When Is a Cat Not a Cat?

November 21, 2013

On Vermont farms, cats can be seen everywhere. Here, in the 1990s , David Bradshaw provides a perch for a cat at Butternut Farm in Chelsea. (Herald File / Bob Eddy)

I’m asked from time to time how I came to be a photographer. Though the question seems simple enough, my answer is as philosophical as biographical. By way of beginning, I ask, “When is a cat not a cat?

Learning to Read ‘Cat’

Before I could talk, our Tinkerbell taught me the consistency of cat. A slim tricolor, she held affection for a young boy rubbing her snow colored tummy. On her back, coming, going, from every angle, she was a cat:

Tail arching from right to left, purring softly – cat.

Slinking around to gaze imperiously at that yapping dog (tail up and over, but now left to right)–still cat.

Balled in hissing rejection, tail curled below the haunch—cat again!

Wheeling around to the kitchen, tail tucked low—that would be an exit cat!

Trouble With Letters

My cat Tinkerbell was a more faithful friend than the letters I met in first grade. Take ‘b’ for starters. Teacher wrote ‘b’ on the board. I liked ‘b’ fine; with three in my name, ‘bobby,’ I felt we were old buddies.

Then a few moments later, it came back from the other direction, when teacher wrote ‘d.’ To my mind, this had to be the same letter, rotated in space, just like my cat turning around with her tail in the air. But no, coming one way, it’s a ‘b’; turning around, it’s changed to become ‘d.’ With two of these in my last name I should have been elated. Instead I felt this alphabet was playing tricks on me!

My alarm deepened when, like Tinkerbell hissing at the dog, the ‘b’ dropped its tail. Cat stays cat no matter where the tail goes, but now ‘b’ becomes ‘p’!

This made no sense, and even less when this trio of shape-shifters turned again to become ‘q.’ I’ve come to regard, “mind your ‘p’s’ and ‘q’s,” as a warning to heed to the way that ‘tail’ is pointing if you want to learn to read. Unfortunately, as a child, this advice didn’t help. I could not read until I was in the fourth grade!

With milk, mice, and hay for bedding, this pair of kittens are right at home in the barn. (Herald File / Bob Eddy) The Meaning of Pictures

Confounded by the alphabet, I reached out to the world through colors and shapes. These languages made sense when little else did. I read my first book, “The Wizard of Oz,” because the line drawings were so compelling they “drew” me into the text.

As an adult, I saw the Rosetta Stone in the British National Museum, and was stunned to find it a large chunk of basalt, covered by finely etched pictures! These hieroglyphs proved the key to unlock mysteries of the Egyptian world. In this same way, pictures unlocked life’s mysteries to me.

The visual arts made sense to me long before the written word. Give me a newspaper or a magazine and I will always look at the pictures first. They are still my gateway into the text. And it’s really quite comforting when looking at an image of, say, a cat, to know that no matter which way the tail is turning, it’s still a cat!

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