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Mark Twain's cats and other Califauna

A Literary Field Guide

Mark Twain's sketch of cats singing in the morning
What noisy cats are we! Yes, that's really
Mark Twain's sketch, "Morning Song."
Courtesy Mark Twain Foundation

Not only will you find the words of Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Ishmael Reed, Ursula K. Le Guin, and other literary luminaries in Califauna: A Literary Field Guide, but you’ll find dozens of images of California critters and some insights into their relationship with California peoples. Behold the noble grizzly bear (care of Joaquin Miller), the mighty mountain lion (courtesy of Charles Bukowski), the fearsome orca (spotted by Robinson Jeffers), the slippery rainbow trout (caught by Richard Brautigan, naturally), and the wily coyote (not escaping the pen of T.C. Boyle, William Bright, and Alejandrina Murillo Melendres).

Book Cover

Of course the collection wouldn’t be complete without the appearance of the flea, the frog, the gila monster, the pocket mouse, or the stink beetle. Each piece in the anthology is a snapshot of a different animal, with “field notes” preceding each selection—ranging from abalone to woodpecker.

Califauna is part of the California Legacy Series, a collaboration between Santa Clara University and Heyday Books. The editors of this lively collection are Terry Beers, professor of English at SCU and director of the California Legacy Project, and Emily Elrod ’05, a California native who graduated from SCU with a bachelor’s degree in history and ancient studies and minors in English and medieval and renaissance studies.

—SBS


Exclusive excerpts from Califauna

by Kenneth Rexroth, Frank LaPena, and G. Ezra Dane






Common Raccoon
Procyon lotor
Family Procyonidae

Length: 24–37”; Tail: 7 1/2–16”; Weight: 12–48 lb

 
Habitat:
Found in forests, near streams, and in cities and rural areas

Range:
Common throughout California

Comments:
The common raccoon is gray-brown or orange-brown with a grayish underbody. Its distinctive markings include a black “mask” outlined in white around its eyes and four to six alternating black stripes along its bushy tail.

     The common raccoon is omnivorous and will eat almost anything. Nuts, berries, fruits, crayfish, rodents, fish, frogs, and bird eggs can all be a part of the common raccoon’s diet. They have also been known to adapt to the presence of humans by eating trash or roadkill. Raccoons are often seen using their paws to wash their food in water or rub it with their dry paws before eating it, probably to feel for inedible matter to discard.

     The common raccoon is an accomplished climber, having the unique ability to descend trees either backward or forward by inverting its hind feet 180 degrees. On the ground it usually walks, but it can also run up to fifteen miles per hour and swim well. Its nimble fingers can manipulate a variety of tasks, including turning doorknobs and opening refrigerators.

      The common raccoon is mainly nocturnal and solitary and, while active in warmer seasons, it spends most of the winter in a den. The common raccoon’s vocalizations include purrs, whimpers, snarls, and screams.

 


Raccoon

Kenneth Rexroth

The raccoon wears a black mask,

And he washes everything

Before he eats it. If you

Give him a cube of sugar,

He’ll wash it away and weep.

Some of life’s sweetest pleasures

Can be enjoyed only if

You don’t mind a little dirt.

Here a false face won’t help you.

 



Black-tailed Jackrabbit
Lepus californicus
Family Leporidae

Length:
18 1/4–25" (47–63 cm); Tail: 2–4 1/4" (5–11 cm); Weight: 3 1/4–8 lb (1.5–3.5 kg)



Habitat:
Open areas such as prairies, meadows, and fields

Range:
Common throughout California

Comments:
The black-tailed jackrabbit has gray or sandy fur peppered with black above and white on its underside. Its tail has a black stripe above with a white border. Its long ears—up to six inches— are brown with black tips. The black-tailed jackrabbit has a lean build with long legs.

     The black-tailed jackrabbit is actually not a rabbit but a hare. Like other hares (and unlike rabbits), it makes no maternity nest and its young are born furred with their eyes open.

     During the day, it generally spends its time resting in dense vegetation, becoming active in the late afternoon. It feeds in loose groups and eats different kinds of plants—such as alfalfa—in the summer and woody, dried vegetation in the winter or during a drought. Its ears can detect the faint sounds of predators, and when alarmed the jackrabbit remains very still. It usually does not walk, but hops five to ten feet at a time and up to twenty feet when panicked, sometimes reaching speeds of thirty to thirty-five miles per hour. When hopping at a moderate speed, the jackrabbit’s fourth or fifth jump will be higher to allow for a view of its surroundings. This hare flashes its white underside at an enemy—usually a coyote, bobcat, fox, or owl—to perhaps warn other jackrabbits of danger and confuse its predators. It also may stop to give a danger warning to other jackrabbits by thumping its hind feet. A jackrabbit can also can swim using a kind of "doggy-paddle" with all four feet.

     Although usually quiet animals, this hare can squeal and make distinct noises when fighting, distressed, or assembling its young.


 


Fish Dancer painting
"Fishdancer" by Frank Day

Rabbit Crazy

Frank LaPena

Rabbit laughed and slapped his knees

Oh lord you’re really something

and mouse laughed back

They were talking how rabbit

got so many girls and what it takes

to keep them happy

It must be something real good, “Yeah

for a ninety year old…” he’s saying

but he’s really 62

which ain’t bad for a rabbit

“They are from 18 to old…”

He’s talking of his women

I wonder who “they” are

and what he means by “old”

One time, rabbit to show

his friendship offered to

let mouse use his name

for one of rabbit’s children

Mouse’s wife said

she would beat him

if that happened

and mouse and rabbit laughed

They laughed as they talked

of women and babies

and what it takes to be

a crazy rabbit or a lover man




Human Louse
Pediculus humanus humanus and Pediculus humanus capitis
Family Pediculidae

Length:
1/16–1/4" (1.6–6.35 mm)
 
Habitat: Human bodies, temporarily on clothes and/or bedding

Range:
Common throughout California

Comments:
The human louse is grayish with a pear-shaped, flat body. It has short, strong legs for gripping onto its host. It hides in folds and seams of clothing, from which it crawls onto skin to feed on human blood.

     The louse attaches its eggs to clothing, and the eggs hatch in approximately eight days. The louse matures in less than two weeks. The human head louse (Pediculus humanus capitis) glues its eggs, or nits, onto human hair. The female can lay ten eggs per day, fastening each one to a different hair, making them difficult to dislodge. The human body louse, Pediculus humanus humanus, glues its eggs to clothing.

     Infestations of lice cause uncomfortable skin irritations and itching. Outbreaks of head lice are common among schoolchildren. More serious side effects include various diseases, particularly typhus.




 

Ghost Town

G. Ezra Dane

It was one day in the rainy winter of ’54 and ’55, and too wet to work in the mines, so the boys begun to wander in early down at the Long Tom. By noon all the tables was full and the gambling got more exciting as the day wore on. Some of the boys set right there at the tables from morning through all the day and on into the evening, without stopping except to take on a drink or to make room for more.

If you once get the gambling fever, you know, in a place like that, the longer you keep at it, the higher the fever gets. That fever’s catching and it’ll spread through a crowd like any other fever. So monte, faro, seven-up, and the different brands of poker got too slow for some, and they begun laying bets on any chance that offered. At some of the tables they was betting on the turn of a card, and they was one crowd having a spitting tournament at the stove. Then they was some fellows betting which of two flies on the wall would move first, and others at the door laying bets whether or not the next man to come in would be Irish. But the greatest bet in betting history was laid that night by young Ad Pence. An inspiration it was, no less.

“Boys,” says Ad, pounding on the bar to get the attention of the crowd, “Boys,” says he, “luck’s been agin me so far, but I’ve got five hundred here that says I’ve a louse that can beat, in a fair race, any louse that ever cut his teeth on any miner’s hide.”

He’d caught a good lively one and held him up for all the boys to see.

“I say this louse is the champeen,” says Ad, “for I’ve been chasing him around my carcass for a week and I’ve only just caught up with him. Five hundred backs him against all comers.”

Well, at that all the games stopped short, and everybody crowded up to the bar where Ad was showing off this champeen louse. But none of the boys would admit that he kept this kind of stock and it begun to look as though nobody was going to take the bet. Then a stranger, a big Irishman with a red beard, come elbowing his way through the crowd and up to the bar where Ad was standing.

“Will ye let me have a look at that louse?” he says.

So Ad held it out and the stranger squinted at it from one side and then from the other. “A dainty crayther indade he is,” says he, “but I think he’s no racer. His belly’s too low and his legs are too short by a long ways. Now wait just a bit and I’ll have something to show ye.”

So the stranger put his hand inside his shirt, and scrabbled around in there for a minute, and when he pulled it out again, between his thumb and finger he held a struggling louse.

“Me boy,” he says, “your five hundred is as good as gone. But before I take it from ye, I want ye to have a good look at this louse. Ye’ll never see the likes of him again. Ye say yours is the champeen, but ye’ve only had him a wake, and he has not so much as a name. I say he’s but a mongrel. Now this one is the greatest racing louse in all the world, and he has the most distinguished pedigray that ever a louse did boast. And I don’t want to be taking your money under any false pretenses, so I’m going to tell ye his history, and when ye’ve heard it, if ye want to withdraw, I’ll freely let ye do so.

“Just before me old grandfather died, back in Ireland, he called me to his bedside and he said to me: ‘Grandson,’ says he, ‘I’m a pore man. I’ve no money to lave ye, nor any property. But there’s wan threasure I have, Grandson,’ says the old man, ‘Katie, the finest little seam squirrel in all of Ireland, and a direct discindent of one that fed on Saint Patrick.

“‘Take her, Grandson,’ says he, ‘kape good care of her and fade her well, and she'll surely bring ye luck.’

“Now, me boy, this louse ye see here is Larry, Katie’s great-great-great-grandson, and the blood of Saint Patrick himself runs in his veins, so he’s bound to bring me luck. And to show the faith I have in him and in Holy Saint Patrick, bejayziz, I’ll lay a thousand to that five hundred ye bet on yer mongrel louse! Now, do ye still want to make the bet?”

“I do,” says Ad. “Your louse may be good, but I know what mine can do from long chasing of him, and my bet on him still stands.”

So Ad and the stranger placed their stakes with Doc Johns, and side betting begun in the crowd.

“There can be no race without a racetrack,” says the stranger, and he calls to the bar-tender. “Bring us a plate,” he says. “Now, boys, the middle’s the start, the edge is the goal, and the first little pants rabbit over the rim is the winner.”

So the bar tender brought the plate, and the stranger felt of it. “No louse,” says he, “would ever set a good pace on this cold plate. Let’s hate it up a bit, and then you’ll see them kick up their heels and run.”

So they heated the plate piping hot over the stove and set it on a table where all could see. And when Doc Johns counted off: “One, two, three, go!” each man dropped his louse in the middle of the plate and they were off, a-scrambling and a-jumping because it was so hot, you know. The boys was cheering and yelling and standing on chairs to see, and laying bets right and left.

Well, neck and neck it was at the start acrost the bottom of the plate, but Ad’s louse pulled ahead a bit and he was the first to reach the rise of the rim. Then come the last hard pull for the edge. He started up the rise, but when he got about half-way up he lost his footing on the slippery rim and slid down again. So he backed up and he took another run for it, and got up a little further, but again he slid back. He was a game one, that louse was. He tried it again and again, but he couldn’t quite make it. No sir, it was on that last hard pull up the rim of the plate that the blood of Saint Patrick begun to tell, for Larry, the stranger’s lucky louse, he started up slow and careful, and he kept on a-pulling and a-scrambling and up and up he went and over the edge to victory and into his master’s hand. A hero he was, for sure!

The fellows jumped down from the tables then and Jack White, he says: “Three cheers for Larry and the blood of Saint Patrick!” So the boys roared out the three cheers. And they was cheers too, for them young fellows didn’t have no colds, nor consumption neither.

Well, then Doc Johns paid over the fifteen hundred dollars to the stranger, and Ad went up to shake his hand. “Stranger,” he says, “it was a fair race, and the best louse won. The money’s yours and I don’t begrudge it to you. But I’ve one request to make of you, stranger, and if you’ll grant it, I’ll be forever grateful.”

“And what may that be?” says the stranger.

“Just let me borrow Larry till tomorrow,” says Ad.

“But what for?” says the stranger. “Why might ye be wanting to borry me pet?”

“Why, man!” says Ad, “I want to improve my breed!”


 

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