In North American usage, a den is typically the habitation of a large wild animal. A burrow is a hole in the ground that is the habitation of a small wild animal. Bears, wolves, mountain lions, and bobcats use dens; badgers, rabbits, gophers, mice, and some birds live in burrows. When Barry Lopez writes about polar bears in Arctic Dreams, he uses the word den as verb, noun, and adjective: “Before she dens, usually in late October or early November, a female bear must put on a heavy layer of fat.” Also: “The variety of structures denning females build is great.” And Wallace Stegner, writing about the plains of Saskatchewan in his childhood in Marking the Sparrow’s Fall, recalls a picket-pin gopher’s response to a coming storm: “The gopher disappeared as if some friend below had reached up and yanked him into his burrow.” As for birds, there is Athene cunicularia, the burrowing owl, and the dream-bird in Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge: “The purple bird turned gold, dropped its tail, and began digging a burrow in the white sand.” It’s interesting to note that the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary defines the word lair as “the bed or couch of a boar or wild beast.” In his essay “The Conduct of Life in 1860,” Ralph Waldo Emerson can use the word this way: “Every creature—wren or dragon—shall make its own lair.” In modern North American usage, lair tends to be associated with large cats. In William Davis and David Schmidly’s The Mammals of Texas, a mountain lion is described as being “accidentally flushed from its daytime lair in a thicket.” Perhaps because of this association of lairs with stealth, the term was regularly transferred by popular western novelists to the hideouts of robbers. Their lairs occur in the stories of Zane Grey, Max Brand, and Louis L’Amour.

Robert Hass