What is it that makes me collect these animal models, wherever I go in the world, whether they be hand-carved wooden shapes of exquisite beauty, a water bird sculpted from whale bone, a tatty and cross-eyed Mexican coyote made from God knows what, or these cheap plastic creatures picked up in a Banff tourist store? The animal world predominates in the imagination, and constantly invades my dream life – this I share with much of humanity . . . but there is more, and it relates back – at the risk of sounding either grandiose or ridiculous – to the cave paintings of our ancestors. The term sympathetic magic leapt out at me when I first came across it, and seemed to serve as a comfort, almost a cure for so many of my own, interior afflictions. It seemed to answer a fundamental question about being in the world.
Helen Macdonald, in her coruscating reflection on loss and grief, H for Hawk, writes: ‘I remember a teacher showing us photographs of the cave paintings at Lascaux and explain that no one knew why prehistoric people drew these animals. I was indignant. I knew exactly why, but at that age was at a loss to put my intuition into words that made sense even to me.’
Something I wrote years ago, in Walking on Bones, comes close to speaking to the subject, but I feel the need to revisit the theme, as we (humans) become more and more distant from the environment we inhabit and the animals we share it with. It has something to do with the search for congruity, both in our interior lives, and in our relationship with the planet. My stay at Banff, amongst other things, has allowed me to re-think that relationship, and perhaps the semi-conscious purchase of some plastic toys, however trivial, and their residency here on my desk, serves as a reminder.
The soul travels at the speed of a trotting camel. Nowadays, when humans venture any distance, they choose a mode of transport significantly faster. The result? Lost souls, everywhere. Once when I flew from Athens to London, stayed ten days, and then returned, I reckoned that I passed my camel over Serbia, going in the opposite direction.
From the parched membranes of a feigned amnesia we conjure cowled faces against a starlit sky, folds of black silk, tufts of animal fur, dried blood, stale sweat, the cold night air of the desert crossing. The rhythm of this memory is that of a human heartbeat. The images retained by the eye are formed at exactly the right speed, and fade in time for the next one. Food is chewed and digested in the recommended way. Water only is drunk, and preciously conserved. The pernicious attributes of a godless world are simply unimagined. Animal images predominate. The deeper you dig, more beasties come at you. Everything has its animal corollary.