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6 april 2015

Daniel Heath Justice, like many of the Reaktion Animal authors, suggests that few of us have seen the animal he's writing about. Justice had never really seen a badger till he arranged to meet one in an Oklahoma zoo, in preparation for writing Badger. I haven't seen a wild badger, and can't remember seeing one in a zoo. Oddly enough, the creature may be theoretically so common (it's not endangered in the American West) that one walks past it in zoos thinking it mundane, even though one is much likelier to see alpacas and ostriches in the Texas hinterland than badgers.

My pre-Badger knowledge of badgers was gleaned largely from Badger Badger Badger and from Allan Eckert's novel Incident at Hawk's Hill. From the latter I got the idea that badgers were "badass" (though till I read Justice I did not know that they are also nastyass). Well, turns out that various badger species are a match for many predators, turning some of them into prey; but they are tough almost entirely on defense, and overall you have about zero chance of being attacked by a badger unless you decide to dig into a sett and scoop up some of the smaller members of the cete.

As the last sentence indicates, badger vocabulary is well-elaborated and full of terms useful mainly to dedicated badger-watchers. It's odd that so much linguistic attention has been paid to creatures that are not dangerous, mainly beneficial to farmers, and keep to themselves. But Justice shows that humans of several continents have been curious about, sometimes fascinated with, badgers. He himself is an expert on Native American cultures, and traces some of the uneasy pairing of Fox and Badger in indigenous lore. Europeans and Euro-Americans tend to have a more totemic sense of the badger, often personifying the little guys as … well, not towers of strength, but as little sparkplugs of determination. Their construction of homes and defense of families, even down to a tendency to bury their dead (though alas, not spiritually) make them role models for human sticktoitiveness.

Tonight, the Badgers play the Blue Devils for the national men's abled college basketball championship, and all right-thinking people hope the humble mustelids defeat the cerulean imps. Somehow in my travels through Wisconsin's north woods, I missed the world's largest badger replica, which used to grace a roadside attraction in Birnamwood, south of Antigo. I've seen porcupines in those woods, and evidence of bears, but badgers, no. They are shadowy others in the Anglo tradition: anthropomorphized in The Wind in the Willows, echoed in The Hobbit, adopted in heraldry, skinned and despoiled of their hair so that morning shavers can despoil themselves of their own. I don't know of a better guide to all their accumulated meanings than Daniel Heath Justice's brief study for Reaktion.

Justice, Daniel Heath. Badger. London: Reaktion, 2015.