Wednesday, August 30, 2006


The other day I walked up to the Common and spent a morning reading at the Sterling College library. Sterling is a small school offering degrees in Conservation Ecology, Sustainable Agriculture and Outdoor Leadership. It's the kind of place I would be thrilled to discover anywhere else, but since it's always been just up the hill from home, I never paid much attention before. Thinking back, the last time I visited the library was in 7th grade, when three of us got ourselves thrown out for using a razor to cut Absolut Vodka ads from the magazines.

Classes haven't quite started yet, so it was just me and the two librarians, a middle-aged woman and a pot-bellied old man with a white beard, thick glasses and suspenders. What a treasure trove! Shelves stacked high with books about everything from mushrooming to Himalayan expeditions to organic farming, piles of National Geographics, Orions, and Outside magazine...I settled into an armchair by the picture window and dug in to some Gary Snyder.

But I hadn't been reading long when I noticed a small drama playing out on the lawn. A sleek and handsome orange cat had brought a small chipmunk into the open and settled down to an afternoon of play, letting the terrified animal make frantic runs almost to the edge of the trees before bringing it back into the middle of the field and waiting, tail twitching, for it to recover enough energy for another futile escape attempt.

A dilemma. Part of me yearned to intervene, to run outside yelling at the cat, chasing it away so that the chipmunk could make it to safety. But that would be sort of silly. This sort of thing plays out constantly in fields and forests around the world; it's only the cat's nature to toy with it's victim and interfering would be a useless gesture. I had my camera with me. Should I go out and photograph the scene? Get a nice closeup of the panting chipmunk with the cat hulking, menacing and out of focus, in the background? And if I did either of these things, what would the librarians think?

I tried to go back to the poems, but couldn't stop looking up every time the chipmunk made a run for cover and every time the cat casually picked it up by the scruff of the neck and brought it back to the center of the lawn. Eventually, I laced up my boots and found the back door, just past the librarians desk.

"I'm going outside," I said brightly. "Just for a minute. There's a cat that's got a chipmunk."

"OK," said the librarian.

It was drizzling a little. The cat was lying down a few steps from where the chipmunk crouched in the grass, sides heaving, fur wet and mussed. I clapped my hands and said "Scat!" but the cat just looked disinterestedly at me and waved a paw at the chipmunk. The librarians were both watching from the window.

The cat was wearing a thin leather collar. "Nice kitty," I said, reaching over to grab it, "Nice kitty." Snatch! I had the collar. The chipmunk stayed put, trembling.

The rain kept falling. I held on to the cat. The chipmunk didn't move. The librarians watched. I felt like a fool. But then, one hop, two hops, the chipmunk started to move, racing for the brush about 30 feet away. Seeing this, the cat started struggling, first as if it was just a little annoyed and then angrily, indignantly, twisting it's neck violently until...the collar slipped off.

The cat lunged for the chipmunk, caught up to it a few feet from the brush and brought it back to where I stood, holding the limp collar.

The librarians were still watching. Maybe one of them owned this cat. It was certainly a fine collar.

Should I pick up the chipmunk? What if it bit me? What if the cat lept up and clawed it from my hands? My shirt was getting soaked. but I couldn't just throw up my hands and go back inside. I had to see this through.

I ran at the cat and grabbed it around the shoulders, holding on tight this time. The chipmunk, exhausted from its efforts, showed no inclination of moving. The minutes ticked by. Finally, the chipmunk began to limp towards safety. The cat writhed and twisted in my grip, but I held on. It was a nice cat. In all its fury, as the chipmunk hopped to freedom, it never clawed me.

There was a thick stand of brush at the edge of the lawn, and this time, the chipmunk made it, vanishing under the leaves. I waited a minute or so, then released the cat and went back inside.

"It's like a mini African savannah out there!" I joked to the librarians.

"Uh huh," one said.

Sitting down in the armchair my boxers clung damply to my skin. The cat emerged from the brush holding the chipmunk by the neck, limp and dead. It dropped the small body in the middle of the lawn and began vigorously licking itself.

Leaving the library I caught the eye of the bearded librarian. "Thank you!" I said. "What did I do?" he replied.


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