I got a letter in the mail a couple of weeks ago. In this era when even email has become old-fashioned, that in itself is almost enough to write a column about, but there’s more.
It was from one of my readers. We had corresponded several years ago and I had archived her previous letter in a leather-bound book of Montaigne’s essays.
The letter started out mentioning one of my recent columns, the one about the snake in my garage. I had mentioned that studies have shown that about 6 percent of drivers will go out of their way to run over snakes and turtles.
My correspondent said that reminded her of a scene from John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” She wrote about how she had gone to her bookshelf to look up the scene. The book, she said, had followed her though many moves throughout her life.
She has owned that book for 80 years, first reading it in 1939 as a teenager. She has now surpassed my wife’s nonagenarian aunt as my oldest friend.
I was delighted with the letter, and I admit I had wondered if she was still in this world. Her previous letter mentioned that she was past 90. I’m keeping both letters in the same book and hoping there will be a third.
Several readers have written me. One fellow, whom I haven’t met in person, sends me articles about language. Some of them are humorous; others recount the fads and fluctuations in contemporary usage.
He forwards articles to me by email. Sometimes we write brief comments or personal remarks. I enjoy hearing from him.
One time I wrote a column about how cats were a major cause of death among songbirds, which have declined by almost 30% in the past few decades.
One fellow, clearly a cat lover, politely asked me to document my claims. I followed up by emailing the scholar who published a study mentioned in the article I had read.
My cat-loving correspondent admitted that the studies looked methodologically sound, though he was not happy to hear that his beloved felines were such predatory scourges of the bird population.
It turned out that he is a friend of a friend in Longview, and I met him. He is a nice guy and we enjoyed talking. Incidentally, a little cat hanging out in my backyard has made my wife reluctant to put out bird food.
I’ve had good luck writing academics. Often they publish in academic data bases requiring subscriptions that I don’t have. They are almost unfailingly polite and willing to send PDF files of articles they and others have published.
Over the years I’ve written to historians, biologists, archaeologists and climate scientists to get clarification and background for columns or just to dig deeper into something I’ve read.
Once I wrote something about climate change, alluding to the worldwide consensus of scientists that human activity is currently the major cause of this phenomenon.
One man wrote me a very civil email, asserting that the warming of the air and oceans was caused by natural phenomena. I didn’t get into a dispute with him, though I thanked him for his interest and sent him some links.
It’s not surprising that columns about things like apostrophe use, snakes in the garage or books I’ve read don’t generate many letters of response. I look at the articles that do, and while they are often important, I’ll let somebody else write those.
My readers are some remarkable people. Thank you for writing.