My Sweet Minx, Her Glamour Portrait, 1988
Why do I write mostly about cats? I know someone’s gonna ask, so I’m getting this question out of the way first! “The Internet cannot have enough cats” is quoted everywhere online, LOL. I can’t seem to find who said it originally, but it’s true. The world needs more stories of animal rescue, words that will hopefully inspire more people to make kindness and/or rescue a way of life. I truly believe that having companion animals in the home is a healthy way for humans to live.
Sitting by the highway, taking shape out of the forest, trotting along the city streets, they appear. We find them . . . and they find us. Black, orange, brown-striped, patched black-and-orange, white, spotted and all combinations of the above, the felines come meowing, bounding to the door and pressing against the glass, leaping across our paths and into our lives. Or, on the edge of the road or the clearing, they wait serenely until we take notice.
They’ve been abandoned, walked away from, shoved out of cars into the woods, turned out of doors, ignored on city streets and left to reproduce profusely, with kittens they scrounge to feed, and they don’t know the why for any of it. They expect help from us; they come with searching looks, voicing their concerns. They’re mewing and purring like doves, or screeching like banshees. Out of the scenery they lock gazes with us; in traditional wordless feline dialect, the stories begin.
Their personalities are wide-ranging and complex. They’re sunny and affectionate, and moody and complicated; old-school mannerly and scent-pile brash; they’re pranksters and prima donnas. A few are as territorial as wildcats – strong-meowing-types who walk alone. And some of these ‘lone tiger’ individuals will have to live together! We adopt many; for the others, we find good homes.
The above describes our decades-long feline-centric life. In November, 2004, I had lost some of my cats over the previous years, to the ailments of old age. I had been ill for many years and we had found no way out of the blasted disease affecting me, which sometimes blanks out part of my memory while intact islands of recall stay sharply accurate. I figured it was high time I started writing down the stories of my cats. I thought they should be celebrated, not simply forgotten. All were such quirky characters, I knew they would make the pages pop.
The glorious Minx you see above was still with us. With her snoozing alongside of me, I began hand writing a draft late at night. She was, and remains, the Muse. Early on, I figured out the title of the book would be Meow, Y’all! The subtitle, originally Cats, Cougars, and Critters in the Deep South, is now a work in progress.
After typing the framework into the computer, embellishing the narrative led me a merry chase. Far from being just ‘what my cat did yesterday’ notations, the research drew me into stories and studies, down many roads and up many alleyways. I was writing about cats all over the globe, but also a literature of our particular location. As backdrop, I detailed the natural history of felines, as well as of the surrounding deep woods animals and plants, along with some of our own history as we tend the feline royalty. There’s a bit of study about our languages, and theirs. By 2006 I was done – or so I thought. I continued to unearth notes, old letters, and stray memories around the house. References number around 300, and by the time I’ve put in the finishing touches (I work slowly due to the limitations of illness) there will be more.
Starting a cat book is daunting when you glance at a room full of sleepy muzzles tilted skyward and figure, it’s just me and these cats lounging around. But when using precision watchfulness and rapt attention, the actions and musings come direct from an onsite living laboratory of natural history. I hope I’ve woven something engrossing and astonishing out of ordinary moments. I hope I’ve captured the ways cats enlighten us with their presence, as well as some facets of the Why of life with pets, in all its glory. I hope readers who don’t already have pets will want the joy of adopting and cherishing animals when they put the book down. Big hopes, there.
Because this was our time of wilderness living and harrowing household survival, at first I told the story using imagery and anecdotes taken directly from a Southern land of stunning beauty and within a progressive friend group, one not so very different from similar communities around the nation. Our pressing immediate lives of illness and family caregiving made home and forest our daily focus. I had not traveled for many years due to the illness.
When I was able to be ‘out and about ’around the nation and world more via the Internet, I realized I had to do more. I needed to include some of the activist and counter-cultural history here and describe the changes in the Southern region that have occurred since the sixties, when I began my life here. I also had to acknowledge imperfections, and the ongoing nature of the vital work that is not yet done.
So it’s all there! The core of the book remains communication between animals and humans, but like all narratives of life on Earth, the story twists and branches out.
The process of searching for an agent led me into the several ways of trying to tell about the book crisply and briefly. That quick, few sentences of summary thing? It never did seem to stick with me, LOL:
Meow, Y’all! is primarily about communication between animals and humans. My husband and I are sixties-era, offbeat Southerners. At our home in the deep woods of Alabama, domestic cat rescue is now a great part of our lives. We must learn to translate the constant, wordless cat-to-human dialogues and diatribes of feline individualists who open with “meow”, and then take ‘center porch’ to get their ‘druthers across to us. Every cat who comes to claim us, schools us in feline language; each has a story to disclose. I revel in the felines’ repertoire of expressions, posturings, and vocalizations they use to make contact with their fellow cats and to maintain their loving bonds with us. Strict behavioral interpretation will translate these actions; a dash of light anthropomorphism and some Southern conversational idioms help to get the stories told and the meanings across. There will be eleven main cat characters over the years, a supporting cast owned by friends or my Mom, and those cats (and some dogs) we fostered and homed. The cast of cat main characters includes: Ligeia, Yeti, Cullen, The Minx, Kudzu, SpottaLee, Gray Cat, Orange Cat, Minou, Pretty Girl, and MochaBud. The group we have the longest, for twelve years together, includes: My sweetheart black girlkitty, bold and mischievous, who sets the pace for the entire group; the big tuxie, a comedian and flirt who plays practical jokes on the females and has a crush on the black kitty; the talkative petite calico with the movie star personality, and the smaller tuxie, a studious and thoughtful cat who learns to fetch paper wads on his own and teaches us to crumple and toss them on cue.
This region around Tuscaloosa, Alabama, partly Appalachian Ridge and partly coastal plain, is noted for its bountiful variety of plants and animals. The cats enter our house from the glowing backdrop of dense leaves and hidden wild animal awareness, an Appalachian ‘jungle’. They join us in watchful study of the landscape, as the forest’s constant pageantry regales us; foxes, raccoons, and even a cougar make the scene. There’s a daily sensory feast here; it lifts the spirits and sparks the thoughts. Always with an eye on the science, I compare my local impressions of cat intelligence and behavior to those of premier feline experts, and cover cat coat color genetics, profiles of small wildcats worldwide, multi-cat home dynamics, feral cats, major issues such as spaying and neutering, the no-kill movement, and more.
There are also good times and bad times, joy and humor and mystery and adversity and loss; always cat-besotted, this household learns to persevere. Although illness limits my activities, the cats make me feel I am still in the land of the living. They have kept me hopping, in my subdued, ill-person way; our adventures make for a lively narration. The story is also heartfelt remembrance of the remarkable feline beings we’ve shared life and home with, and of the passerby wild creatures along the way. The sad longings due to changes in the flora and fauna and landscape over the years are also part of this story.
This book is a multifaceted romp in deep wilderness living. It blends observations of the changing South from the sixties to the present, the lyricism of making a home in a forest Paradise, and the celebration of the ways humans and animals are always fine tuning their common chords. Here, biographies of humans and cats intertwine, and examinations of natural history, zoology, poetry, and music illuminate the stories. All paths lead eventually, towards a deeper sense of harmony and belonging. Few cat books are set in the Deep South, making this a stand out work in the thriving field of animal writing. As far as I know there is no other Deep South cat narrative outside of My Cat, Spit McGee, by Mississippi writer Willie Morris.
Here’s an example of some humor from my book:
Cat Hamlet might be over much sooner than the original.
Cat Hamlet wouldn’t hesitate to engage the culprit uncle in a yowling and staring contest. They would then tangle up, disengage and take off running. Cat Hamlet would run uncle to the docks where he would disappear into the hold of a ship bound for Norway.
Cat Hamlet would then spray the borders and leave scent piles on the main roads around Denmark, to make sure the uncle does not return.
Meanwhile you know Cat Ophelia’s not going anywhere near that water. She’s curled up sleeping in the palace through all this.
Cat Hamlet would take one sniff of Yorick and make scratching motions on the ground.
When Cat Hamlet returns, he goes to sleep on the throne.
Feeling feisty from his victory, Cat Hamlet wakes, stretches, and grabs Cat Ophelia by the nape of the neck.
The curtain falls.
The audience either hisses en masse, or as a group, rolls around and purrs.
It’s also available on the Itchmo Forum for Cats and Dogs, where I comment as “catwoods”:
Reply #4 in the thread “Hamlet Cat by Shakespaw”
This section is on why I, and I alone, am qualified to write this book, in case you were (grin) wondering:
I have been studying and writing about animals and the natural world for over 45 years. I have always lived close to that world and with those critters, first in Maryland and Virginia, and later in Alabama. I was beginning to be published in a few small literary journals when a serious chronic illness slowed me down in 1992. But it hasn’t stopped me, and I have recently had an essay appear in a local journal. As a University of Alabama student in 1966 I became part of the counter cultural life and ongoing grassroots progressive movements that are sometimes unknown outside this region. We continue by still striving for social justice, and by being part of the growing environmental movement in the South. When we settled into our forest home, every cat living out in the leaves turned up at the door, locked gazes with us, and then darted right inside. After four decades of cat keeping I am well versed in the ways of these smart and adaptable furry experts in intensity, tranquility, and impromptu comedy. As a visual artist, I’ve practiced the careful observation that it takes to learn from animals. Our cats, like all felines, have been originals like no others; I hope this book will preserve the memories of these particular individuals while embodying and conveying the truth that all animals are deserving of the kindest treatment.
Bits and pieces from another synopsis written about the book:
At first we live in a mid-sized university town full of trees. Later we move out beyond the suburbs, into a thickly forested wilderness – full of even more trees – and wildlife. When I develop a rare chronic disease, I become even closer to the cats.
Watching their forays around the house, I explore cat intelligence. I cover group dynamics. I ask the questions: Do they love us? How do they communicate with us? Exactly how do we reach each other? Minx seeks me out for a loving bond of stunning depth and intensity. Despite the language barrier, we have rapport with each cat. With looks, gestures, and meaningful visual cues, they voice their declarations and diatribes.
The book revels in the luxuriance of birds, insects, amphibians, yelling frogs after rain. A lame lady fox brings gentlemen callers and kits around. A screaming non-entity in the night turns out to be a probable cougar. It’s also about the quiet times, the daily light and the way it falls upon the domestic furry ones sitting in sunny spots, illuminating, coloring, and defining every nuance of living in a little lost city of house cats within the forest.
Major cat issues, scientific matters, and my impressions compared with the opinions of experts, are included; there are profiles of small wildcats around the world, starting at home with the bobcat. Delivered in the form of stories and humor and scenic vistas, it’s a practical guide to the dualities of understanding your cat, and to weathering a serious unending illness. An awestruck microscopic minute-by-minute log of natural history, this is the journal by a witness to the astonishing antics of the cats who prowl and purr through its pages.
The agent search has proven difficult, for many reasons. There are so many excellent authors writing today! After all, unlike music or visual arts or dance or theater, everyone on Earth is practicing to become a writer. If you are using language, you are training daily. The result is a writing world – and that’s a good thing, of course. The immense field of cat writing is not confined to zoologists, natural history professionals, and those working in animal-related fields. Writers and scholars with widely varied backgrounds have written cat books. Psychologists, sociologists, humorists. Quotes about cats have come from the writers and artists Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Leonardo DaVinci, who said “The cat is nature’s masterpiece”.
The book market has trends and a given submission may be finely written, but not perceived as today’s hot topic. Agents and their assistants have their own personal preferences. An unsolicited book submission may compete with the works of writers a particular agent already represents.
So here it is, a few of the many ways to tell about my cat writings. Big welcome to all readers! I hope everyone will want to read this book, because there’s another one looming. The addition of a dog to our household suggests a shift into a narrative that I can’t represent with a title that relies on “Meow”! The loss of my Mom means her cats have now joined my household. Our presence in the tornadoes of April 27, 2011 enlarges the story beyond what I’d like to stuff into this one book. A changing medical condition makes me less able to write the constant letters needed to obtain a literary agent. So, I am placing this here mainly to announce the book to readers of animal and nature literature; if by chance agents notice it, that’s cool too. I’m still open to having an agent; so any who are interested, contact me! I’m also considering the idea of self-publishing. One way or another, I hope to make the book available.
First I have to complete a few finishing touches; it’s presently only about 400 pages. Since I’ve been ill I’ve dropped off the face of the earth socially. This book will answer the question,” just what has she been doing?”! (Quite a few will have seen this coming: cats are involved! LOL.)
Whatever happens publication-wise, I at least have a written history of my cats, and for me, composing this story has been laissez les bon temps rouler!
For an article condensed from this book, click here: http://catwoodsporchparty.wordpress.com/2013/06/12/black-cats-in-sun-and-shade-a-painters-eye-view/