Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons Lascaux Cave

Why Write About Animals

A post from Essay Daily, October 29, 2015.

I pose the question, taking my cue and much else from John Berger’s seminal, mildly elliptical essay “Why Look at Animals?” As it happens, much of my writing thus far in life has been about fauna, and yet I have never sat down for long to explore the implications. Why do I write nonfiction about animals, and why do we? What are the ethical considerations? Of course, there is a vast field of animal studies out there, impressive and growing, and I am no expert, only an enthusiast. Fundamentally, for me the compulsion to conjure beasts is entirely wrapped up in nature/nurture: I had the luxury to fall into animals as a kid (I had an knack for spotting them, and often the patience to observe them), and I never stopped looking.

Then again: How can we not write of animals? As you know, some of the earliest human-made images were the beasts on the walls of the cave in Lascaux, France, painted in pigments: predominantly horses, stags, and bulls, but also felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros. This was writing before writing, if you will (and this text was open to the public until our exhalations began to damage the walls, to erase it). These and other early animals drawings are variously interpreted as trance visions, depictions of constellations, etc. But they were also just what was everywhere around. Animals lived at the edge of the camp, or even within the same cave. “What distinguished man [people!] from animals was the human capacity for symbolic thought,” Berger notes in “Why Look at Animals?” “Yet the first symbols were animals. What distinguished men from animals was born of their relationship with them.”

With the advent of agriculture and husbandry, this relationship became more familiar, in a sense, but also more fraught. Our ideas about animals began to shift. Not coincidentally, just about then writing came into being. The cuneiform script of the Sumerians emerged to tally and keep track of tradeable goods, which included domesticates. From the start, writing evoked animals, but it also signaled the transition of animals from independent subject to object, from mystery to commodity, in our perceptions.

More recently, animals have been relegated to further extremes: projected onto the cave wall as caricatures, or not all. We tend to see wild animals less, but love the idea of them more. “The urge to turn animals into either things or into people reflects the distance we have traveled in a generation or two,” writes Stephen Budiansky in The Covenant of the Wild, a book on my shelf. “We conveniently alternate between anthropomorphism and blindness.” On the one hand, the gazillion dollar pet industry and Pixarification of penguins and polar bears (animals as people). On the other, anonymous shrink-wrapped meat (a thing, I suppose).

As Berger posits, quite elementally, “No animal confirms man, either positively or negatively. The animal can be killed and eaten so that its energy is added to that which the hunter already possesses. The animal can be tamed so that it supplies and work for the peasant. But always its lack of language, its silence, guarantees its distance, its distinctness, its exclusion, from and of man.” Since animals are a silent majority, and we can only ever project (onto) them, how do we negotiate between anthropomorphism and blindness so as to least marginalize them between the margins of our writing? How can we extract them from the practical clay of Sumerian tablets and today’s best-selling tablets?

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