Rants from the Hill: Lucy the Desert Cat


Among my most sulfurous and vitriolic Rants--those far too profane to grace this page--are those inspired by my family's housecat, Lucy. Those of you who follow these Rants know that I live in wild country, at high elevation, with terrible weather, and surrounded by a spate of voracious predators of every stripe. This is hardly proper habitat for any cat other than a bobcat or mountain lion--both of which live hereabouts--and when I moved out into this big, silent desert to get in touch with my Inner Curmudgeon I certainly never saw a cat in the picture. My forbearance in this case is linked to the fact that I am the father of young daughters: a condition that is 98 percent blessing and 2 percent incessant chatter and unwanted pets. I agreed to having the children, as I recall--one of them may even have been my idea--but I still maintain that my wife's bringing a kitten in on their diapered coattails was taking unfair advantage of both me and my old dog.

I hold no truck with the idea that humans can be neatly taxonomized into "dog people" and "cat people," but I suspect that my bias against cats firmed up long before Lucy the Desert Cat joined us on the Ranting Hill. It has long been obvious to me that cats are unsociable misanthropes, and because I myself am reclusive and anti-social I find these qualities intolerable in others. And no reasonable person can deny that cats are sneaky and untrustworthy--even the way they slink over to their food bowl makes them look suspicious, as if they just knocked over a 7-11 or snatched an old lady's purse in their thieving little paws. They do no work and yet have unreasonable expectations of others, pretend to be brilliant but in fact are insipid, and routinely express their disdain with an unhandsome air of sanctimonious condescension. And while it is a fair observation that many humans share all these qualities, those people do not also defecate in a box in my home.

Lucy the Desert Cat was saved from drowning in a swimming pool in California, which prompted our four-year-old daughter to observe that since the kitten was such a poor swimmer it would be a good idea to bring her home to Nevada, where there is no water. This is the kind of logic fathers must deal with regularly, and instead of trying to muster a counterargument that makes sense to a kid we tend to just crack another beer and play along. Although satisfying in the short run, this coping strategy has the long-term consequence that one day, while changing the cat box or cleaning the fishbowl, you suddenly have the epiphany that four-year-old logic has thoroughly reshaped your life, one kitten and goldfish at a time.

So Lucy joined us here in the desert, where she promptly received the undeserved surname "the Desert Cat," and where she has consistently displayed all the appalling qualities universal to cats, plus scores of bad behaviors so idiosyncratic as to defy explanation. Like many cats, she scratches the furniture, craps in the houseplants, gets cranked up on catnip, and cools herself down by lapping up toilet water. I defy you to contemplate tolerating this behavior in a person, let alone describing it as "cute." Just try it: "Honey, I invited Sarah over for lunch. She'll shred the couch, poop in the potted palm, get high as a kite, race around the room, and then stick her face in the toilet. She's so cute!" Other behaviors are more weird than objectionable. For example, when I agreed to adopt the cat I rationalized that I could use a good mouser, but while Lucy is content to nap as mice run circles around her, she's devoted to hunting fence lizards, whose still-wriggling, blood-dripping carcasses she delivers to the living room carpet anytime she's not busy counting mice through half-shut eyes.

Then there's Lucy's peculiar arboreal habit. Our eight-year-old daughter likes to gather sticks and build nests in juniper trees in the hope birds will inhabit them, a neat trick that on one occasion actually worked. The problem is that the cat climbs the trees and sits in the nests, but knows as much about getting out of a tree as she does about laying an egg. Then there's the unconscionable way she treats my flatulent old dog, who, like me, simply wants to be left in peace to daydream and listen to baseball on the radio. Lucy likes to visit the napping dog, nuzzle her affectionately, then slap her on the snout with her paw, curl around, and stick her rear end in the dog's face before slinking away to rob a convenience store. Worst of all is the cat's bizarre habit of walking across my keyboard as I'm writing, which usually results in the cryptic three-paw cluster of "sdf . . . 678 . . . kl;" Even if this is more eloquent than much of what I come up with on my own, I still find it irritating.

The worst thing about the cat is the way the trouble she causes leads to "solutions" far worse than the problems they are intended to solve. When the cat took up strutting on the counters, for example, we resorted to a high-tech remedy: cans of compressed air equipped with motion-sensor nozzles. The result is that Lucy has learned how to run the counters without triggering the devices, while I routinely come in from work, forget that the cat blasters are set to detonate, and end up having to change my underwear before I pour my first whiskey.

The ancient Egyptians worshipped cats, which they called "mau," believing the animals to be magical protectors, and even going so far as to mummify some. Lucy the Desert Cat's remarkable powers of self-preservation cause me to wonder if there may be something to this myth. When she was a kitten, Lucy could have been eaten by just about any critter out here, from red tails and bobcats to whopping gopher snakes and rattlers. Even an adult cat should fear the odds here, where the most effective predators of small mammals are coyotes, golden eagles, and great horned owls. Old Man Coyote alone can eat several rabbits a day (and what is a cat, finally, but just a sort of lazy, pampered rabbit?), and you need only listen to the wonderful call-and-response howling of coyote bands at night to do the math and conclude that there's a lot of skull crunching going on out there amid the beauty of balsamroot and lupine. Despite these many threats, Lucy the Desert Cat abides.

Lucy's terrible habits and magical ability to elude predators have prompted me to think more about other kinds of accidents that might befall her on the Ranting Hill. For example, she always hangs around when I'm trenching with the backhoe, a situation in which pushing a lever one way rather than the other would rid me of cat blasters but also break my daughters' hearts. Lucy also stays fairly close when I'm bucking logs, and a chainsaw is especially hazardous when wielded by a man distracted by the looming chore of cleaning the cat box. Most troubling is the contemplation of what the weed whacker might accomplish if swung suddenly catward at full throttle. While such a mishap would address the problem of my toilet being used as a drinking vessel, it would certainly result in my family voting me off the hill, where I would have no toilet at all.

The distribution of power in my family ensures that Lucy the Desert Cat will remain safe and sound, perhaps soon to be rewarded for her "cuteness" with the privilege of driving my truck to town to buy catnip and top-shelf bourbon with my credit card. Speaking as a father who has willingly conducted a funeral ceremony for a goldfish, I think it unlikely I'll succeed in relegating Lucy to the garage, much less having the opportunity to buck her into furry little rounds. No, my fate was sealed long ago, perhaps even before I received the transformative news that our first daughter was preparing to enter this beautiful world. The way I reckon it, though, 98 percent blessing is a pretty good stat, even if it does cause some sdf 678 kl;

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

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