except sitting in a corner by myself with a little book.
Allen Cove, ]une I4, I956
The temperature this morning, here in the East, is 68 degrees. The relative humidity is 64 percent. Barometer 30.02, rising. Carol Reed is nowhere in sight. A light easterly breeze ruffles the water of the cove, where a seine boat lies at anchor, her dories strung out behind like ducklings. Apple blossoms are showing, two weeks behind schedule, and the bees are at work – all six of them. (A bee is almost as rare a sight these days as a team of horses.) The goldfinch is on the dandelion, the goose is on the pond, the black fly is on the trout brook, the Northeast Airliner is on course for Rockland. As I write these notes, the raccoon is nursing one of her hangovers on the branch outside the hole where her kittens are.
My doctor has ordered me to put my head in traction for ten minutes twice a day. (Nobody can figure out what to do with my head, so now they are going to give it a good pull, like an exasperated mechanic who hauls off and gives his problem a smart jolt with the hammer.) I have rigged a delightful traction center in the barn, using a canvas halter, a length of clothesline, two galvanized pulleys, a twelve-pound boat anchor, a milking stool, and a barn swallow. I set everything up so I could work the swallow into the deal, because I knew he would enjoy it, and he does. While his bride sits on the eggs and I sit on the milking stool, he sits on a harness peg a few feet away, giggling at me throughout the ten-minute period and giving his mate a play-by-play account of man's fantastic battle with himself, which in my case must look like suicide by hanging.
I think this is the fourth spring the coon has occupied the big tree in front of the house, but I have lost count, so smoothly do the years run together. She is like a member of our family. She has her kittens in a hole in the tree about thirty-five feet above the ground, which places her bedchamber a few feet from my bedchamber but at a slightly greater elevation. It strikes me as odd (and quite satisfactory) that I should go to sleep every night so close to a litter of raccoons. The mother's comings and goings are as much a part of my life at this season of the year as my morning shave and my evening drink. Being a coon, she is, of course, a creature of the night; I am essentially a creature of the day, so we Cox and Box it very nicely. I have become so attuned to her habits – her departure as the light fades at quarter past eight, her return to the hungry kittens at about 3 A.M., just before daylight, after the night's adventures – that I have taken to waking at three to watch her home-coming and admire her faint silhouette against the sky as she carefully sniffs the bark all around the hole to learn if anything has been along during her absence and if any child of hers has disobeyed the instructions about not venturing out of the hole.
My introduction to raccoons came when, as a child, I read in a book by the late Dr. William J. Long a chapter called "A Little Brother to the Bear ." I read all the books of William J. Long with a passionate interest, and learned the Milicete Indian names for the animals. (Dr. Long always called a bear Mooween; he always called a chickadee Ch'geegee-lokh-sis. This device stimulated me greatly, but if I remember right, it annoyed Theodore Roosevelt, who was also interested in nature.) I must have read the raccoon story twenty times. In those days, my imagination was immensely stirred by the thought of wildlife, of which I knew absolutely nothing but for which I felt a kind of awe. Today, after a good many years of tame life, I find myself in the incredibly rich situation of living in a steam-heated, electrically lit dwelling on a tarred highway with a raccoon dozing in her penthouse while my power lawn mower circles and growls noisily below. At last I am in a position to roll out the green carpet for a little sister to the bear. (l have even encountered Dr. Long's daughter Lois in my travels, but it was not among raccoons that we met, and she seemed to have no mark of the Milicete Indian about her whatsoever, and never in my presence has she referred to a great horned owl as Kookooskoos, which saddens me.)
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 enlarged. 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 quaIity, 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 performer 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 weIl 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 from 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. SometJmes, 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 tailfirst; 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 tailfirst. 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 weIl 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.
From Coon Tree by E. B. White