By VERLYN KLINKENBORG
For the spring semester, I am renting a small house in Claremont, Calif.,
a modest ranch in a modest neighborhood. Like most of the houses on the
block, its facade pays a dutiful, if glib, homage to the street, but
the house’s real attention — its gaze — is directed
toward the carefully fenced backyard, where an orange tree grows and
there is shelter from the sun under the long, wide roof of the porch.
For wildlife, there are cats. In fact, I seem to
be living in a feline observatory. Large windows
look out onto the porch, and the porch seems
to have been used — for how long, I have no idea — by the
cats of the neighborhood as a kind of theater, a place to work on their
soliloquies. One by one, they come across the yard and up onto the porch,
where they rehearse a fixed repertory of poses. Then they make their
exit, stage left, departing through a small gap between the gate and
I cannot see these cats — I’ve counted nearly a dozen so
far — without thinking of a sentence by the writer Guy Davenport: “My
cat does not know me when we meet a block away from home, and I gather
from his expression that I’m not supposed to know him, either.”
Perhaps that’s the value of my backyard as feline habitat. It’s
a college-owned house, and it sat empty for the past few months. I’m
unknown to these cats, and therefore they put on no pretense. Perhaps
some are genuinely feral street cats. I suspect most of them have good
homes with owners who let their pets out. My yard is where they come
to be themselves.
I especially admire one nimbus-gray cat that comes
walking across the yard looking as much like a feline
bull as it is possible to look. I’m
fond, too, of the longhair that spends a good part of the day sitting
on top of the van parked across the street but takes a tour of my backyard
around dusk. I stand back from the windows, hoping to remain undetected,
but at least one of the cats — a gray and white — has found
me out. It sits watching me as though it has never seen a writer in its
habitat before. Then it walks away, jaded.
I would trade these cats for birds, of course, but
the one precludes the other. I’ve seen a flicker
and a scrub jay, also a hummingbird and several doves.
The rest of the birds have been turned into cats
the years, just as the desert has been turned into houses with cats in
them. Meanwhile, the neighborhood dogs stand behind their fences and
bark at what they think is going on.