Scrub Angels & Practical Cats at Quarry Farm

About halfway through my recent two-week fellowship at Quarry Farm I felt a new affinity with something Mark Twain wrote while perched there “on top of the hill near heaven.”

“I have the feeling of being a sort of scrub angel,” Twain mused, “& am more moved to help shove the clouds around, & get the stars on deck promptly, & keep all things trim & ship-shape in the firmament than to bother myself with the humble insect-interests & occupations of the distant earth.”

Obviously, Quarry Farm was a special place for Mark Twain. For over twenty years, Twain and his family summered there at the home of his sister-in-law Susan and her husband Theodore Crane. His octagonal study, where he wrote many of his classics, was a short walk from the farmhouse to its celestial perch overlooking the city of Elmira and the Chemung River Valley.

The study can now be found down on Elmira College’s campus, the spot where it used to sit is mostly overgrown with trees these days.

It is still possible, however, to experience something like Twain’s scrub-angel epiphany at Quarry Farm. After a day there devoted to writing, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch—taking in the scenic view of distant earth below and listening to the wind bloweth where it listeth through the trees—I felt a sincere “Amen” to Twain’s homily might be order.

What I heard instead was a cat’s thunderous meow.

That’s when I saw a black-and-white, bobtailed feline with emerald eyes sauntering across the porch toward me. With a sudden, acrobatically impressive back roll onto my foot, the cat lay supine looking up at me, letting me know I was to pay homage to him (or her…I didn’t ask what the cat’s pronouns were).

As I was petting my new furry friend (whom I dubbed Bob due to his or her tail, or lack thereof), it occurred to me that another bit of Quarry Farm’s Mark Twain lore (his love of cats) had manifested for me in purring fur ball at my feet.

Bob fit right in with Quarry Farm’s heavenly firmament. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain observed that “these graceful and harmless cats would easily become as sacred as any other royalties, and indeed more so…and must be worthy of a deeper love and reverence than the customary human king, and would certainly get it.”

Twain is known for his general love of animals, of course. But, as confirmed by several photos of him at Quarry Farm and elsewhere striking fond poses with a beloved cat, Twain had a special soft spot in his curmudgeonly heart for these enigmatic animals.

Susy Clemens wrote in her biography of her father that: “The difference between papa and mama is, that mama loves morals and papa loves cats.”

Not that there was a dichotomy for Twain between morality and cats. It’s just that cats embodied a code far more fitting for a place “on top of the hill near heaven.” In 1906, Twain noted how the qualities of a cat named Sour Mash exemplified this code:

I had a great admiration for Sour Mash, and a great affection for her, too. She was one of the institutions of Quarry Farm for a good many years. She had an abundance of that noble quality which all cats possess, and which neither man nor any other animal possesses in any considerable degree – independence. Also she was affectionate, she was loyal, she was plucky, she was enterprising, she was just to her friends and unjust to her enemies — and she was righteously entitled to the high compliment which so often fell from the lips of John T. Lewis — reluctantly, and as by compulsion, but all the more precious for that: “‘Other Christians is always worrying about other people’s opinions, but Sour Mash don’t give a damn.’”

Or perhaps she only gave a damn about things that ultimately matter.

That’s the attitude Bob (or whatever your deep and inscrutable singular name—ala T.S. Eliot—really is) and my stay at Quarry Farm instilled in me, if only for that time spent so close to heaven.