I've just read Zoologies, a new collection of essays on animals, natural history, life, and art by Alison Hawthorne Deming, which I highly recommend. Here's a passage from Deming's Introduction to give you a taste:
"Animals surrounded our ancestors. Animals were their food, clothes, adversaries, companions, jokes, and their gods. In the Paleolithic period of the Great Hunt, Joseph Campbell writes, 'man's ubiquitous nearest neighbors were the beasts in their various species; it was those animals who were his teachers, illustrating in their manners of life the powers and patternings of nature.' In this age of mass extinction and the industrialization of life, it is hard to touch the skin of this long and deep companionship. Now we surround the animals and crowd them from their homes. They are the core of what we are as creatures, sharing a biological world and inhabiting our inner lives, though most days they feel peripheral -- a wag from the dog, an ankle embrace from the cat, the pleasure of sighting a house finch feeding outside the window, the thrill of spotting a hedgehog waddling along a path in Prague or a fox trotting across an urban campus in Denver. Animality and humanity are one, expressions of the planet's brilliant inventiveness, and yet the animals are leaving the world and not returning.
"What do animals mean to the contemporary imagination? We do not know. Or we have forgotten. Or we are too busy to notice. Or we experience psychic numbing to cope with the scale of extinctions and we feel nothing. Or we begin through our grief to realize how much we love our fellow creatures and tend to them. Or we write about them, trying to figure out what the experience of animals is and how they came to be so ingrained in human mind and emotion, to remember what it feels like to be embedded in the family of animals, to see the ways animals inhabit and limn our lives, entering our days and nights, unannounced and essential."
It's a wonderful book, beautifully composed, dark and painful in places, transcendent in others, and never sentimental. Deming discusses elephants and ants, pigs and oyster, and the animal nature of human beings. "I am tired," she writes, "of the conventional palette with which the lives of animals are painted. Most renderings feel too saturated with gratuitous piety, weighted down by ceaseless elegy, or boastful about heroic encounters on the last islands of wilderness. I want something closer to the marrow of our lived days, as in childhood, when an animal story or encounter could make me wonderstruck."
In these wide-ranging, incisive essays, she has amply achieved this.
Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming was published by Milkweed Editons, US, 2014. (I recommend the author's previous books as well, especially Writing the Sacred Into the Real.) A few related posts: "The Dance of Joy & Grief," "The Peace of Wild Things," "Wild Neighbors," "Daily Myth," "Holding the World in Balance," and "Animalness.