Sunday, 1 February 2015

FAQ: Why badgers?

"What's the deal with you and badgers?"

It's a fair question, and one I'm asked not infrequently by both longtime friends and new acquaintances. Admittedly, badgers are pretty far removed from my other writings and scholarship--and in some ways my badger interest is a seemingly eccentric departure. After all, I've never worked with wildlife in any sustained way, although I spent much of my early life roaming the Pikes Peak wilderness near and around my hometown of Victor, Colorado, and over time encountered a fair share of elk, deer, coyotes, bighorn sheep, and occasionally even bears (mostly through my dad's work as a hunting guide and outfitter). I'm not a zoologist; my area of scholarship is Indigenous Studies, focusing on nation-specific literary traditions, primarily through novels, nonfiction, and poetry. Although badgers appear in the traditional stories and ceremonial cycles of many Indigenous peoples across North America (and elsewhere in the world), they're not among the prominent animals of Cherokee tradition, so I can't even claim cultural affiliation with them.

I've held a newly dead badger, was gifted a beautiful badger pelt from the Alberta prairies, have examined the badger specimens in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia, and have seen my fair share of taxidermic trophies in little antique and souvenir stores as well as museums. Yet the most meaningful contact I've had with this fascinating species has been when photographing vibrant, living badgers: one in the Oklahoma City Zoo (nicknamed Frances), and two in the now-defunct Muskoka Wildlife Centre (with residents Sandy and Dozer) near my former home in Ontario.

(Photo shoot at the Muskoka Wildlife Centre near Gravenhurst, Ontario, 2011. That's me with the camera, Sandy staring me down, and Centre staff keeping Sandy at a safe distance. Badgers, staff, and photographer were all unharmed before, during, and after the session, although neither Sandy nor her brother Dozer were much amused by my visit.)

So, why badgers?

It's hard to tell what the specific spark of interest might have been, by I do have some ideas. Certainly there were no transforming encounters in my childhood, no visionary experiences that had anything to do with badgers. It's been a gradual acquaintanceship that, over time, has turned into abiding admiration. Very simply, I've always been fascinated by underground beings, in fact but even more in fiction and story. Story has always been the first and most significant way I've come to understand the world and its wonders. This is, I think, how my interest in badgers first began: strange beings inhabiting magical, secret worlds far from the mundane world of the everyday. As a boy I liked moles, too, and it's likely no surprise that Mole and Badger from Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows were early on among my favourite literary figures. Their private conversation about the history of Mr. Badger's sprawling sett was a particularly memorable scene from the novel. (At the time I had no inkling that these were the Eurasian species and that their North American counterparts were quite different.) The delightful Cosgrove Hall stop-motion animated TV series was, for a time, my favourite show, and contributed a great deal to my escapist childhood Anglophilia.

(Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1940)

(Illustration by Ernest H. Shepard, 1931)

(Cosgrove Hall puppet from the TV series, 1983-1989. My favourite Mr. Badger, voiced by Sir Michael Horndern.)

No Toad or Ratty (or, more accurately, Water Vole) for me--Ratty's condescending pontification about The River bored me, and the only interest I had in Toad Hall was the secret underground passage Badger used to lead the small band of beasts to liberate Toad's ancestral home from the weasels of the Wild Wood.

When I was a boy growing up the third generation of my mother's family in the once-great gold-mining town of Victor, Colorado, deep in heart of traditional Ute territory, I was acutely aware that there were mysteries in the hidden places of the earth, the shadowed realm of strange beings with ancient ways and alien understandings. My parents both worked for the mines at various times, as did my maternal grandfather; Victor is honeycombed beneath with innumerable tunnels, an entire underworld of darkness, dangers, ruins, and wealth both untapped and tapped out. After the Utes were forcibly removed to the southwestern corner of the state in the late nineteenth century, the region became "The City of Mines," a wild and ambitious settlement filled with thousands of fortune-seekers who dreamed, despaired, and mostly disappeared; it's now a small community of around 400 people, many employed by the local open-pit mine operation or in the casinos of nearby Cripple Creek. The hillsides around Victor are littered with the remnants of that age--tailings piles, mining head frames, ruined processing mills, crumbling and abandoned houses--with many wind-worn memories of the grand world of the past that continued alongside the sleepier world of the present.

(Victor, Colorado, c. 2006. My photo.)

I can trace a good deal of my interest in burrowing beings to my upbringing in this evocative place, as well as the early impact of J.R.R. Tolkien and his earth-dwelling hobbits and dwarves (and the animated Rankin-Bass and Ralph Bakshi renderings of these subterranean peoples). In addition to Tolkien and his fantasy descendants (including dwarves and halflings from the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons), I was also a fan of the eponymous characters in Tony Johnston's The Adventures of Mole and Troll, who in Wallace Tripp's fine ink drawings seemed to be a synthesis of the beings of both Grahame's and Tolkien's worlds. The subterranean Nome King of L. Frank Baum's Oz series was a worthy if petulant opponent to Ozma, Dorothy, and the other magical beings of that chromatic fairyland.

And then there were the tommyknockers. These were spirits who supposedly inhabited Victor's hidden underworld. Originating as the "knockers" of Welsh and Cornish mining folklore and the miners ("tommies") who brought it to the district, they took the form of wizened little men who variously tormented and protected miners with their mysterious taps on the rock walls and miscellaneous pranks. By the 1970s, tommyknockers were so associated with Victor that one became the city's unofficial mascot.

(Myriam Friggens and Gene Coulter's 1980 book featuring a tommyknocker on the cover.)
These folkloric and fantasy works all contributed to my fascination for the Underworld and its denizens, which continued as I grew older and morphed into an interest in the living creatures who abide in the earth--as well as their symbolic significance. And while my Anglophilia faded and my commitment to my Cherokee heritage grew stronger, I remained interested in the more obscure and less understood creatures, but became far more connected to those from the lands I call home on this hemisphere. As someone with more than a passing love of history, the deep memory of the earth and its peoples was also appealing. Not coincidentally, badger lore all over the world makes this quite elemental link between ancient tradition and burrowing creatures as well.

Here, at last, is where we get to badgers. They always interested me, but it really wasn't until I was an adult that they started to directly engage my imagination in a more sustained way. When writing The Way of Thorn and Thunder, a secondary-world Indigenous epic fantasy about forced removal and the resilient resurgence of Indigenous peoples, I looked to Badger as the meaningful clan animal for one of the main characters, the plucky storyteller and tradition-keeper, Tobhi Burrows, one of the little people of my world.

(Tobhi Burrows, my illustration, 2008. Note the stylized badger etched onto the gorget around his neck.)

Buborru the Keeper, spiritual herald for the Burrows family and the Badger Clan, is a relatively minor presence in the book, but when I wanted a second tattoo it was clear to me that it had to include the prominent image of Tobhi's badger clan symbol as its centrepiece. I picked up a few badger souvenirs over the years, and looked for badgers in various books, films, arts, and other media, but the interest remained a bit dormant as I attended to other projects more immediately relevant to my primary work in Indigenous literatures.

Then I read Martin Wallen's Fox, one of the first volumes in the Animal Series from UK-based Reaktion Books, and the outlines of another project--somewhat weird, but increasingly wonderful--started to come into view. There was really only one animal I wanted to study and write about, only one creature whose global lore and specific contexts would capture my imagination for a book-length study. And, unlike when I was a kid, I knew that the North American badger had a long and rich history of relationships with Indigenous peoples, which connected nicely to my other work. After reading more works in the series and getting a sense of their scope and audience, I contacted the publisher to see if there was a badger book in the works, and--long story short--ended up with a contract for Badger.

That was about five years ago. It's been a wild journey, but one I've enjoyed immensely. The book is at last out and ready for the world, but in the process I ended up with a great deal of excess material about--and a much deeper fascination with--these misunderstood mustelids. Seems a shame to just let it linger in my data files. Besides, I still receive badger-themed gifts from friends to add to the overflowing shrine in my office; I still seek out badgerish materials and resources; and although I'm on to other projects now, I remain a dedicated and even more enthusiastic badger partisan than I was before this all began.

(A small part of my ever-growing badger collection.)

The British writer Phil Drabble once said that he suffered from “acute and incurable melophilia...a rare and delightful ailment from which I am thankful that I can never be healed....The only symptom is a deep affection for badgers.”[1] The North American variant of his English ailment is, I think, rightly named taxideaphilia. It's my own "delightful ailment," and one I'm quite happy to say appears to be a lasting affliction.

And thus The Badger Files!

[1] Phil Drabble's Country Scene, p. 41. Drabble's Latin is a bit off, however, with meliphilia a more accurate neologism. Special thanks to Simon Flory, Badger Specialist with the website, who generously shared the source of Drabble's excellent quotation.  The site is a great resource for meliphiles and taxideaphiles alike!

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