Thursday, 15 January 2015

A Digging Machine

Of all the badgers, the North American badger is perhaps the most powerful and effective burrower, having been observed to not only completely disappear through hardened soil in mere minutes, but to dismantle even more challenging foundations, as related in 1939 by Mary Louise Perry:

The powerful little digger went through hard ground as well as soft. He not only played havoc with a firmly packed automobile road but even dug through the concrete of a basement floor! Whenever in the inch-thick concrete the badger found a flaw he picked out little pebbles until an opening was afforded for his claws, then jerked out sections of the concrete. He then scooped up a few handfuls of the dirt beneath it and proceeded to another flaw…..When he desired to move a big rock he wedged both muzzle and foreclaws under the rock, pried it loose, and dragged it to its destination with his powerful forelegs.[1]

Biologist Barbara Ver Steeg recounts in an interview that a single badger defeated her entire research team’s attempts at capture in the American Midwest: “We actually tried digging one out a couple times and that was a total failure.” She notes: “They’re very impressive diggers…It’s just a huge plume of dirt in the air behind them--and then they’re gone.”[2]

[1] Mary Louise Perry, ‘Notes on a Captive badger’, The Murrelet: A Journal of Northwestern Ornithology and Mammalogy 20.3 (September-December 1939), p. 51.
[2] qtd. in Heather Rigney, ‘Still at home in the Badger State’, Wisconsin Natural Resources online (December 1999) <>

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

On Badgers and Emergences

Among the Pueblo peoples of the American Southwest, the solitary North American species of badger, Taxidea taxus, is a primordial friend and ally; indeed, as Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko observes, it was a she-badger who made possible the migration of humans and other beings from the Fourth World beneath us into this, the Fifth World of our current existence:

The people found the opening into the Fifth World too small to allow any of them or any of the animals to escape. They had sent a fly out through the small hole to tell them if it was the world which the Mother Creator had promised. It was, but there was the problem of getting out. The antelope tried to butt the opening to enlarge it, but the antelope enlarged it only a little. It was necessary for the badger with her long claws to assist the antelope, and at last the opening was enlarged enough so that all the people and animals were able to emerge up into the Fifth World.

This is not an account of Badger’s biological origins; she emerged from the Fourth World fully formed as we know her today; her evolutionary history or mystical creation is not the point of the story. Rather, the origin account here is of a different kind, not of species, but of relationship: “Life on the high arid plateau became viable,” Silko argues, “when the human beings were able to imagine themselves as sisters and brothers to the badger, antelope, clay, yucca, and sun. Not until they could find a viable relationship to the terrain, the landscape they found themselves in, could they emerge.”[1]
Badgers are all about emergences. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a number of definitions for the verb and its underworld resonances. Of relevance to our purpose here are 3a and 4a: “To come forth into view; to pass out, issue, from an enclosed space, area of obscuration, etc.” and “To rise into notice, come forth from obscurity.”[2] Drawing on these definitions, we find that, in the human imagination, the earth-dwelling badgers are always emerging and submerging--our relationships to them are shaped in large part by their rise from and return to the earth, their surfacing fully formed from the chthonic underworld of primordial mystery and, to some degree, beyond the reach of human constructions of ever-obscured originations. Indeed, in a survey of various myth cycles and historical references to badgers, it seems a consistent pattern that badgers preceded humans into this world, or at least into territories that humans seek to claim as their own. When humans and badgers interact in these traditions, it is generally badgers who have had a defining influence on humans, not the reverse. (In daily practice, however, human impacts on badger populations are generally negative.)
If there had been badgers in Eden, it is far more likely that they would have been the name-givers to those strange bipedal apes mooning around fruit trees, not the other way around. Perhaps they might have prevented that fateful Fall. For those anxious primates, the emergence from Eden was a curse, and a torment inflicted by a wrathful Father God; for Badger of the Laguna Pueblo account, the move from the Fourth World to the Fifth was far from a calamity--it was an honouring of Mother Creator’s gift. 
And it was Badger, among others, who made it all possible.

[1] Leslie Marmon Silko, “Landscape, History, and Pueblo Imagination,” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, eds. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (Athens, GA, 1996), p. 273.
[2] “Emerge, v.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. <>

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Badgers in Literature: Kenneth Grahame's Other Badger

Although best known for The Wind in the Willows (1908), the writer Kenneth Grahame was also the creator of the short story, "The Reluctant Dragon" (1898). As a somewhat vexed romantic, and as a keen observer of both animal behaviour and human attitudes toward animals, Grahame offers another badger, this one unnamed but significant.  In this contemplative fantasy, the brave knight St. George comes to a small village in the Berkshire Downs to dispatch a fearsome dragon.  To his confusion and disappointment, however, he finds that the (notably unnamed) dragon in question is not the least bit disposed toward fighting; rather, the dragon is a cultivated and gentle soul, and it is the humans of the area who are bloodthirsty, as the dragon’s young human friend points out:

"Oh, you’ve been taking in all the yarns those fellows have been telling you," said the Boy impatiently.  "Why, our villagers are the biggest storytellers in all the country round.  It’s a known fact.  You’re a stranger in these parts, or else you’d have heard it already.  All they want is a fight.  They’re the most awful beggars for getting up fights--it’s meat and drink to them.  Dogs, bulls, dragons--anything so long as it’s a fight.  Why, they’ve got a poor innocent badger in the stable behind here, at this moment.  They were going to have some fun with him to-day, but they’re saving him up now till your little affair is over.["][i]

St. George and the dragon become friends, but to fulfil the letter (if not the spirit) of tradition--and to entertain the bored villagers--they decide to participate in a mock battle that will offer excitement without bloodshed.  In the celebratory feast that follows, St. George "made a speech, in which he informed his audience" that, among other issues, "they shouldn’t be so fond of fights, because next time they might have to do the fighting themselves, which would not be the same thing at all.  And there was a certain badger in the inn stables which had got to be released at once, and he’d come and see it done himself."[ii]  In this unassuming and pacifist-oriented story, both badgers and dragons are spared death for human entertainment, and the people of the community learn to appreciate their other-than-human neighbours; though unnamed and unseen, this badger is kindly remembered by a brave hero whose masculinity is not dependent upon tormenting small animals for sport.

[i] Kenneth Grahame, The Reluctant Dragon (New York: Holiday House, 1938), p. 29.

[ii] Kenneth Grahame, The Reluctant Dragon, p. 52.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Badgers in Literature: W.B. Yeats's Tidy Badgers and Fouling Foxes

Drawing on folk comparisons between supposedly filthy foxes and fastidious badgers, the Irish poet-playwright W.B. Yeats eulogized the great artists of his time in ‘The Municipal Gallery Re-visited’ (1937) with the defiant line ‘And now that end has come I have not wept;/No fox can foul the lair the badger swept’, hinting that there would be no lesser poets to sully the work of the greater ones. Yeats explicitly drew the proverb from Edmund Spenser’s 1591 lament for the death of Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester, in The Ruines of Time, as well as ‘the common tongue’.[i] Spencer's earlier poem was a much more pessimistic view of noble men (badgers) displaced by far inferior ones (foxes).

[i] W.B. Yeats, The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume IV: Early Essays, edited by Richard J. Finneran and George Bornstein (New York, 2007), pp. 470-471.