Donald McCaig died earlier this month. Foremost a sheep-and-collie man, his was also a very mid-century American life. As The Washington Post noted, McCaig “trained Marines to shoot, taught philosophy to college students and worked as a producer for Murray the K, the influential rock radio DJ. But after settling into a lucrative copywriting position at a Madison Avenue ad agency, ... McCaig grew restless – and decided to reinvent himself as a farmer and writer.”
He was from Butte, Montana, where he became enamored of dogs, including the strays his mother took in. Fleeing New York, McCaig and his wife, Anne, settled on a farm in the Allegheny Mountains of western Virginia.
In the mornings, Anne tended the sheep and Don wrote. In the afternoons, they shared the heavy chores.
“A very attractive feature of this life is cause and effect,” Anne told People magazine in 1984, when Don’s novel “Nop’s Trials” had created a stir.
“If there’s no wood on the porch, you get cold,” Don said.
“If you don’t feed your sheep right, they die,” Anne explained. “You can’t let things slide. You can’t get by on your reputation.”
“Nop’s Trials” is the story of a farmer and his young border collie, Nop, who is stolen and endures horrific ordeals, including being ridden by a cap gun-shooting monkey at rodeos.
“Gone to a live on a farm” has become a suburban euphemism that parents tell children when a pet perishes by intent or carelessness. For Nop, everything bad happens when he leaves the farm.
It is a difference in how we live with animals. Before we can speak of their rights, we first must see that they have interests.
McCaig got that. His dogs had agency and voices because they had purpose and work.
Nop survives through courage. The book succeeds through observation and language.
“Anyone who’s ever seen a red fox slipping up behind an unsuspecting young groundhog has seen Nop’s delicacy,” McCaig wrote.
“‘Nop’s Trials’ taught me that dogs have souls, something that a young child might not know,” a friend recalled, saying her mother had read the book to her when she was little, although it is not specifically a children’s book.
McCaig might have said we give dogs souls. His highest praise for his collies he took from the half-mad herders of rural Scotland, the land of eminent dogs and dangerous men where the breed originated. He called the dogs “useful,” as in “a useful beast.”
When “Nop” was optioned for a movie, McCaig said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with the money. Put it in the bank, I guess. The sum total of the movie sale was that Anne and I couldn’t sleep the night we found out about it, and I forgot to milk the cow. Money’s fine, but I didn’t feel very good about myself, forgetting the cow.”
He wrote many more books, and some quite successful, including historical fiction about the Civil War. He was selected by Margaret Mitchell’s estate to write a sequel to “Gone With the Wind,” “Rhett Butler’s People.” He loved herding trials. He disdained dog shows. And he wrote loving and fierce non-fiction about collies.
We saw a video on Facebook the other day. A Texas cattle drive had gone astray. Four mounted cowboys in their finery were rounding up their stock on the streets of Fort Worth. They looked unhurried, almost as though they were enjoying the attention – and if you looked closer, you could see a black-and-white border collie, tongue out, fixed on its job, for it was the one doing all the work the world could see; and we thought of McCaig, who would have delighted at such a useful beast on a good city adventure.