Putting out food for birds in your backyard can attract predators, and virulent diseases like trichonomosis or avian pox can be spread through contaminated feeders. But even if its impact is not always positive for wildlife, it is for us. We give food to wild creatures out of a desire to help them, spreading cut apples on snowy lawns for blackbirds, hanging up feeders for chickadees. The British nature writer Mark Cocker holds that the ‘‘simple, Franciscan act of giving to birds makes us feel good about life, and redeems us in some fundamental way.’’ This sense of personal redemption is intimately tied up with the history of bird-feeding. The practice grew out of the humanitarian movement in the 19th century, which saw compassion toward those in need as a mark of the enlightened individual.
I was eleven when the family cat died—we found her on the cold concrete floor of the garage—but once we’d buried her in the backyard and erected a modest wooden cross, it occurred to me that she might not be dead. Sure, I had seen her dead, had held her dead body, but what if we’d been premature, what if she were only sleeping very, very stilly? The thought haunted me: I had a few nightmares where her little calico paw came jutting up through the ground, as in the archetypal images of zombie uprising. I went so far as to visit the grave with a trowel in hand, but the ground was soft and spongy, the soil still unsettled, and I got the creeps. I convinced myself the cat was extremely, entirely deceased.
In every field, the answer to the question of diversity tends to hinge on questions of representation. With the arts and media especially, there’s the question of seeing a version of oneself (or one’s actual self!) on a magazine cover or onscreen. With written stories, there’s the hope for diversity not just among authors and characters, but stories themselves.
When Dr. Paul Kalanithi sent his best friend an email in May 2013 revealing that he had terminal cancer, he wrote: “The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” It was a jokey way of dealing with the unthinkable but also an indication of Dr. Kalanithi’s tremendous ambition. He had led a fascinating life and was not about to leave it unchronicled.
I have now spent over 40 years as a freelance author and ghostwriter, during which time I have kept a meticulous record of every penny earned and can, with hindsight, see exactly how my personal experiment has panned out.