“Charlotte’s Web” inspired by animals–and what they produce

Wilbur loves Charlotte.

I’m writing this blog post on the birthday of E.B. White (July 11, 1899- October 1, 1985) and remembering the pure pleasure of reading his 1952 children’s book, Charlotte’s Web.  It turns out that both Elwyn Brooks White and his character, Wilbur, were fond of warm manure, that inextricable aroma and texture of farm life.

A new book by Michael Sims, The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, provides a hundred ways in which White connected with nature.  Of course, a book about a spider named Charlotte and a pig named Wilbur began in nature; what is fascinating is how addicted White was to domesticated nature.

He was a shy, quiet, and sometimes depressed person and, though he tried therapy, he found his greatest solace and healing in the barn.  Growing up, his family in Mt. Vernon, New York had stables with horses, pigs, geese, hay, and manure.  Little Elwyn loved watching and listening to the goings-on there and later wrote about himself, “This boy felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people”  (Sims, p. 4).  As an adult, he and his wife, Katharine, bought a farm in Maine where they worked on their writing and editing.  White wrote, “Animals are a weakness with me, and when I got a place in the country I was quite sure animals would appear, and they did” (p. 132).  The Whites raised pigs and chickens and enjoyed watching spiders spin their webs in the doorways of their big, white barn.

In the book, the manure pile was a big part of Wilbur’s world, as it was a big part of White’s experience of country living.  “There is no doubt about it,” he wrote (p. 195), “the basic satisfaction in farming is manure, which always suggests that life can be cyclic and chemically perfect and aromatic and continuous.”

I notice in my own posts on this blog that various forms of manure have come up, including that of turtles and birds.  The truth is that encountering scat is part of being outdoors and gives us clues as to who is doing what and where.  My first chore when I arrive at our cabin is to sweep the guano off the stoop.  Bats sleep in the peak of the covered entry and poop like mad.  Someday I’ll also clean off the robin and phoebe droppings that whitewash the log walls where they build their nests.  Lately, I’ve had to clean off the dock some mounds packed with crunched-up bits of crayfish shell, probably from a raccoon.

As David Gessner wrote in his book, Sick of Nature, nature writers talk a lot about scat, but are supposed to be refined about it.  White put it front and center in his book, starting a draft, before there were any human characters involved, with: “Wilbur was a small, nicely-behaved pig living in a manure pile in the cellar of a barn” (p. 195).  We write what we are called to write, as Charlotte did in her web in order to save Wilbur’s life.

Birth and death, intake and output, animals and manure–you cannot have one without the other.  For White, it was part of “a paean to life, a hymn to the barn, an acceptance of dung” (p. 188).

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