they’re needed, like scornful-eyed avatars of the Muse.
Cats have a way of drawing us out, of renewing our connection to the surrounding world. My longest-lived cat, the one my kids grew up with, was Hedwig. A noble huntress with a silver pelt, she used to drape herself across the back of an easy chair like a jaguar on a branch overhanging the Orinoco River, and swipe at you with mock ferocity as you walked by. She was a mischievous stalker, playing hide-and-seek behind doors and furniture and indulging in galloping mock-chases around the house.
Cats are by nature edgy, and it can be difficult to gain their trust. With Hedwig, on fall and winter afternoons when the house was cold, I would set up a little den using piles of pillows with a blanket draped over them. Occasionally she would crawl in and lie beside me. It felt like a great honor, as if I’d been granted recognition as an honorary feline.
Still, I’m not sure how many more cats I’m going adopt. There’s that troubling songbird issue, but mostly it’s just too heartbreaking when they disappear. Dear Hedwig: one night she simply vanished, taken without doubt by one of our ubiquitous predators. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Red in tooth and claw and all that, I get it—but it was still a miserable day. We had a little ceremony for her. Planted a tree in her honor, a pin oak with sleek grey bark reminiscent of her pelt.
I have a perfect view of that tree from my writing desk, on the far side of a trout pond where it will eventually grow big enough to shade the flat boulder where she used to sprawl. I can watch it grow, and think of her, and of Charles and Luna and all the other cats, past and future. I can hope that departed ones have in some sense become one with the surrounding forest. And before getting down to work, I can dedicate a brief prayer of gratitude to the feline essence of the Muse.