'Where do skunks live?" is a question I am expected to answer. Or at least research. "How deep is a mouse's hole" is another. I am grateful that my nature library has grown extensive enough to uncover such mysteries. But "Why is a catbird a catbird?" ought to be elemental, my dear Victor.
Such requests for information, and quite a few others, are regularly tossed out of the blue at me. They come from Victor, my inquisitive charge. He has great dark brown eyes and a most provocative grin. Challenging, in fact. His mother has suggested he ask me, when he comes to visit and catches me stalking about the yard, whatever questions come to mind. The shrubs and flowers are, for beginners, my domain. Or so she has assured him.
He lies in wait behind the yew or holly, alert to my reflective rounds. When I get close enough he pops up. "What kind of a flower is this?" He holds up a bare-rooted weed. "I don't know," I must admit. "But when we go indoors we'll check it out."
Neither of us for one minute believes it will end there. My interest is piqued. His is entrenched. If I can't recognize it, his find must really be something special.
Half an hour later he'll hit me with it again: "When are you going to find a name for that flower?"
We get out the weed book, and locate what appears to be a wild radish. "How about that?" he marvels. The weed is still under a spindlebush out back, where he dropped it. Again we examine it, limp indeed, picking out the four-petaled blossoms, smelling it, checking it in detail. "I knew we'd name it!" he crows. "Mama said...."
Pepper-grass nearby is another identifiable weed, also known as cress or bird's pepper. "Bird's?" That tantalizes him. He doesn't dare doubt me, but he does look skeptical.
"Birds enjoy the seeds," I say. "Taste."
Following my lead, he puts a seed in his mouth, bites down on the flat disc, and wrinkles his nose.
"It's burny," he accuses.
"In an agreeable sort of way," I grant. "But the word is 'pungent.' The seeds add zip to salads, or dressing, or even soup. After it's cooked."
Victor blinks rapidly. "Are you putting me on? My mama says you should know. But you do make up stories."
For a moment I'm checked. Then I see what he means. He's been told that I write. Writers sometimes exaggerate, do fiction.
"This is true," I assure him, leading him away from shaky terrain.
I must be careful in the expressions I use to convey information to this skeptic. Once I remarked that a chipmunk darted into a hole at the base of an elm tree "faster than you can say 'Jack Robinson.' "
"Who? Faster than who?" Victor asked.
Nothing would satisfy him but research. "Jack Robinson" was certainly not the famous baseball star. We had to probe much deeper. It wasn't enough to explain I simply meant "speedy, expeditious." We had to be entirely satisfied. I withdrew to my book shelves, leaving him in the kitchen bent over a bowl of cereal and sliced peaches. Every so often I heard him laugh out loud, saying, "Jack Robinson! Jack Robinson! Faster'n you can say 'Jack Robinson!' "
I did find a footnote in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations saying that it "is said to be derived from a humorous song by Hudson, a tobacconist in Shoe Lane, London. He was a professional songwriter and vocalist who used to be engaged to sing at supper-rooms and theat- rical houses." Victor was unimpressed, though I derived satisfaction from pursuing the phrase (or chipmunk) to ground.
Later, I found other references. Jack Robinson was a secretary to Britain's King George II, another source stated. Or, the expression may refer to a volatile gentleman who called on his neighbors and was gone before his name could be announced. Perhaps he was one of a famous quartet. None of these explanations seemed worthy to inflict on my inquisitor.
As to "Where do skunks live?" I responded tartly: "Anywhere they want to, as far as I'm concerned." And: "How deep is a mouse's hole?" I explained that there are varieties of mice, house-dwellers to tree, even aquatic. "But deep enough for safety, let's say." He shrugged off that one.
I could see that my stock was losing value with such lame responses. But Victor heard his mother's car braking in the driveway and, quicker than anyone could say "Jack Robinson," he was at the door. He did pause long enough to recognize a catbird mewing overhead, in perfect imitation of a household tabby, however.
And, most important, he called it to his mother's attention before waving goodbye.