The cat, recovered to his customary state of contemplative hauteur, sits before the sliding glass doors in the kitchen, studying ornithology. The phrase is Thoreau's, from the journal, Oct. 2, 1858:
“The garden is alive with migrating sparrows these mornings. The cat comes in from an early walk among the weeds. She is full of sparrows and wants no more breakfast this morning, unless it be a saucer of milk, the dear creature. I saw her studying ornithology between the corn-rows.”
This time of year the backyard curriculum/menu features crows, song sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and robins. The cat, confined to the house, twitches and mutters under his breath, responding to instincts that serve only to torment him.
It’s a comfort to know Thoreau, who claimed “In Wilderness is the preservation of the World," favored so domestic and civilized a creature as a cat. So did Montaigne, Samuel Johnson and Henry James – evidence we can, with confidence, posit the superiority of cat lovers over partisans of their graceless, under-evolved rival, the dog. In his final journal entry, from November 1861, written six months before his death, Thoreau describes the birth of four kittens. On Feb. 15, 1861, already mortally ill but still enjoying the company of cats, he writes:
“A kitten is so flexible that she is almost double. The hind parts are equivalent to another kitten with which the fore part plays. She does not discover that her tail belongs to her till you tread upon it. How eloquent she can be with her tail. She jumps into a chair and then stands on her hind legs to look out the window, looks steadily at objects far and near, first gazing this side, then that, for she loves to look out a window as much as any gossip.”