Monday, December 06, 2010

`Their Whinnering at Night'

In a Jan. 30, 1855, journal entry, Thoreau notes a conversation he had with a neighbor, the farmer George Minott:

“Said the raccoon made a track very much like a young child’s foot. He had often seen it in the mud of a ditch.”

Several things are poignant in this report of a friend’s anecdote. Despite the myth, Thoreau was no hermit. More than most he was comfortable in his own company but relished companionship on his own terms. Minott shows up in Thoreau’s journal more frequently than Emerson, and among humans only Ellery Channing appears more often. Thoreau calls Minott “the most poetical farmer” and seems to have seen an unliterary reflection of himself in his neighbor.

Before Sunday morning I hadn’t noticed the resemblance of a racoon's track to a child’s foot. Through the kitchen window I watched one navigate the backyard, pausing to scratch like a dog, before climbing our fence and the neighbor’s, and disappearing behind their empty rabbit hutch. He was corpulent and moved like a sack of puppies but his prints in the mud looked undeniably like a kid’s in a freshly poured sidewalk. In the “Brute Neighbors” chapter in Walden, Thoreau writes:

“It is remarkable how many creatures live wild and free though secret in the woods, and still sustain themselves in the neighborhood of towns, suspected by hunters only. How retired the otter manages to live here! He grows to be four feet long, as big as a small boy, perhaps without any human being getting a glimpse of him. I formerly saw the raccoon in the woods behind where my house is built, and probably still heard their whinnering at night.”

Webster’s Third gives “whinny” and “whicker” as synonyms for “whinner,” and defines it as “to whine feebly,” another quality raccoons share with some children.

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