Walking along the ridge that separates Cwm Grwyne Fawr from the Vale of Ewyas, I am attentive to the details, and enter a familiar state of watchful trance. But the details are relatively few when walking in a cloud, which swirls around me, as though I were on the deck of a great liner plying the folds of the sky. Far off to the south, a mysterious light beckons, the distant glow of somewhere. I know exactly where I am headed, but am aware that if I go the way I had planned when I set out I will be walking down much of the mountain in the dark: I decide to take a short cut, despite all the received and accepted wisdom about not taking shortcuts. But there are times when it is necessary, and this route is familiar. You remember the line from Roethke’s poem ‘I learn by going where I have to go’ but not necessarily, not always.
I cross paths with a wandering pony, a grey, but of such a strange hue as though stained with blue dye. I call her Ceridwen, I’m not sure why, and tell her I have an apple, but she isn’t listening. Another ambient mortal taking a shortcut over the marsh, talking to horses, imagining I am someone I am not. It is difficult enough surviving on this moor without having to conform to the fantasies of some passerby. And I too am having difficulty negotiating the exceedingly lumpy and boggy terrain, but the shortcut is effective and I cut a chunk off the circuit, and eventually descend though rock and moss to sit by the stream, y grwyne fawr, though it is hardly big, even in comparison with its sibling, y grwyne fechan (the little grwyne), and I sit and eat my apple and then a cheese sandwich, under the curious gaze of another blue pony. I pour coffee from my flask and watch as nothing much takes place. Here there is no mist; the cloud begins in a sheet around thirty metres above the stream, hugging the sides of the mountain above my head; due to the meteorological conditions it has no choice to be anything other than a cloud, but there is no ‘it’, I tell myself, just billions of tiny water droplets, visible water vapour, crowding around the upper reaches of the mountain. A few late crows harass the gibbous moon. As I descend the path past the reservoir, dusk is falling, and by the time I am past the dam, the darkness has settled, or rather, the accumulation of black air is complete. It is also noticeably cooler. A light shines from the window of a solitary farmhouse, the only dwelling in the upper reaches of the valley. There is always, in that descent towards human habitation at nightfall, a sense of safe return, something as primordial and as reassuring as a fire, a hearth, the company of kin.
I am four or five years old and we have arrived at a campsite in southern France or possibly Spain. It is late July. I am looking at the incredibly bright night sky and ask my father which of those stars we came from. I am confusing our voyage over the English channel with intergalactic travel. I realise my mistake before he corrects me, but perhaps I am not wrong either.
I am nineteen and have taken LSD in my friend Guy’s house in Finsbury Park, north London. I am wearing a sleeveless woollen jumper that once belonged to my Taid, and am staring at myself in the mirror of a dresser that stands in the hall. I have just been to the bathroom and I stop by the dresser before rejoining the others in the front room. I stare in the mirror for a long time thinking: this is who you are. Somehow the fact that I am wearing this jumper seems significant and I feel close to my Taid and very much a part of my ancestry, the chance incumbent in a long line of ancestors. This has never occurred to me before. The earthy tones of the sweater; brown, amber, a hint of grey-green, appeal to me. Life feels like a priceless gift and I am wholly there for a moment, even though, looking into the mirror, I know there is darkness in there too. This is who I am, I think.
And in August this year, pausing on a peak above an undulating ridge in the Black Mountains, I am struck by the notion of looking out over a landscape as though it were an image in a book and peeling back the image before me from the top right hand corner to reveal another seemingly identical image, and then beginning to turn the pages and finding more and more iterations — each one minimally different and yet the same — and we inhabit one of them; and I begin to imagine the many worlds we might inhabit and the multiple lives we might, hypothetically, live, but as contingency dictates we are landed with one life, which takes place in whatever world it is that we have been allocated, and there comes to us one day the knowledge that we will eventually leave it behind, the knowledge that, as Rilke put it, we are offered this gift ‘Just once; no more. And we too, / just once. And never again.’
‘All things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger.’ J.L. Borges
The black bear appeared out of the woods to my left and lumbered across the highway, just ahead of me. It was early morning and the shadows were long. I pulled over, crawled beside the guard rail, and spotted it again; an adult male, I guessed, from its size and the shape of its head. He had crossed the deep ditch beside the road and was climbing, foraging on the grassy hillside about fifteen metres away.
I was drawn to him by some elemental gravity, a force beyond reason. Something remote yet familiar stirred and fluttered between us and was carried on the air with the scent of juniper. The bear raised his head, kept his gaze on me for a brief spell, but he wasn’t especially interested, and his snout returned to the flower which he had been sniffing with devout attention before he looked up. He took his time. He wasn’t bothered by my presence nearby. He ambled slowly up the hillside, out of sight, and I got back into the car. Watching this animal, I was completely entranced, outside of time. I had been drawn towards the bear in a way that, afterwards, I tried to explain, but could not. Words failed me utterly.
The black bear appeared out of the woods to my left and lumbered across the highway, just ahead of me. It was early morning and the shadows were long. I pulled over, crawled beside the guard rail, and spotted it again; an adult male, I guessed, from its size and the shape of its head. He had crossed the deep ditch beside the road and was climbing, foraging on the grassy hillside about fifteen metres away.
This encounter in the Canadian Rockies, however fleeting, nonetheless filled me with a kind of awe, which I struggled in the following days to comprehend. I had not really been in any danger, and the bear, as I have said, seemed to be more interested in sniffing the flowers than in anything I was doing. But nonetheless, something had passed between us, and I explained it to myself and to my friends, back in Banff, in what might have seemed 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, even love; as if I had not only learned something about the gaze that passes between human and animal, but equally about my deeper self – what I can only call the soul – and in a way I had barely considered before, but had always known.
What was the nature of this thing that passed momentarily between us, which for want of any other name I call the animal gaze? In the eighth of the Duino Elegies, Rilke writes ‘And yet, sometimes a silent animal looks up at us and silently looks through us.’ The bear looked through me, and I was going to write almost as though I was not there. But that is not quite right. The animal gaze may be indifferent, but is not oblivious.
I recall other instances when I have been a recipient of the animal gaze, or participated in an exchange of gazes with an animal in the wild. A fox crosses the field just ahead of me, catching my scent on the breeze, and turning his head, he stops suddenly, mid-step, one of his front paws raised in a characteristic pose, snout turned towards me, long whiskers twitching, alert and questioning. The passage of a few milliseconds as we assess each other, before he sets off on his way. That rupture in time’s narrative, that sudden hiatus as one creature enters another’s world unexpectedly, an animal going about its business, never expecting a human to appear. Whenever an encounter of this kind occurs, it is entirely new and unexpected. It feels like time out of time. I have come face to face with deer and boar while hiking in the Pyrenees, and almost always there is a moment of surprise, or shock, followed by a sort of mutual acknowledgement, before each of us goes our separate way. There are exceptions: once, last year, I disturbed a boar sow with attendant cubs, who, on seeing me, emitted a threatening growl. No time to examine the nature of the gaze then; the message was clear enough. She would certainly have charged me, had I lingered.
Among those writers who evoke our relationships with animals in the wild is Jean-Christophe Bailly, who offers a compelling account of the author driving at night along a 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 ‘strange joy’ that Bailly describes — childlike, or archaic — that I recognise, and want to think about, to write about . . .
In his essay, published in English as The Animal Side, Bailly recognises his reaction to the deer, but nevertheless is ‘taken aback, overcome. The sequence had had the clarity, the violence, of an image in a dream.’ He ponders what has happened during this bizarre chase, as the driver pursues the deer down the road, and concludes that he has touched some part of the animal world . . . with his eyes. He knows this is impossible, in any literal sense. He hasn’t entered the animal’s world but rather the strangeness of that world has revealed itself to him once more, ‘as if I had actually been allowed for an instant to see something from which, as a human being I shall be forever excluded . . . a strangeness [that] ought to be considered on its own terms, as a different posture, a different impetus, and quite simply a different modality of being.’ And he confesses that this experience moved him to tears, a sentiment which, after my encounter with the bear, I fully understand. It was, he says, ‘both like a thought and a proof that there is no supremacy, neither of humans nor of beasts, that there are only passages, fleeting sovereignties, occasions, escapes, encounters. The deer was in its night and I in mine, each of us alone.’
Is it, then, something to do with a quality of aloneness — the bear (fox, deer, or boar) in its world and I in mine— that reinforces my sense of having been granted, briefly, an opening into another world. A sense of origin, of something deeply remembered, though now forgotten?
What I earlier termed ‘love’ with regard to the bear, and the corresponding sentiment – a realisation of transience (‘fleeting sovereignties, occasions, escapes, encounters’) that produced tears in Bailly – might be pertinent to the topic that he addresses next in his essay. He writes that ‘declarations of intense feelings on the subject of animals quite often not only fall flat but give rise to a sort of embarrassment.’ This is a murky area, in which one might be accused of sentimentality, since most people regard a love of animals as something quite childish, a consequence perhaps of the general Disneyfication of our engagement with ‘the animal kingdom’ (this term itself is worthy of attention, with its neatly superimposed monarchical assumptions). But what I am talking about here is as far as imaginably possible from a Disneyfied attitude of cuddly objectification. While we have confined beasts into manageable conceptual spaces – domesticated animals as pets in the home, wild animals in zoos – we have retained a profoundly ambiguous relationship to them in our thought and in dreams. Animals will not stay put in their allocated place. They have continued, without even trying, to make the boundary between their worlds and ours an unsettled and unsettling one. Every animal encounter of the kind that I have described evokes a reaction of loss, and reminds us of something that surpasses the individual and yet is somehow integral to our humanity.
While Jean-Christophe Bailly’s essay speaks directly to the experience of encounters with animals in the wild, John Berger, in his essay, ‘Why Look at Animals’, reminds us of the more complex and elusive relationship between humans and animals that have been kept in captivity, either as domesticated farm animals, as pets, or else on display in zoos. He starts out by claiming that for most of human history animals constituted the first circle of the world that surrounded us. Indeed, that statement already suggests a distance that was barely apparent in the pre-industrial world; after all, animals and humans lived cheek by jowl. It is true, writes Berger, that such centrality was often ‘economic and productive’, since humans depended on animals for food, work, transport, clothing. But to imagine that animals ‘first entered the human imagination as food or leather’ would be to ‘project a nineteenth century attitude backwards across the millennia.’ Long before then, animals held a symbolic and magical value; they were good to think with, in Lévi-Strauss’ phrase, rather than merely resources to consume.
Berger then goes on to make an unusual point about the look that passes between animals and humans in the wild (which he later contrasts with the looks exchanged between humans and animals held in captivity, notably in zoos). When humans and animals look at each other, the human recognises the animal’s look as ‘familiar’, he writes. ‘Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look.’In other words, as I suggested in my encounter with the black bear, a kind of power is ascribed to the animal through this exchange of looks, ‘comparable with human power but never coinciding with it.’ The observed animal has secrets which are addressed specifically to us. ‘The animal has secrets which, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man.’ It is because of this ability to recognise ourselves in this other creature that a companionship can arise between humans and animals: ‘with their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is offered to the loneliness of man as a species.’
But it would be foolish to read too much into the relationship between a human and an animal in the wild, or to read the wrong kinds of message into the gaze that is exchanged between them. Such was the case with dim-witted Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s documentary film Grizzly Man. Treadwell was a New Age voyeur who believed that he was in touch with his inner bear, but only succeeded in getting himself and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, killed and eaten by one. His story, according to Werner Herzog’s film, based on Treadwell’s video footage, was ‘a tragic misunderstanding of what wild nature is all about’. ‘What haunts me’, Herzog adds, in his commentary towards the end of his film, ‘is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.’ Treadwell’s tale is salutary, and his ending is summarised accurately, if brutally, by a park warden in Herzog’s film: ‘he got what he was asking for, he got what he deserved.’
While animals have served as metaphors for human character traits, humans have also likened themselves to animals (Aesop, La Fontaine, Beatrix Potter, Disney); thus has anthropomorphism flourished over the centuries. But in parallel with this, as we celebrate their alleged ‘human qualities’— or the corresponding ‘animal qualities’ of humans — we have, for the most part, lost the habit of interacting with animals themselves. Most children today, growing up in cities, have never seen an animal in the wild, in its natural habitat. Probably they never will.
The result of this detachment from nature and wildness (and a direct consequence of the overcompensation it occasions) is that people have begun to regard animals nostalgically, and the animal has become, in Berger’s phrase ‘emptied of experience and secrets.’ It is this new, invented ‘innocence’, argues Berger, ‘that provokes in man a kind of nostalgia.’ It is almost as if, in a deranged act of housekeeping — of ‘keeping the wilderness at bay’ — we have divested ourselves of all that pertains to our animal selves, with the result that we are left only with cardboard cut-outs of the animals we once lived alongside. The animals have thus become caricatures, not of themselves, but of us. So it is that we must consider pets (the term ‘pet’, Berger tells us, once referred to a lamb raised by hand in the household). The acquisition of pets, incidentally — especially cats and dogs — has undergone a massive surge during the coronavirus pandemic, as thousands have attempted to acquire or purchase animal companions, apparently to lessen their own sense of loneliness. The past year has also seen a burgeoning black market in stolen pets, especially the cuter breeds of dog.
In the past, as Berger reminds us, people kept domesticated animals for specific purposes – guard dogs and hunting dogs, cats for controlling rodents – but nowadays pets are household trophies, a distinguishing feature of consumer societies. I can remember how, forty years ago, in rural Spain, practically no one kept a dog as a pet; nowadays every household seems to own one. Berger describes the setting in which the pet survives: ‘The small family living unit lacks space, earth, other animals, seasons, natural temperatures, and so on. The pet is either sterilised or sexually isolated, extremely limited in its exercise, deprived of almost all other animal contact, and fed with artificial foods. This is the material process which lies behind the truism that pets come to resemble their masters or mistresses. They are creatures of their owner’s way of life.’
The pet also serves another function. It offers its owner a mirror to a part of himself or herself of which only that person is aware. But this relationship, in which each party reflects the other, has none of the satisfying parallelism that marks the separateness of animal and human lives. It creates a new nostalgia, growing out of the domesticity that binds them together: a nostalgia for the wild.
But what is the ‘wild’? It’s a horribly overused word at present. Titles of books and documentaries celebrate wildness and ‘re-wilding’ abound, and the other morning I caught the opening exchanges, on BBC Radio Four Woman’s Hour, of aninterview with Glennon Doyle, author of Untamed, a book about getting in touch with our inner wildness. Start to ‘untame’ yourself, Doyle’s webpage urges readers: ‘We’re born with these wild, individual selves and then we start to just give up who we are . . . We lose our wild selves, and then we have to reverse the process so we can reclaim some of who we are or were before the world told us who to be.’ The ‘wild’ person is ‘who we are’, and ‘wildness’, we are told, is an inherent quality to which we have rights, and which has somehow been taken from us, rather than willingly surrendered.
Annie Dillard’s famous essay ‘The Weasel’ begins with the declaration: ‘A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks?’ and goes on to recount a story about a man who shot an eagle from the sky and discovered the dry skull of a weasel attached to the bird’s throat, the assumption being that the eagle had once pounced on the weasel, which had turned and sunk its teeth into the bird’s neck, to be carried thus for the weeks or months or years until the bird was brought down from the sky. The rest of Dillard’s essay purportedly explores the notion of ‘wildness’, focusing at one point on the moment when the writer herself comes face to face with a weasel: ‘The weasel was stunned into silence as he was emerging from beneath an enormous shaggy wild rose-bush four feet away. I was stunned into stillness, twisted backward on the tree trunk. Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key’. Dillard makes the most of the moment: ‘Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each of them had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It was a bright blow to the brain, a sudden beating of the brains, with all the intimate grate of rubbed balloons. It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes.’
Not satisfied with a blow to the gut, Dillard invokes a beating of the brains and an emptying of the lungs as well. I cannot help but wonder whether the weasel underwent equivalent anatomical distress. Dillard assures us that he did: ‘I tell you I’ve been in that weasel’s brain for sixty seconds, and he was in mine.’ I am not convinced by this, however; my guess is that the weasel, like my bear, looked through her. They were not like lovers, or deadly enemies meeting unexpectedly on an overgrown path: that is all human interjection. Fortunately, Dillard relents towards the end of the encounter: ‘What does a weasel think about? He won’t say. His journal is tracks in the sand, a spray of feathers, mouse blood and bone: uncollected, unconnected, loose-leaf, and blown.’ And here we come the crux of the matter. All those words Dillard employs to convey the utter confusion of her side of the encounter (damage to gut, brains, lungs) is reduced, on her creature’s part, to a list of weaselly phenomena — the bits and pieces that furnish a weasel’s day (tracks, feathers, blood and bone). A phenomenology of death. Dillard’s account, despite its title, is not really about a weasel; it is about Dillard. She wants to be wild, and has come to live in this place in order to learn from the weasel: ‘The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons. I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.’ It seems to me that this admiration for the weasel’s wildness, as exemplified by its tenacity in hanging on like grim death to the eagle’s throat, is not that far removed from the narrative of the American Dream: to ‘grasp your one necessity and not let it go’, as Dillard puts it, a call to indomitable tenacity and heroic individualism; and that is why it is admirable and acts as a kind of incentive to greater achievement. Dillard’s essay serves as an example of how easy it can be to conflate ideas about ‘wildness’ and the requirements of the ‘self’. It is an error that neither Bailly nor Helen Macdonald makes.
At the time of my encounter with the bear I had been reading Macdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk and had been moved by the way the author synthesised and channelled emotions of grief at the loss of her father though training a young goshawk. I too had recently lost my father, and her story resonated with me. I too had felt an unfathomable pull towards the natural world, and animals in particular, following his death, and in a way that I found very hard to explain or account for.
At one point in her book Macdonald writes of her growing understanding of the 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.’ Again the exchange of glances, that moment of time out of time as two creatures assess each other. I remember a friend, the novelist Tristan Hughes, mentioning an unexpected encounter with wolves, near his home in remote Northern Ontario. I email him, curious to know whether he too experienced a moment of hiatus, a suspension of normal time, while the wolves and he measured each other up. His answer comes back after a couple of hours:
I was making my way through the dead grass at the edge of a beaver pond when I looked up over the top of the grass and found them directly in front of me. I’d had no clue or indication of their presence until I saw them. There were three of them, two grey ones and a black one in the centre. They were no more than twenty yards away.
There was, just as you describe it, a kind of paralysis of time (I’ve no idea how long the encounter lasted), and one that took on a physical aspect too – on my side anyway. There was a sudden and intense narrowing of focus, a sort of tunnel vision; it was like my brain had performed an instant bit of triage – there was only one urgent thing in the landscape, and all my senses were bent to it. And that hyper-awareness or focus seemed to put everything into a kind of slow motion (a trick of adrenaline, I guess, to increase the ability to react). And then, another effect of adrenaline. The cliché is ‘spine-tingling’ but that is exactly what it was: a million-year old mammal response; the memory of being prey. There was also a momentary paralysis or hiatus in cognition. For a few jumbled milli-seconds the cultural reference points or iconographies of wolves weren’t in place – I knew they were wolves, but I didn’t know them as wolves. Instead, for those few instants, my mind seemed to break them down into essential qualities: they were big, they were grey and black, they had yellow eyes – and those eyes were looking at me.
As for the way they were looking at me, I’d probably describe it as a mixture of curiosity and indifference. They must have known I was there for a while, through scent, and worked out I was no threat to them and wasn’t food. Getting sight of me fulfilled no function or need – they just wanted to look. And once they’d looked for what felt like a long time, but could only have been twenty or thirty seconds, they moved slowly away into the woods, as though I were something unusual thrown up on a beach – an interesting piece of flotsam to be examined, noted, nudged with a toe, and passed by.
The indifference of Hughes’s wolves not only evokes, for me, the reaction of my black bear, but ‘indifference’ is Herzog’s chosen descriptor for the faces of ‘all the bears ever filmed’ by Timothy Treadwell. John Berger, in another essay, defines nature’s energy as ‘fearsomely indifferent’, contrasting it with the sentimental view of nature often produced by urbanites, who regard nature as ‘a garden, or a view framed by a window, or as an arena of freedom.’ Berger’s view of nature, of ‘the wild’, is not only indifferent, but unmistakably bleak: ‘The gale blows itself out, the sea changes from the colour of grey shit to aquamarine. Under the fallen boulder of an avalanche a flower grows. Over the shanty town the moon rises. I offer dramatic examples so as to insist upon the bleakness of the context.’
What we are in relation to a natural, wild landscape, a wild creature, or creatures, is something we, as humans, have almost entirely lost sight of: in Bailly’s phrase, our eyes no longer touch those creatures, that world. A sense of perspective is lacking; we forget our own smallness and fragility below the vast and indifferent shift of the skies, in the tremors of an earthquake, or in the approach of a storm. Perhaps only in encounters with the wilderness do we feel our true status as creatures.
In Helen Macdonald’s book, there is another story, concerning the caves at Lascaux, which immediately attracted my attention. I was fortunate enough to have visited the caves at Lascaux as a young child, shortly before they were closed to the public – an event which made a lasting impression on me. Macdonald remembers that when she was at junior school, a teacher showed her and her classmates photographs of the cave paintings at Lascaux, and explained that no one knew why prehistoric people drew these animals. ‘I was indignant,’ she writes. ‘I knew exactly why, but at that age was at a loss to put my intuition into words that made sense even to me.’
How could the teacher not see? How could the teacher not understand the obvious interdependence between our ancestors and the animals that surrounded them? I recall our family visit to Lascaux but only return to images of darkness and a vague sense of wonderment at the beautiful shape of an animal, a bison, on the wall of the cave. I try my best to remember more but draw a blank; what I can recall is a very bright light — a spotlight — and warm, harmonious colours, reminiscent of the colours of the earth; but then again I have seen so many reproductions of the Lascaux caves that I have no idea if that memory is truly my own, or borrowed, so I message my sister, who is six years older than me, and ask her if she has any memories of our visit to Lascaux caves in 1962. At the time she gets my message — in one of those rare instances of synchronicity — she is packing a present to send to her grandson, Leonardo, in Los Angeles. It is a book called Cave Baby, in which — she sends me a photo of the relevant page — the baby’s mother paints the walls of the cave with bison and deer.
She also sends an extract from her scrapbook of the family holiday to France in the summer of 1962. Of course, our father had insisted she keep a record, as he always did of my older siblings on these trips. I learn from this, which she photographs and sends on WhatsApp, that the cave was discovered by four boys and a dog in 1940. My sister’s best eleven-year-old scrawl records that: ’The cave was lit up and looks very nice’, before continuing: ‘The drawings are of many ages and are the colours yellow, red and black ochre.’ In a final comment, she adds that ‘two of the boys who discovered it are now the present guides.’
I am trying to piece together parts of a puzzle: it is not only what I seem to recall from my visit to the Lascaux caves as a six-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.’ It is the same joy I experienced on seeing the black bear.
Of course we knew why people painted on the walls of their caves! Children, perhaps, more than anyone else: we know it in the very fibre of our being. We need to draw the animals, and to sing the songs of the animals and dance their dances in our rituals, 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.
Our ancestors were not only fascinated by these creatures who lived their lives in parallel with their own, and with whom they had a pact of sorts. They also loved them. This love is visible in the paintings so tenderly crafted, which in a modern-day observer stirs a sense of a forgotten intimacy, of profound loss. Bailly again: ‘Leaving aside the dispute over the sacred to which these wall paintings inevitably lead, we can nevertheless say that they point to an origin or an originary state of designation, and that they can be understood as a first, stupefying recording in which, at the heart of nature as a whole, the animal is recognised as the great other, the first companion.’
We needed to invoke, to translate that other; the fox, the bear, the bison, the deer, through what would later be termed sympathetic magic. We still need to translate them. They are our others and we need to translate them onto the walls of our modern caves. The cave paintings of Lascaux and elsewhere record that reciprocal gaze in a fashion that seems to me exemplary; the animal is simply there, and the painter is looking at them as things of wonder. What do I conclude? That while animals have not forgotten how to look at us, we may have forgotten how to look at animals.
Troubled and troubling it may be, but these animal encounters lie at the heart of so much that we human animals experienced, day in, day out, over a few million years of evolution, for most of which time such thoughts were integral to everyday existence. The creatures we shared our world with — that same world we have ruthlessly plundered and are in the process of destroying — also help to remind us how to live. Or, as Anne Dufourmantelle puts it in her book, Gentleness, the animal disarms our sense of duplicity, because we humans are divided, in exile from ourselves, whereas an animal’s gentleness ‘comes to us from a being that coincides with itself almost entirely.’ This is not a question of consistency of ‘self’ or existential solidity, but simply of being true to one’s own nature, as a stone is a stone and a tiger is a tiger. To coincide with oneself almost entirely.
This essay first appeared in Wales Arts Review on 14.02.2021
Yesterday, to celebrate the end of the five mile travel limit imposed by the Welsh government during lockdown, we drove to the Black Mountains and followed the Grwyne Fechan towards its source below Waun Fach. On the way upstream, I spotted a ram’s horn lying amid the fern, and although on most occasions I would simply have glanced at it and moved on, yesterday – perhaps because we have been away from wild countryside for so long – I had to have it. I took it back home and soaked it overnight in bleach and water. In the morning I scrubbed it with wire wool, and to my great surprise and joy, found within it a smaller, proto horn that slides perfectly inside the larger one. I supposed at first this was the original infant horn of the ram, but Mrs Blanco suggests it is, rather, the next horn, which will grow inside the old horn, and eventually displace it. This seems convincing; however, checking online, I discover that rams do not shed their horns, but that the horn contains within it a keratinous sheath, that is attached to the base of the skull. Is this what the smaller version of the horn is? I cannot find any images online of any structure that resembles the one in the photograph. Is my horn an anomaly, a freak of nature? Do any readers out there know anything about the biochemistry of the horn?
Ram horns grow in a helix, like the threads of a bolt, out from the head. Naturally, I couldn’t help but notice the structural resemblance to the ouroboros, symbol of the eternal cycle of renewal (and the icon of this site). The image of the ouroboros below is from a wood carving on the rood screen at the church of St Mary and St Egryn at Llanegryn, Gwynedd, which I photographed last November.
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.
As my insomnia has progressed over the years and has become the norm, rather than a ‘condition’ or illness, I have become expert at dressing in the dark. I seem to ‘see through’ the dark, in the same way that swimming underwater for long periods one begins to notice things in ways that the beginning snorkeler would not. As I reach for my clothes at four this morning, having failed the 15 minute rule (by which, if I haven’t returned to sleep after 15 minutes, I get up) I realise I can find my clothes without really looking for them, and this is not memory at play, so much as a kind of second sight, an ability to manoeuvre my way in pitch darkness.
This is not the only difference in my perception of darkness. Marina Benjamin remarks, in a lovely passage near the start of her recently-published account, Insomnia, that when she is up at night,
‘the world takes on a different hue. It is quieter and closer and there are textures of the dark I have begun paying attention to. I register the thickening, sense-dulling darkness that hangs velvety as a pall over deep night, and the green-black tincture you get when moisture charges the atmosphere with static. Then there is the gently shifting penumbra that heralds dawn and feels less like the suggestion of light than a fuzziness around the edges of your perception, as if an optician had clamped a diffusing lens over your eyes then quizzed you about the blurred shapes that dance at the peripheries of your vision. In sleeplessness I have come to understand that there is a taxonomy of darkness to uncover, and with it, a nocturnal literacy we can acquire.’
I like that, about the ‘nocturnal literacy’. I also feel as though I have learned to read the night, and by certain hints and textures within the darkness can guess with a high degree of accuracy what time it is when I awaken, if I have the good fortune to have fallen asleep, which usually takes place for the first couple of hours after going to bed, and usually while still reading (more on this phenomenon here).
These are the ‘good’ nights of insomnia, when sleep is achieved, even in relatively small doses. Two or three hours as a rule, four at a stretch, five a feast, six a bonanza. The bad nights are something else. The bad nights, or stretches of them, are less a topic for speculation, more a desire to shut down completely. And certainly not a matter for general discussion. I mean, I try not to mention my insomnia to people I don’t know well. I wrote about this once in injured tones:
‘An insomniac is never short of advice from well-meaning friends and relatives. Everyone has experienced difficulty in getting to sleep, and many people feel that this qualifies them to offer advice based on the authority of experience. “Oh, I have trouble sleeping”, they will tell you, and what they mean is that they have struggled from time to time to get to sleep, have tossed and turned for a while, or woken in the night and found it hard to return to their slumber; but essentially these setbacks rarely make a dent on their seven or eight hours of regular sleep.
Such people find it impossible to conceive of the extent of disability endured by a serious Contender for the World Title, such as myself. Let me make it clear that insomnia is not a question of simply not being able to get to sleep – it is, cumulatively, a massive derangement of the senses, a perpendicular longing, a lacuna within narrative time, a backsliding acceleration into the entrails of night, awaiting the dawn as a mortally injured man might await morphine, in the hope that with the light will come sleep, if only for an hour, or half an hour.’ (from The Vagabond’s Breakfast).
This was written in the Bad Old Days of my insomnia, back in the early years of the Millennium. I manage my sleeplessness better these days. And I read about the experience of others in this strange fellowship of insomniacs.
Here’s Teju Cole, from a delightful essay titled ‘Unnamed Lake’ in his collection, Known and Strange Things. It starts on a sleepless night:
‘I paced inside my own mind like a tiger inside its cage, like the Tasmanian tiger going back and forth, maddened by the prospect of its coming doom. Where I had been pinned down in sleeplessness by one small glare, my eyelids now trembled with the flashes coming from within. So quick was the succession of images, each one of which presented itself like a problem to be solved, that I could not at any instant remember what had gone before. It seemed to me instead that my consciousness had become like a narrow, high-walled corridor crammed with everything I had lately read or seen, every landscape I had recently passed through or touched on in my thoughts’
Cole’s narrative then progresses through a sequence of seemingly unconnected insomniac images and filmic accounts until settling on the Tasmanian tiger already mentioned:
‘In a small enclosure in Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart in 1933 . . . a Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, paces. His name is Benjamin. He has a doglike head, and stripes on his back like a tiger. But he is neither canine nor felid; he is marsupial. He is also a carnivore, a hunting animal, though not an especially fast or particularly strong one. The thylacine was first described in 1806 by Tasmania’s deputy surveyor-general George Harris: “Head very large, bearing a near resemblance to the wolf or hyena. Eyes large and full, black with a nictitant membrane which gives the animal a savage and malicious appearance.”’
Nictitant? Adapted for winking or blinking, according to the OED. Blinking before death?
Something about this passage fills me with foreboding, as though I know what is going to happen next. The pathos in that line: “he is . . a hunting animal, though not an especially fast or particularly strong one,” suggests, surely, that Benjamin, or his species, have been granted evolution’s short straw. ‘Doomed by poor DNA’ according to one article. The Tasmanian tiger was hunted to extinction, and Benjamin, the sole survivor of his race, was captured and placed in a cage, around which he paced, ceaselessly, as we can see from this footage on youtube, in a short sequence that fills me with tenderness and fear, and a terrible sense of the mutilated world.
Perhaps in response to this clip, or reflecting on the fates of animals in general, Cole, in his essay, comes up with the image of an unnamed lake that lies ‘underneath all reality’ and it is precisely there, I feel, that we might find the thylacine, Benjamin, and perhaps all other lost and extinct matter.
‘At moments, you may notice that what you are looking at contains both its own obliteration (the promise of death) and a curious quantity of eternity, like a single body possessed by two spirits. Survival and extinction are both indelibly there. There is a quality of listening in the dead of the night (the “dead” of the night) that is perhaps not conducive to writing or interpretation, but that heightens the possibilities of what can be heard, or that might lead one to believe that there is an unnamed lake underneath all reality, and that there are places where the ground, insufficiently firm, can suddenly plunge one through into the subterranean truth of things.’
Reading Jean-Christophe Bailly’ The Animal Side, I find this lovely passage about watching a murmur of starlings:
‘ . . . one evening on the Loire and over a period of hours, the perpetual movement of a flock of starlings endlessly forming liquid figures, a triangulation of black dots departing, then suddenly turning back like iron filings attracted by an invisible magnet moving in the sky. Nothing more, perhaps: only flight, the idea of flight, embodied in flight as we see it and as it comes and goes before our eyes – and precisely as if there were in it, in its very dependence and in its pure effect of law, of a law actualized, a condensation of what is not only free but truly liberated and activated in the sky, the signature of pure intoxication with living, in a singular and dreamy beat.’
So I dig out this sequence of photos I took three years ago, on the road from Perelada to Mollet, with the Alberas behind, and the starlings doing their thing, writing a poem on the sky.
The road is empty, straight, the peaks of the Rockies crowning the road ahead. It is early morning and the shadows are long. The bear appears on the left and lumbers across the highway, two hundred yards ahead, glances once towards us, but continues on his way. I pull over, crawl beside the guard rail, and then we spot him: he has crossed the deep ditch beside the road and is climbing, foraging on the grassy hillside. I am drawn to him by a force beyond reason, elemental, and something new stirs within me, asking for a space to grow; it feels like love, but with no particular destination, and is carried on the air with the scent of juniper.
Today is National Indigenous People’s day in Canada, also the summer solstice, and I read that according to indigenous beliefs, if we cross paths with a bear we should take the time to envelope ourselves in solitude and silence for a spell, with a view to better understanding stuff. I’d say that’s not such a bad idea at any time. When the world has gone crazy, something as simple as meeting a bear can bring a sense of perspective, if only for a short while.
We were told some months ago about the boulder in the tree, by Lluís Serrano of Cantallops. So we made an excursion of it, trekked up past the castle of Requessens (of which more in a future blog) and up early autumnal paths to view the wonder. Lluís is a great source of information about local history – both cultural and natural – but even he does not know for sure how a rock estimated to weigh up to 100 tonnes landed in a tree. It can only be assumed that it came rolling down the hill behind the tree and was caught in the branches. The impact must have damaged the tree, as there is a fissure running down the trunk, but it survived.
Another strange feature of the tree is the dinosaur head formed by one of the lower branches:
A year ago I posted about the grape harvest in the village, and this account would not be complete without a reminder that the vendimia has been again, and gone. A very wet early summer made wine producers fear the worst for the 2016 vintage in the Empordà, but the proof will be in the . . . bottle. Before we started picking, we had to make some space, so a couple of thousand of the last batch but one were corked and stored, prior to labelling.
And then, on a warm September morning, we ambled down to the fields to fill our buckets. It is a timeless ritual, and one which is so much more enjoyable now than it was 35 years ago, when you did it for pay.
Even Bruno the Dog joined in, robbing grapes from everyone’s buckets and chewing up kilos of the fruit, only to disgorge much of it in dramatic fashion once we had returned home.
A couple of months ago, walking the dog on a hill track beyond the cemetery, I nearly walked into a quite hideous nest-like construction, hanging from a pine tree at head level, looking like something from a science fiction film, where a very dark secret is about to be unleashed. Or, less dramatically, like dirty white candy floss. I had no idea what it was.
Last week, on exactly the same stretch of path I nearly trod on a procession of caterpillars, which seemed to follow one another along, the head of one – as far as it is able to discriminate with caterpillars – touching the rear of the the other, in a long chain. Since the caterpillar line was directly beneath where the nest had been, I googled ‘caterpillar chain’ and discovered that I had been witness to an appearance by the pine processionary moth, or Thaumetopoea pityocampa.
Apparently the moth lays its eggs in summer, high in a pine tree; the young caterpillars make their nest for the winter – which I witnessed when it had grown to a considerable size in January. As the weather gets warmer they descend to ground level and form processional chains in order to find a place in the soil to pupate.
I looked out for the caterpillars on my way back along the path half an hour later, but they had gone to ground.
The image of these creatures following one another, as if being led blindly by a single caterpillar who seemed to know the way put me in mind of the story of the blind men of Bram.
Bram is a small commune in the Rousillon, not far from Carcassonne. At the time of the Catholic French crusades against the Cathar heretics, Bram was a Cathar stronghold. It fell to the crusade of Simon de Montfort in 1210. The crusaders saved 100 men from the general slaughter, cropped their noses, cut off their lips, and gouged out their eyes. They left one man with one eye intact, to guide the others. The procession of the blind men of Bram roamed the countryside as far as the fortress at Lastours, apparently as a demonstration of the Crusading army’s Christian clemency.
Why do starling swarm in the sky? What are they communicating, if anything? Is it play? There doesn’t seem to be a clear response on any website I have searched.
But I have discovered that it is called a ‘murmuration of starlings’, which I like. It evokes the astonishing burr of all those wings in unison, which can be heard whenever you pass close to a group. The RSPB website says:
We think that starlings do it for many reasons. Grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators such as peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands.
They also gather to keep warm at night and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas.
They gather over their roosting site, and perform their wheeling stunts before they roost for the night.
The starlings I photographed through my car windscreen (I stopped the car first) were swarming over the flatlands of Ampurdan, near the fresh and saltwater marshes of the Aiguamolls reserve. But I find it hard to be convinced that they gather in this way to keep warm at night (especially as it was mild, and mid-afternoon), and nor am I convinced by the peregrine falcon theory (there are eagles here in the Ampurdan also) and the hypnosis effect on such birds of prey.
An article in The Guardian informs readers that The Society of Biology is calling on the British public to “help them solve the mystery of why murmurations form, how long they last and why they end.”
On Sunday we visit Los Colmillos de Chaihuín, which contain, among other trees, canelo, alerce (larch) and eucalyptus. The first two are indigenous, the last a moisture-hogging outsider, the villain of the piece in the local ecology, imported from Australia and now being slowly replaced by the older indigenous varieties. The eucalyptus grows very quickly and apparently self-regenerates once it has been chopped down. It can do this five times, and, given the chance, will grow to full height between each growth. South America’s only marsupial, the monito del monte (little mountain monkey) may be found here but we are unlikely to see one as they are very shy, as is the pudú, a squat deer-like creature with a cute face.
The big larch in the photo is 3,500 years old. They calculate this by the girth and of the tree, which is three and half metres in diameter (and 45 metres tall). The oldest recorded alerce was four and a half thousand years old, according to our guide, although Wikipedia establishes the age as 3,622 years. This is some achievement when we consider that the Minoan civilization was still intact when the tree was young. The forests hereabout were once filled with these trees, but the wood is good for making boats and houses, and when the Spanish came they cut a whole lot down to furnish their navy. Now the trees are protected by law, but they grow so slowly that it will be a long time before they ever repopulate the forests of Valdivia.
Walking through the forest I notice a bright yellow fungus, the size of a tennis ball, growing at the base of a tree, almost luminous in the dark of the woods. It is known, I am told, as caca de duende. Of course there is some difficulty in rendering ‘duende’ into English, as translators of Lorca have discovered over the years: it can mean ‘spirit’, or ‘creative force’ as well as referring to a sprite, fairy or elf. Elf shit sounds the most evocative, so I’ll go along with that.