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They ate everything. Rare is the epicurean pig who has feasted at such a varied table as the one I provided. I tried to drive them off. Banged on the windows, shrieked, and after a goodly amount of accomplishing nothing whatsoever through those means, cautiously opened the door a crack, stuck my head out, and hollered.

They ignored me profoundly, inciting me to extremes. I stooped to throwing rocks, and once by the wildest of chances, so help me God, I hit one, broadside. With a rock the size of a softball, and a respectable thud. The victim paused for half an instant midgobble and sniffed the air as if to ask, Was that a change in the weather? Then returned to the hollyhocks at hand. This is the beautiful plant whose singularly lethal sap is used by African hunters to poison their darts. Javelinas understand spite: they uprooted my Adenium obesum, gored it, and left it for dead.


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Over the months our house slowly grew, with javelinas watching. We framed up an extra room, which we would eventually connect to the old house by tearing out a window, once it was sealed to the outside. We laid out sheet-metal ductwork, which would go into the ceiling, for heating the new addition. The pigs had found their way into the new room and were trampling the ductwork, sending their tinny war cry to the stars above. Ownership is an entirely human construct. At some point people got along without it.

Many theorists have addressed the question of how private property came about, and some have gone so far as to suggest this artificial notion has led us into a mess of trouble.

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But to own land, plants, other animals, more stuff than we need—that is the peculiar product of a modern imagination. Other social primates that live in large groups, like Japanese macaques and baboons, communicate with a much richer repertoire of sounds than the solitary primates like orangutans. Many social mammals use not only verbal but olfactory signals—a language of the nose. An example of complex communication among birds, familiar to any rural child, is that of the socially cooperative chickens, who use different calls in the wild, as well as the barnyard to refer to important events in their lives: krk krk krk food over here ; kark kark KARK really good food over here ; RRRR-rrrr hawk overhead.

Parrots, another famous category of garrulous birds, are presumed by scientists to have developed their gift of gab because of social habits and longevity in the wild. The theory that has percolated best into popular imagination is the one that claims men clobbered the animals, providing intermittent jubilations of protein for the home crowd, while women dug roots, picked fruits and seeds, and harvested edible plant parts.

The latter activities presumably would provide the bulk of the steady calories, but for many decades the burgeoning science of human origins was captivated by the hunting scenario: the need to peer out over the savannah grass as incentive for walking upright; the necessities of spear making and cooperative hunting giving rise to language, dexterity, and a large, complex brain.

Considering that we have been walking upright and approximately human for more than twice that long, carnivory may have been an afterthought. Anthropologist Adrienne Zihlman argues that the challenge that shaped us was most likely the savannah environment itself, which is not a monoculture of tall grass but a complex mosaic of grassland, hills, and forested areas along watercourses.


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  5. The best survivors would be those with a good locomotor system and the capacity to carry water and food, as well as offspring. In any case, the best perspective on the notion of a natural division of labor was given me long ago by one of my most influential college professors, Preston Adams, a botanist who studied human evolution. He kindly allowed me to put two and two together. When it began to dawn on our insightful ancestors that they could save some edible seeds, put them in the ground, and have a whole new edible crop right on the front stoop, we had agriculture on our hands.

    The first evidence of cultivated grains comes from archaeological sites that are in the neighborhood of eleven thousand years old. Domestication of animals followed right along. Friedrich Engels, the nineteenth-century economist and close associate of Karl Marx, examined our history under the bright lamp of a new paradigm set forth by his contemporary Charles Darwin.

    Engels also had access to the prodigious work of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. Goats and sheep, being mobile and tradable, became currency. Rather suddenly men got the purse strings. The one that gets my vote for blunt reverence is a mammothivory disk from a gravesite in Moravia, cut with a single, unambiguous vulval slit.

    So many goddesses, so little time—for they fell, and fell far, from grace. How fiercely doth the sacred turn profane. Our ancestors in the Fertile Crescent appear to have dropped Goddess Mother like a hot rock, and shifted their allegiance to God the Father, coincident with the rise of Man the Owner of the Flock. Since then, most of us have come to see human ownership of places and things, even other living creatures, as a natural condition, right as rain.

    While rights and authority and questions of distribution are fiercely debated, the basic concept is rarely in doubt. When we stand upon the ground, we first think to ask, Whose ground is this? And nought but a human believes it. Now, territoriality is a different matter.

    Birds do that.

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    Dogs do it. Pupfish in their little corner of a mud puddle do it. They meaning, usually, the males of territorial species mark out a little plot and defend it from others of their own kind, for the duration of their breeding season. This is about reproduction: he is making jolly well sure that any eggs that get fertilized, or babies that get raised, within that hallowed territory are, in fact, his own. Just enough, usually, and hardly a caterpillar more.

    The minute the young have flown away, the ephemeral territory vanishes back into the thin air, or the bird brain, whence it came. The male might return to establish a breeding territory in the same place again next year, or he might not. The landscape lives on, fairly untouched by the process. When a male bird—a vireo, for example—sings his belligerent song at another male vireo that approaches his neck of the woods, he is singing about family.

    It did not take me long in the desert to realize I was thinking like a person, and on that score was deeply outnumbered. So I dispensed with lordship, and went for territoriality. I turned a realistic eye on my needs. Oak-leaf lettuce on crisp fall days, and in the spring green beans and snowpeas. Maybe a little bed of snapdragons. Since I had no plans to raise a huge brood, sixty square feet or so of garden space would serve me very well. I revised my blueprints and looked hard at Pueblo architecture, which shuns the monumental for the more enduring value of blending in.

    Between the javelinas and me it had come down to poison darts in about eight days.

    Enough with that. I settled on a fairly ancient design. My territorial vireo song is a block wall, eight feet high. Inside the courtyard I grow a vegetable garden, a few fruit trees, and a bright flag of flowerbed that changes its colors every season. The acres that lie beyond the wall I have left to cactus and mesquite bramble, and the appetites that rise to its sharp occasion. Life is easier since I abdicated the throne. What a relief, to relinquish ownership of unownable things. A mere property career is not the final destiny of mankind.

    I toss, they eat. On tiny hooves as preposterous as high-heeled pumps on a pirate, they come mincing up the path. They feel their way through the world with flattened, prehensile snoots that flare like a suction-cup dart, and swivel about for input like radar dishes. When mildly aroused which is as far as it goes, in the emotional color scheme of the javelina , their spiky fur levitates into a bristly, spherical crown—Tina Turner laced with porcupine.

    The cardinals, of course, eat the grapes. In some years the finches peck a hole in every single apricot before I get around to throwing a net over the tree. A fat, clairvoyant rock squirrel scales the wall and grabs just about every third tomato, on the morning I decide that tomorrow it will be ripe enough to pick. So what, they all declare with glittering eyes. Twenty years have done to my hill accent what the washing machine does to my jeans: taken out the color and starch, so gradually that I never marked the loss. The ancient brick building that was my grade school, for example, and both my grandfathers.

    The windows are watery, bubbly glass reinforced with chicken wire.

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    His hide is tough and burnished wherever it has met the world—hands, face, forearms—but vulnerably white at the shoulders and throat. He is snapping his false teeth in and out of place, to provoke his grandchildren to hysterics. As far as I know, no such snapshots exist in the authentic world.

    The citizens of my hometown ripped down the old school and quickly put to rest its picturesque decay. My grandfather always cemented his teeth in his head, and put on good clothes, before submitting himself to photography. When a camera takes aim at my daughter, I reach out and scrape the peanut butter off her chin. And thank heavens, because in the broad valley between real life and propriety whole herds of important truths can steal away into the underbrush. I hold that valley to be my home territory as a writer.

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    Little girls wear food on their chins, school days are lit by ghostlight, and respectable men wear their undershirts at home. Sometimes there are fits of laughter and sometimes there is despair, and neither one looks a thing like its formal portrait. For many, many years I wrote my stories furtively in spiral-bound notebooks, for no greater purpose than my own private salvation. But on April 1, , two earthquakes hit my psyche on the same day. My life has not, since, returned to normal.

    That, though, seemed a slim accomplishment compared with laboring twenty-four hours to render up the most beautiful new human the earth had yet seen. In time my head cleared, and I settled into panic. What had I done?