A few months ago, while on a residency at Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, I wrote about a serendipitous encounter with a black bear.
This encounter, however fleeting, and with a distance of fifteen metres or so between us, at our closest, nonetheless filled me with a kind of awe, which I struggled in the following days to contextualise. I had never experienced anything quite like it, and explained it to myself and to my friends in what might – to some readers – appear as somewhat inflated or grandiose terms. The truth was, I felt suffused at the time, and for a couple of days after, by something like deep contentment; as if I had been granted not only a profound and profoundly reassuring realisation of the relationship between the human and the animal, but equally (and which is perhaps the same thing) between aspects of my own identity – of the self or the soul – that I had barely considered before.
At the time of my encounter with the bear I had been reading Helen Macdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk and had been moved by the way Macdonald synthesised or channelled emotions of grief at the loss of her father though training a young goshawk. At one point in the book, she writes of a growing understanding of her hawk, Mabel: ‘I am becoming fascinated by her quality of attention. I’m starting to believe in what Barry Lopez has called ‘the conversation of death’, something he saw in the exchange of glances between caribou and hunting wolves, a wordless negotiation that ends up with them working out whether they will become hunter and hunted, or passers-by.’
This detached summation of what we are in relation to another creature, or other creatures, is something we, as humans, have almost entirely lost sight of, or perhaps better expressed, lost contact with. Perhaps only in encounters in the wild is anything remotely similar ever evoked. And I am not claiming this happened with the black bear. I felt far too safe for that, and the bear . . . well, the bear seemed to be more interested in sniffing the flowers, to be honest, than in anything I was doing.
Further on in her story, Macdonald is discussing Rane Willerslev’s ethnography of time spent amid a Yukaghir community in Siberia: ‘The hunters, he wrote, think ‘humans and animals can turn into each other by temporarily taking on one another’s bodies.’ If you want to hunt elk, you dress in elkskins, walk like an elk, take on an elk’s alien consciousness. If you do this, elk will recognise you as one of their own and walk straight towards you . . . but [the] hunters consider these transformations very dangerous, because they can make you lose sight of your ‘original species identity and undergo an invisible metamorphosis.’ So, a warning here against anthropomorphism . . .
And at another point in the book, Macdonald says something for which I felt immediate identification and recognition, having visited the caves at Lascaux myself, as a young child – shortly before they were closed to public view in 1963 – an event which made a lasting impression on me. She says:
‘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.’
Why might this be? What was it that made MacDonald indignant, and which makes me exasperated at such a failure to see ourselves in relation to the natural world, and to pass on that ignorance to our children?
Fortunately, there are some writers who attempt to evoke our relationships with animals with utter poise and lack of pretentiousness. Amongst these is Jean-Christophe Bailly, whose short book Le versant animal (2007) translated into English by Catherine Porter as The Animal Side (2011) begins with an extraordinary account of the author driving at night along a dark country road and encountering a solitary deer:
‘A deer has come out of the undergrowth; frightened, it runs up the road, trapped between hedgerows: it too is caught in the estuary. It rushes ahead, just as it is, just as it has to be – fear and beauty, quivering grace, lightness. The driver, going slowly now, follows the creature, watches its croup move up and down, bounding in its dance. A kind of hunt is under way, in which the goal is not – certainly not – to catch up, but simply to follow, and since this race takes longer than one might have imagined, several hundred metres, a strange joy comes, childlike, or perhaps archaic. Finally, another path opens up for the animal, and after hesitating ever so slightly the deer plunges in and disappears.’
It is this moment that Bailly describes – a strange joy . . . childlike, or perhaps archaic – that I want to think about, to write about . . . It is not only what I seem to recall from my visit to the Lascaux caves as a five-year old, but also the joy intuited by Macdonald in her childhood classroom, and quashed by her teacher’s remark that ‘no one knew why prehistoric people drew animals.’
Of course we knew! Children, perhaps, more than anyone else: we know it in the very fibre of our flesh. We need to draw the animals, and to sing the songs of the animals, for a very simple reason: we recognise them as both ourselves and as other, a simultaneous perception of identification and of othering; the elemental you and I, perceiver and perceived; the subject and object of all encounters. The essential paradox of being. And we needed to invoke that other – the bison, the buffalo, the deer – through what would later, and perhaps misleadingly, be termed sympathetic magic. Bailly writes eloquently on the subject in the next section of his little book, including the awkward reactions that such intense sentiments often give rise to:
‘I have become aware . . . that declarations of intense feelings on the subject of animals quite often not only fall flat but give rise to a sort of embarrassment, rather as though one had inadvertently crossed a line and gotten mixed up in something untoward, or even obscene . . . The truth is that a point of solitude is always reached in one’s relations with animals. When this point extends into a line and the line extends into an arch, a shelter takes shape, the very place where that solitude responds freely to its counterpart: a beloved animal. But as soon as we go outside the line and reveal our love (that solitude and that bond), those to whom we have taken the risk of speaking almost always pull back, in a move resembling the one we ourselves might have made upon encountering a similar admission by someone else. There is a very murky zone of affects here, involving in the first place our relationships with so called companion animals, pets, but a zone which nevertheless extends far beyond the merely private sphere: visits to a zoo or a game reserve, the positions we hold or adopt towards hunting or eating meat (“s’il est loisible de manger chair [if we are entitled to eat flesh],” as Amyot, translating Plutarch, put it so aptly); it is our entire relation to the animal world, or rather worlds, that is traversed by affect and that is troubled and troubling.’
Troubled and troubling it may be, but these animal encounters lie at the heart of so much that we human animals, once upon a time – not so long ago – experienced, day in, day out, over millions of years of evolution, in fact, when such thought was integral to everyday existence. As Claude Lévi-Strauss so appositely put it, animals were – and are – ‘good to think with’.
Nowadays, the closest most people are likely to get to such an animal encounter is with their pets – typically with the domestic cat or a dog – or perhaps when nervously passing a herd of frisky Friesians in a field; and for huge swathes of the urban population the vital, life-enhancing experience of coming face to face with animals in the wild is something they will never know; indeed the nearest they will come to encountering an animal in the flesh, as it were, will be biting into a Big Mac.