Victor Davis Hanson // Private Papers
At 10 or 11, we graduated to do more of the shooting—with more of the same repetitious caveats, “Never shoot a bird on the wire.” I shot instead cottontails with another of my dad’s ancient guns, a 1890 Winchester .22 pump. I brought the carcasses to my grandfather around 5 PM on weekends. He paid a dollar for each, and skinned two or three. And my sainted grandparents fried them for dinner.
Once at 13, I shot a pregnant possum and collected the babies that emerged alive. No need to go on. But after that I quit shooting for six months.
Then I began noticing quite abruptly that rabbits shrieked when hit—if you listen. They cry out in a shrill human-like voice. After that I quit hunting them altogether and have never shot one since. I later cursed myself for shooting any of them, even when they devoured the shoots in the young vineyard. So I mostly liked all the animals or at least liked them enough not to kill them.
One exception though: In my teens my grandfather kindly asked me to kill flicker woodpeckers who destroyed the barn siding. Their descendants still do. I had shot 10 or so in my lifetime, but the holes in barn always just got bigger. Now I mostly let them drill the same barn all daylong and patch their damage. Why kill a woodpecker in 2021, when they are up against the same things we are?
Tonight, I walked the Queensland heelers and saw in succession more coyotes, the two kestrels (fancy words for canny sparrow hawks), the huge sneaky, duplicitous, conniving great horned owl mute on an almond trunk, as if no one can see him in the shadows (his excrement is full of the most interesting skeletons).
A pit bull, dumped and gone wild, lingers around. He should seem scary, roaming the orchards without a collar and probably not vaxxed. But when he nears us, it is more like he smells food on the dogs and wants in on it. I’ve never seen a wild pit bull who wishes to be neither a pit bull nor wild, but just one of the quieter gang. No matter, the dogs shoo him away.
Then, presto, a rare gopher snake. He was immobile, either half-dead or faking such on the alleyway. I caught him and put him into a squirrel’s hole, so the tractor wouldn’t smash him the next morning. He even hesitated to slither in.
The nearby Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus—or the “plover”) appeared out of nowhere, as if his fake deceptive hops would lead the snake away from her eggs on the berm. There is not much to a Killdeer’s nest. They simply lay eggs on some straw and the dirt and then patrol about.
When they see you approaching, they squeak “kill-dee,” “kill-dee.” Then the act gets really interesting. They hop about in front of you, quite badly faking a broken wing or sprained leg. They think the dog, the squirrel or the owl are stupid. (Are they?)
So their enemies will mindlessly for the nth time follow them and almost devour them (As a kid, I too always was conned and would be pied-pipered away for hundreds of yards, always 4-feet short of his tail, never noticing that the speed of the hops was calibrated to my proximity).
Their idiot predators, after millennia I guess, never caught on that if they would go in the exact opposite direction, ignore their “I’m so hurt that you’ll probably catch and eat me” schtick, then the coyote and owl will always find their bright, tasty eggs.
I confess I like these (often incompetent) fakers of the animal kingdom: the “hidden” owl that a fool can spot; the “frozen” snake who got his camouflage mixed up; the limp coyotes who never quite lead the dogs into a full ambush; the fake Red-tails who befriend you and then bolt; and these fake Killdeers who remind me of the high-school linebacker, who always had a sprained ankle predictably 10 minutes before kickoff time.
Sixty years have vanished and I guess I have regressed to seven again, same place, same animals, same story, same me, nothing more. I can’t tell whether the animals are the great-great something of their long dead ancestors of the 1950s, or simply became divine and are deathless and the same creatures. This lockdown proved not so awful in that it reminded me after a year, there is nature; there is the soil; there is the farm. Not much else matters in the end for us renters, who enter and exit the stage rather rapidly. Is it so bad to come full circle and end as you started?
Bumble bees hover and buzz the porch. My wife asked me who or what they were? I told her that the fakers owned the place. I knew these guys, and their great grandparents to the 50th degree and so knew their con too. When I was five, it was the same two bumble bees, same place, same faux menacing, some loud buzzing, same posturing pair who would never sting you.
For all the urbanization, the vandalism, the end of days pessimism, the animals do survive. They never leave.
I learned a lot from animals. They move seconds before we can hear or see or smell why. They have personalities too. Those two Red-tails follow us as we walk, soaring right over head as if to signal, “Don’t worry, you fools, we know you won’t’ shoot at us like the vandals from town have. We’re guiding you home. It’s just our way of doing things. But don’t count on us following you for too long. In the end, we can’t afford to be your friends.”
About a month ago, the bolder Red-tail flew about 10 feet above my head for about 200 yards. I remember Roman omens, but forgot whether it was good or bad when the eagle flew perpendicular or parallel—whether to cross or not the Rubicon? The surrealism was ruined when a crow attacked him and drove him off, a nasty FW-190 turning inside circles on a lumbering B-17.
I have an older brother who grew up here and became a writer. He too absorbed the animals and the domesticated ones too: the rabbits in my grandfather’s cage, the chickens in the coop, Jack the donkey and the pony Jim in the barn, and the lassie dog. He has written children’s creature poems, as if they were wise guy philosophers, lizards and such. I never asked him why, but I wonder whether he too remembers the magical child’s garden of the 1950s, in what my grandfather (1890-1976) and grandmother (1891-1983), the third generation who lived in this house, used to call, “Our own little paradise out here” And it was, or at least it seems so now.
The book was called What the Lizard Said.
Editor’s note on story version: This is the second version of the story which is significantly different from the first that was accidentally posted May 13 @ 9:30pm.