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Running and Cat Videos?

The U.S. National Archives, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Hello, Radio Readers. I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas, enjoying the gestalt of Christopher McDougall’s Running with Sherman: The Donkey with the Heart of a Hero.  A journalist and marathoner, McDougall is a self-described city boy who moved with his family off the grid to Pennsylvania Amish country. While the McDougalls don’t so much take up farming, they do take on a small kitchen garden and an assortment of goats and mules. McDougall rescues a malnourished donkey from a small unmucked stall where its untended hooves had grown to resemble runners on a rocking chair. Learning to walk and trust the 2-legged and 4-legged animals now surrounding him, the donkey named Sherman jaunts with McDougall through the Pennsylvania woods. Eventually, Sherman’s circle of healers includes an Amish running club, a student from Penn State suffering from depression, and competitors in the annual burro race in Colorado. Sherman, McDougall and others complete the race but don’t win. This anticlimax might feel disappointing. But companionship of like-minded entities and persevering through emotional and physical challenges are, in this narrative, better rewards than trophies.

Part of what attracts me to McDougall’s world is the running. I stand in wonder of those who commit resources of time and money to their passions and purposes, of course, but, incredibly, for a quite a chunk of my life, I too was a runner, a trail runner through varying terrains. Early mornings, late evenings, through heat and humidity, cold and ice, rain, snow – I ran through woods, on gravel, over hills. In southwestern Kansas, the robust winds and topography transitioned me to walking, and, yes, eventually to sitting.

Reading Christopher McDougall’s books reminds me that as a runner, I belonged in the natural world in ways that I don’t as a sedentary being. The ways that his writerly voice blends hipster urbanity and pragmatic idealism almost inspire me to tie on some running shoes. But greater in appeal for me is McDougall’s regard for four-legged animals.

For one, McDougall observes Sherman’s suffering and he responds. In providing sources of healing and recovery, McDougall doesn’t overlook Sherman’s donkey nature. He doesn’t trivialize nor dominate. He acknowledges Sherman as a sentient being, treating him with dignity and respect. Refreshingly so.

As most in the U.S., I’m a pet owner, having coddled over my lifetime dogs, a couple of sheep, a contrary old horse, and cats. Mostly cats. According to sources like Pew and Forbes, in 2023, “66% of U.S. households, about 87 million homes, own a pet, and 1/3 of Americans have more than one pet.” And, 97% of us consider pets to be part of the family, with most of us treating our pets as equal to the humans in our families. Many of the millennials among us spend heavily on clothing and props for cats and dogs for social media reels. And for some, the financial rewards are substantial. Yeah, yeah. I’ve watched my share of videos of kittens, of cats leaping to dangle from ceiling fixtures, of cats whose dubbed dialogues are those of surfer dudes. Moderate anthropomorphizing is entertaining. Maybe? But the extremes –dressing pets in caps, wigs, sunglasses, shirts and ties, apparel that impedes and obscures their nature—are puzzling. Until I think how many of us two-leggeds in the US likewise impede and obscure ourselves, consumerism driving our domestic economy and propelling us further away from our natural selves, the natural world, and its wisdom.

To run with Sherman and McDougall through their narrative is quite a trip, one I’m glad I’ve taken!

Wishing happy trails to you, I’m Jane Holwerda, from Dodge City, Kansas, and for High Plains Public Radio.

Fall Read 2023: Wisdom of the Natural World 2023 Fall ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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