Review: Stephen Burt on Raccoons

British people who own cats usually let them outdoors. Americans in the suburbs or in dense urban neighborhoods often keep our cats inside, and if one reason is rabies (the British have none), another might be the New World animals that compete with cats for curb and can space in our yards. There’s the opossum, our most famous marsupial, and the coyote, enabled by reforestation to show up these days in Northeast American yards; most picturesque, and most rascally, is the raccoon, or rather the array of roaming raccoons, since if you’ve seen one—and she’s seen you—you surely have not seen them all. That mask, children note, makes them look rather like eager bandits, but it also does a pretty bad job of concealing their identities: if you’ve got more than one raccoon prowling your garbage, their size, tails, and distinctive motions may let you strike through the mask and tell them apart.

The most important raccoon in literary history almost certainly died in the early 1970s; she, or he, was the McLean, Virginia critter who explored the garbage of the writer James Tiptree, Jr. (real name Alice Sheldon) thoroughly and charmingly enough to give her name to Sheldon’s second pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon. Raccoona, not Tiptree, got the byline for some of Sheldon’s finest stories, among them the gruesome fable “The Screwfly Solution” (1977), in which men’s inability to separate sexuality from aggression brings about the end of the world. Raccoona, not Tiptree, also wrote the superbly double-edged story “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” (1976), which either envisions a world in which women roam from city to city, alone and unthreatened by men, or announces that such a world cannot be had in our time: the woman who dreams or hallucinates it gets killed.

Those stories should last, but the raccoon behind them is gone now. Raccoons in the wild tend to live just two or three years; in captivity, they can turn thirteen. It’s hard for any merely contemporary raccoon to measure up to that, and certainly the ones in my neighborhood don’t; they jump in and out of our outdoor cans, and do not stand for anything, least of all for writerly scrutiny, whether from me or from Ted Wilson, whose promise to review a raccoon is the proximate cause for the piece you are reading now.

The raccoons that frequent my parents’ place and sort through their garbage in northwest Washington, D.C., however, tell—or at least imply—a different story. If you go to confront them, they squint back at you for a fierce moment before running away. Cute and threatening at the same time, predictable yet alien, they may represent family itself. These big, furry animals, who look but never act huggable, are like the people who have to take you in, the people you somehow haven’t to deserve, to misappropriate Robert Frost. Like family, the raccoons will come back, and back, assertively, whether you like it or not, yet you may never understand what they are thinking; they may never understand you, and (look at that squint again) you may never know if they do. Perhaps they’ve been looking after you, looking out for you, pacing behind you all this time, and you notice it only when you—and they—turn around and look for something to eat.

Moreover, these prowlers of our nation’s capital are not just any raccoons; they are bigger-than-normal, grayer-than-normal raccoons—it’s a beautiful gray, like stormclouds—and they are some of the many raccoons who frequent tree stands and backyards and recycling bins in Washington, D.C. and suburban Maryland, via Rock Creek Park, which has, according to the National Park Service, the highest density of raccoons per acre in the United States. The park, like its raccoons, crosses the District line, and in so doing demonstrates a couple of useful facts about District life.

Like the raccoon, the District of Columbia is black and white in cartoon versions, but rich with tan and brown in real life, though it does have a black and white face. (The D.C. flag even has wide stripes: like tails from raccoons? Or perhaps like raccoons’ broad claws?)

Like raccoons, the District and its institutions—local and national government, and lobbyists, and lots of lawyers—are in one sense scavengers, since they depend on materials (taxes and fees; garbage) brought in from elsewhere, rather than eating directly off the proceeds of heavy industry or agriculture, or things they kill for themselves. As scavengers, they deserve—but may not get—respect.

Like raccoons, local and national government can sometimes poke their noses where they do not belong; and like raccoons, local and national government can be maligned, or ignored, or attacked, in ways that destroy the systems in which they live. If you kill all the scavengers in a forest, the detritus will pile up, choking off more varied growth; if you treat government as a beast to be starved—if you don’t give it the revenue it requires—then garbage may or may not literally pile up in your streets, but you certainly won’t like what happens to your schools.

Thus are the hefty, uncommonly friendly (as long as you keep your distance) raccoons of northwest Washington lessons for all Americans in these taxing—or perhaps insufficiently taxing—times. And yet at least one other aspect makes them peculiarly Washingtonian: like the six hundred thousand-odd human beings who reside in Washington, D.C., the raccoons can visit the Capitol, but they do not get to decide who works there. The 23rd amendment to the Constitution gave D.C. humans a ballot for President; in the House and Senate, however, Washington, D.C. humans, like their procyonid neighbors, still have no vote.

Stephen Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor.