Friday, January 28, 2011

Pack Rat, The Grand Acquisitor

Illustration by Charles B. Slackman, for Horizon Magazine, Winter 1969
When I read The Grand Acquisitor, Horizon Magazine's 1969 article on the pack rat, I was absolutely charmed. I hadn't realized that there actually is a small rodent that hunts for objects that are attractive though totally useless to him (Sound like some other species?).

Rodentia   |  Cricetidae  |  Neotoma
The pack rat has sleek fur, a white stomach and a bushy tail, and bears a close resemblance to the hamster. In his nervous movements, he's sometimes compared to the squirrel, and he's a very busy thief. Food is a big portion of his loot, of course, but the pack rat is attracted to almost anything in his path. Unlike the magpie, who is discriminating, the pack rat is indecisive when confronted with a choice of objects. Because he's famous for lugging along one item, seeing another, and then leaving his first choice in place of the newer find, the pack rat is sometimes called a trade rat.

The pack rat takes his treasures back to an ever-growing nest which is inhabited by a succession of rats, often generations of the same family. With all the clutter of oddities, the nest is appropriately referred to as a midden.

I found the personality of the pack rat so amusing that I decided to paint this curious little animal.

© Mark D. Ruffner
This is a color sketch for a pack rat painting. I did several which I gave away, but in each one, the pack rat was a collector of antiques, quilts, posters and famous paintings.

© Mark D. Ruffner
My mother enjoyed the series so much, she requested her own pack rat painting. So this is The Swiss Pack Rat. All the items allude to Switzerland or family. The flirtatious lady in the background is my grandmother, who was from Bern. The pack rat wears a traditional Bernese hat, which mirrors my grandmother's. He proudly displays the Basel Dove, Switzerland's rarest stamp (my mother was a philatelist), but unfortunately the stamp is being sliced by a Swiss Army Knife!

I'm thinking of painting another pack rat, but this one with older items closer to his scale. I've settled on an Indian Head penny and an old bottle cap, but haven't thought beyond those two items. I'd love to get your suggestions! What would you include in a pack rat's midden?


  1. MArk, fabulous paintings! I didnt know we had so much in common with the pack rat! I like the idea of generations occupying the same nest and adding to the collection! I would classify myself as a pack rat!

  2. Hi, David! I'm glad you enjoyed the paintings. You might be a pack rat, but at least you have filing cabinets. Come to think of it, a pack rat with his own filing cabinets might be a great image!

  3. do you remember the childhood book "the borrowers"? I used to be obsessed with the book and numerous movies as a kid. Much like the packrat -they collected small everyday items as well for their use - spools of thread, stamps, etc. There might be some inspiration there!

  4. I loved The Borrowers, and still own the book by Mary Norton. You're right, that would be a great resource for the project! Of course, the Borrowers had very clever uses for everything they "borrowed," and were recyclers.

  5. Now there is a picture for you! As you said Pack rat with filing cbinet!

  6. What a charming story. How lucky your friends and family have been to receive these amusing and original paintings. Your two examples are in such differing styles; it is admirable that you are so versatile.

    I'm a pack rat too; stuff is in every nook and cranny. I tried to streamline by getting rid of anything worthless, but as soon as stuff goes out, more comes in. Who can resist the charms of the flea markets at home and abroad, the church bazaar, the auction, and the estate sale? One is always in trouble but when one lacks space, but finds the most incredible things for a song. Like the Gutenberg Bible and dozen gold and Fabergé guilloche enamel eggs I found at the thrift shop!

    We hear so much that is negative about hoarders; I am sure the reaction to this will be some forthcoming studies on the value and merits of collecting. I'm happy to know that I'm in like company!

    Regarding furnishings for the midden, as I make a study of things related to fashion and textiles, I imagine mice with thread spools and thimbles. In old illustrated story books, these are sometimes shown as tables and such household effects in little rodent homes.

    Would you care for a piece of Stilton, I mean Emmenthal?

  7. Mark, I'm so glad your pack rats live in your canvas.

  8. Alas, Gina, I fear a very large pack rat lives in my house.

  9. Terry, your mention of the thrift store Gutenberg and Fabergés reminds me of an article I read not too long ago where somebody wandered into a thrift shop and saw an over-sized pearl in a bowl of costume jewelry. They bought it for a couple of dollars and later discovered that they had the largest, most valuable pearl in the world!

    I love the idea of the thimble, and of course there will always be a nod to cheese.

  10. Buttons, a skeleton key, ribbon, crayons, and one loped ear ring.---- And by the way the paintings are WONDERFUL!

  11. Thanks for the nice compliment and for the suggestions - I particularly like the crayons ...

  12. What a wonderful story about the pack rat, Mark. Your paintings are terrific.

    Your readers might also be interested in the bowerbird, the bird with a passion for interior decoration.

    The most notable characteristic of bowerbirds is the extraordinarily complex behaviour of males, which is to build a bower to attract mates.

    No two bowers are the same, and the collection of objects reflects the personal taste of each bird and his ability to procure unusual and rare items.

    At mating time, the female will go from bower to bower, watching as the male owner conducts an often elaborate mating ritual and inspecting the quality of the bower.

    Read more about the decorating bowerbird on Wikipedia

    See the bowerbird decorate his nest on this YouTube clip of David Attenborough's BBC wildlife show.

    Karen Orr

  13. Thank you so much for visiting, and contributing, Karen!

    I wasn't familiar with the bowerbird, so have taken your suggestion to visit Wikipedia's article and the Attenborough clip on YouTube. I'm so glad I did. What a treat! I encourage all of my readers to discover the bowerbird, particularly at the YouTube site that Karen has mentioned. You'll be delighted by an astounding interior decorator!

    I especially enjoy that the bowerbird arranges and rearranges his work - one can almost see the personality that straightens the paintings that have gotten slightly askew.

    Thanks, again Karen!

  14. A wonderful post about a little know and very charming creature, Mark. Thanks for the link. I would have probably missed it otherwise. Needless to say I love your paintings. I am especially taken with your color sketch but also love the detail of the other. Each has its own charm.

    I wonder that Disney hasn't made a movie about a pack rat. Maybe it's time for me to put my thinking cap on and come up with a story I could illustrate. :)

    The top illustration by Chas. Slackman brought back memories. He was one of my teachers in art school.

    1. Hi, Yvette - I'm glad you thought my paintings have charm because that's exactly how I felt about this curious little animal.

      Years ago, when I was a kid, there was a comic book mouse who lived in Benjamin Franklin's tri-corner hat. I think his name was Amos, but I can't be sure. Of course the great thing about the character is that he witnessed a lot of history. But that aside, I could imagine a Disney pack rat who was single-minded and obsessive. And of course so many Disney characters were based on observations of the natures of the actual animals.

      The Charles Slackman illustration was one of many that Slackman did for Horizon Magazine, a publication that had a huge impact on my early life.