Fairy Tales, Then & Now

On Animals and the Human Spirit

Animal guide

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.

Devon woods

"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."

Devon woods

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.

Devon woods

Devon woods

Zoologies by Alison Hawthorne Deming 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.


Oh my gracious these pictures! Devon is truly Fairyland.
And the Deming book is one I will immediately order as it is definitely my cuppa, thank you.

Looks like a great book, if more than a little depressing. It's interesting the way the emphasis has changed over the years when it comes to the global crises; when I was at school the reasons for the world's woes was laid squarely at the feet of human overpopulation. Now I never hear mention of it. I think most politicians (in this country anyway) think it's too much of a 'hot potato' to tackle and that the public will withhold their votes if they're told that it might be a good idea to have fewer children. Certainly I think it's true to say that if there were fewer of us then perhaps the consumption of dwindling resources and the burning more and more fossil fuels might become less of a problem. There might even be a little more living room for the other species that occupy this speck of dust in the vastness of the multiverse. And yet here we sit in the midst of what scientists call a 'Mass Extinction Event' and we seem unable to do anything about it.

My friend Alan Weisman recently published an excellent book on overpopulation, called "Countdown." Here's a review:

I highly recommend it, along with his previous book, "The World Without Us":

It was, in fact, Alan & his wife Beckie who sent me "Zoologies" as a birthday present this year, knowing I'd love it.

"Zoologies" has hard-hitting moments, yes, but much more besides. I assure anyone who's inclined to read it that it's not depressing overall. "Countdown," on the other hand, is a very sobering read; but also an important one.

The words of Charles Harper Webb accompanying the pictures are fiercely appropriate to the topic. And I have yet to be disappointed by any book you recommend. Thanks.

The Webb poem makes me think of Philip Levine's "Animals Are Passing From Our Lives" (from Not This Pig, 1968):

It's not a Levine poem I particularly like, but it's considered an influential one.

A related poem is "Animals Are Entering Our Lives" by Lisel Mueller (from Alive Together, 1996), full of imagery from the "Brother & Sister" fairy tale:

I absolutely adore her work, including this poem.

I think the most important element to this is how we educate our children. The sad push for capitalist consumptive economics has so pervaded education that it is easy for politicians to forget that children are (and should be) our consciences. In between the Ofsted driven agendas it is so important to ensure the next generation see that they must care take and understand their place in the web of life we live in.

It is sad that ignorance is the blanket that covers over inconvenient truths. I truly believe that is part of a teachers job to show children what is out there and how integral all the earth's inhabitants are to each others survival.

The joy of doing this with children is that they tend to see the world in a very clear black and white, right and wrong. Which has a tendency for uncomfortable questions. They also question the idiocy that is unnatural consumption of the potlatch variety; this I witnessed first hand when we showed our year 6's the effect on sharks of Sharks fin soup. Couple this with learning about the animal itself and its place as a keystone predator and their reactions have a context that means something to them.

I eventually had to stop reading in this area, for sanity's sake, although I do know it is a bit head in the sandish of me. Instead I hope to do some small bit of good; you never know? The kids I teach may just make a difference one day.

You're doing important work, Charlotte. Just wanted to say that.

Terri, beautiful pictures, beautiful post, beautiful words by Ms. Deming. I will order her book. Thanks for the recommendation.

It took me a day and a night to get in touch with my personal sorrows, not so much at all the extinctions, but that my grandchildren have probably never experienced encounters with wildlife in it's environment. Animals and nature have fallen away with their totally boxed-in life styles...except for pets and technologically-shared nature films, or maybe trips to zoos. Charlotte, I'm glad you're teaching about the connections of wildlife and humanity to children. I also live with my head in the sand to stay sane, but will try to read Demming's book as it sounds important.

I find it intriguing when people refer to 'humans and animals', as if we're something apart from the rest of the world or of nature. We're simply mammals who have one highly-developed sense, our mental capacity. That we can use for the collective good, or our own detriment. 'When Elephants Weep' by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy is a good reminder of this but so is 'Three Cups of Tea' by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Start looking for connections and you find them everywhere.

Anyway, my favourite author with regard to the above subject is Barry Lopez. 'Of Wolves and Men' is particularly good, but I also love his books of short stories - 'River Notes' and 'Desert Notes'. Each one is a meditation in words.

Kim Stafford's book 'Having Everything Right' is about a sense of place, and those stories have their own links into our place in the natural world. And while Rachel Carson might be best remembered for 'Silent Spring', I've always loved, 'A Sense of Wonder'.


I love all the books you mention, and especially Barry Lopez, who is one of my heroes. He's quoted often here on Myth & Moor!

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