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The hum

Kissing the lion's nose

Elena Shumilova

Elena Shumilova

I'm going to stay with Jay Griffith's juicy book Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape for two more posts, the first on the subject of children and animals:

"That children love animals is a manifest truth," writes Griffiths, "and they also seek love from them. So crucial are animals to children's happiness that in a significant UNICEF study of childhood well-being children specified that pets were one of the top four most important things for their happiness. 'I want a kitten...a puppy...a horse,' children clamor for years, and this is perhaps only the most audible part of their love. Children talk wordlessly to their pets, taking a dog in their arms or, upset, burying their faces in a cat's fur and crying. They whisper secrets to their pets and feel understood by them. Children want to talk with the animals, eat with them, curl up with them and think with them, for children intuitively understand that animals are guides for the mind in metaphor-making."

Elena Shumilova

"Children's authors, peopling their books with animals, know that children are fascinated by tales of crossing the species-fences, and the stories work carnally, suggesting a nuzzling sensuality, fostering a child's animal nature and answering a longing deep within children to be suckled by earthmilk, pressing their faces into the warm flank of horse, lion or wolf, breathing in the spicy messageful air of animals, falling asleep in their paws.

Elena Shumilova

"Aslan. To run your fingers through his golden mane, to see 'the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes,' to feel that humming, purring warmth and its ferocious power; 'whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten,' the children cannot say. The writer Francis Spufford recalls a tender trespass of his childhood when he was suddenly seized with the desire for Aslan and reached his face up to a poster of the lion on his bedroom wall. Stealthily, heartfeltedly, he kissed the lion's nose. From early childhood, I remember that feeling, wanting to nudge myself into the musk and silage, the mushroom, rust and grass of an animal's den, wanting to know with my whole body the felt world of fur and pawpads and to feel the animal world in its fullness, its yawls, hackles and green-scent, to be batted by the paws of the furred earth, my senses drunk with it, living in the whiskey of animality. And to kiss the lion's nose.

Elena Shumilova

"There's a fox in the garden. Those words would thrill us to the core. My brothers and I would crowd to the window in pressed silence, breathless, excited and honored that something so wild might bestow on us for a Elena Shumilovaflickering moment its feral presence. Birds and animals come into our lives as 'guests,' say Mohawk tales, and people must treat them well....Animal-helpers snuffle in the hedges of fairy tales and they feather the tree-tops with bird-advice. In the nick of time, the winged lion or armored bear swerve into stories. If the fairy tale hero treats an animal kindly, it offers its skills, pecking out grain or tracking a scent beyond human guesswork.

"Creatures are friends to the psyche of a child. When Henry Old Coyote, from the Crow nation, was a boy, his grandfather would wake him early to listen to the birds and encouraged the child to know the exuberant joy of this bird medicine and to keep it inside him all day. I'm told that in Tamil Nadu, India, a child suffering nightmares may be cured by walking under an elephant's belly, being blessed by Ganesh. The nightmares, knowing better than to contend with an elephant, beat a retreat."

Elena Shumilova

Elena Shumilova

"'In the old days the animals and the people were very much the same...They thought the same way and felt the same way. They understood each other,' says Simon Tookoome, an Inuit elder, recalling a belief common to many indigenous cultures. As a child, he adopted animals, including a caribou which followed him everywhere like a dog, and, at different times, five wolves."

Elena Shumilova

Elena Shumilova

"One strange peculiarity of modern childhood in the West is its estrangement from the animal world and the consequent silence of that world, its unmessaged, listless, speechless vacancy. Poet Gary Snyder speaks of the necessity to 'Bring up our children as part of the wildlife,' but the dominant culture treats wildlife as insignificant to children's happiness, which, as children themselves know, is a terrible oversight. Children's classics such as Anna Sewell's Black Beauty and Michael Morpurgo's mesmerizing War Horse touch the hearts of millions of children as they willingly listen to the experience of creatures other than human."

Elena Shumilova

"Shape-shifting is an epistemology, a way for people to increase their sensitivities, to perceive the world with an imaginative leap, to feel through the body of another, metaphorically. Pueblo Indian children, from three years old, transform themselves into antelope and deer, they don fox skins, deer hooves or parrot feathers. In rituals and dances, through lyrics, choreography and costume, the child embodies earth-knowledge -- of corn and cloud, of sun and lightning, of buffalo and skunk -- and steps through the looking glass. Animal nature is another side of human nature, a mirror, by twilight, by twolight, where the twinnedness of those myths is reflected....Through a relationship with animals, we human add to the repertoire of our senses the beady alertness of a bird, the scent-subtlety of a mole, the smooth-swum escape of the fish. This is the apprenticeship which children gleefully follow, given half a chance."

I certainly would have followed it as a child, being one of those kids with no interest in dolls but who carried stuffed animals everywhere. I've been making up for lost time ever since, inviting animals into my writing, art, and life. Embracing "the whiskey of animality," to use Jay Griffith's wonderful phrase, and kissing the lion's nose. Or at least my dog's, which is just as good.

Elena Shumilova

The images in this post are by Elena Shumilova, who has become known around the world for her photographs of her sons and other children and animals on a farm in rural Russia. To see more of her charming work, go here.

Elena Shumilova

Elena ShumilovaRelated posts: Wild Neighbors, The Speech of Animals, "Word Magic, and The Animals That We Are."

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