November 15th, 2017


A Crocodile in the Fernery: An A-Z of Animals in the Garden, by Twigs Way

Third entry:

On 26 July 1788 William Thornton, American physician and architect of the U.S. Capitol, wrote the following to Dr Lettsom, English amateur botanist. 'I have sent you four assapanick or flying squirrels and four ground squirrels. The flying squirrels are a family, male and female, with two young ones; the young are very easily tamed; the ladies here have them running all over them, and carry them in their pockets or bosoms, with a small collar of leather round their necks, and a little chain. They do not bite, but soon grow familiar. The old ones and ground squirrels are more difficult, but may, by constantly handling them in gloves, be tamed. You may keep the old, male and female, of the flying variety, and one of each sort of the ground, to breed.' Lettsom took his correspondent at his word and installed the squirrels in his large Surrey garden as a delight to his visitors, friends and family. Here they joined his tortoises, pyramidal bee-houses, and the collection of mangle-worzels that this eccentric man was attempting to introduce into England.The assapanick were apparently a success in their new home and word spread of these charming and hardy pets. Fifty years later the fellows of the Zoological Society were recording that there was no creature 'more graceful, or one better fitted for a lady's pet'. Its diminutive size, the singularity of its form, the expression of its physiognomy, the vivacity of its motions, and the gentleness of its disposition all combine to render it one of the most interesting as one of the most beautiful'. Lady's pet or not, President Theodore Roosevelt also took to the assapanick, continuing the tradition set by Dr Lettsom by allowing the creatures run of the house and gardens.
I knew the delightfully named Twigs Way almost thirty years ago when we were both postgraduate students in Cambridge, and a few years ago decided to renew acquaintance via the first two of her dozen or so books on the history of gardening. This is a rather nice little listing of peculiar choices of garden pet made throughout history - not straying far from the UK (though clearly the Assapannick is an exception) and only occasionally varying from the concept of what we might agree on as a pet (Charles Darwin's obsession with worms is a bit of a stretch).

It doesn't claim to be more than what it is, a collection of anecdotes, some of which cast new light on historical figures (the poet Cowper and his hares; the diarist John Evelyn and his bees and tortoise; the gardener Gertrude Jekyll and the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti both kept rather surprising menageries) and some of which are just "Gosh!" stories, like Charlemagne's elephant or the Duke of Richmond's moose. And I confess I had not heard of the assapanick before (you can find it also on a list of words which sound rude but are not).

This was the shortest book of those I acquired in 2010 and had not yet read. The next in that sequence is Daystar and Shadow, by James B. Johnson.