The Ravine

T. S. Eliot knew cats. His 1939 collection of poems, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, introduces us to the fact that cats have three names: an everyday one, a peculiar one (like Coricopat or Jellylorum), and one that only the cat knows. Many people are familiar with the idea, since “The Naming of Cats” appears as a song in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical based on the book. And by “many people” I mean the 70+ million who have seen the musical, minus those who fell asleep before the second song, which conservatively, I’m putting at two million.

But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?

Although I refer to this place informally as Red Cedar, it does also have a peculiar name, and that’s Godegh Kerwys. I decided a few years back we needed a name that fairly represents the reality of this spot, which is that we are only borrowing it from the mule deer. While they are expanding their families, ours is staying pat, so sooner or later there will be a knock on the door, the sharp rap of cloven hoof, and firm but friendly insistence that we need to move out. It’s time. The deer are repossessing.

My mother, a proud Cornishwoman, a Bard, and a cat lover (well, cat feeder; indulger of cats others brought home) would have sanctioned a name from the old country. So I wrote to the Cornish Language Office in Truro, only forty or so minutes by ox cart from where mom was born, and asked them this: if we were to translate the phrase “The hiding place of the deer” into Cornish, what would it be? A very nice man wrote back and said that “deer” was easy. A deer is karow; the plural is kerwys. “Hiding place” is a bit more tricky. He had settled on godegh, which, although it doesn’t appear in some online dictionaries, means lurking-place, lair, “cover for wildlife”. A print dictionary I have explains that one meaning was copse, a thicket or wooded area that provided cover for brigands, nasty characters who would accost you on the road and steal your crumpet, tie your shoelaces together, and put treacle in your hair, and then disappear again into the undergrowth. Deer, in fact. I was satisfied: Godegh Kerwys fit the bill perfectly. I put it on a sign hung against the door frame of the workshop.

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From the shop — a converted four-car garage, where the sign is hung — the ravine is directly below when you look west. The area has four points of interest: the path itself on the left, well-used by the deer; the south level — a dirt platform I began clearing, no more than 2 metres deep by 2.75 metres wide; the west level, where the chicken coop stands, at the far back of the property; and the trees along the stream, two ponderosa pines framing the Great Cottonwood between them. It is an inconvenient spot because there is so little space. One day, if I reduce some of the undergrowth and remove the electrical boxes and henhouse, it will take the shape of an elongated horseshoe with a stream running through it. A wild place, though, where in spring you stumble across honeysuckle, hollyhock, and wild rose, water tumbling from an unknown source high on the hill, and then in summer, wade through chest-high thistle and stinging nettle.

I fool myself that I have plans for it, that I’ll put a bench down on the south level and spend afternoons in quiet contemplation. But the platform is already overgrown again, and each new season it gets more disheveled. When the flowers on the mountain ninebark are out and the bees collect on them, the ravine hums to itself, hums the name only Godegh Kerwys knows, its third, deep and inscrutable singular Name.

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