The Creatures We Donâ€™t See: Thoughts on the Animal Other
When I was around ten years old my family moved from New Delhi to the town of Patna, in Bihar, for two years. Patna was a small, untidy, sprawling little town (relative to Delhi) and the area where we lived consisted of large, old-fashioned houses set among enormous gardens. We stayed with my grandparents, and a little way from their house you could see fields. Sometimes my brother and I would wake very early and go on a trek through the fields, pausing to watch a farmer and his bullock drawing water from a well, or looking at pond life in a ditch filled with rainwater. In the evenings there would be kids playing cricket in the big maidan in front of the house, and my brother and I would be there too (it was in those days that I developed my now-lost skill as a fairly fearsome spin bowler). Some of the pariah dogs that lived in packs in our neighbourhood would join in, especially if we were playing football (soccer). Pariah dogs are descended from the earliest domesticated dogs — they are a tribe unto themselves, and live parallel lives with humans in towns and cities in India. They are also beautiful, intelligent animals — you can see some really nice pictures here.
One of these pariah dogs was a brown and white dog of noble bearing whom we called Moti (the word sounds like â€œmore-theeâ€ without the â€˜râ€™, and means â€œpearlâ€). As he was a regular on the football field, we became friends. He would come over to our house if he wanted a meal. Sometimes he would walk me home if I was late returning from a friendâ€™s house. There was a boy who lived next door who was friendly with Moti too, but he wanted Moti as a house-dog. So he trapped the dog for three days in his house, spoiling him, feeding him delicacies and playing with him. But at the first opportunity, Moti escaped.
I still remember the scene in the front garden of my grandfatherâ€™s house. It was getting on for twilight, and the frogs in the lotus pond in the garden were beginning their evening song. My brother and I stood on one side of the lawn, the boy-next-door on the other, and Moti in between us, wagging his tail politely. We had tried to argue with the boy that Moti wasnâ€™t used to being a house pet, that he should have the run of the fields, but the boy was adamant. So, in a scene reminiscent of the showdown between the young Buddha and his cousin 2600 years ago over the incident of the swan, we were going to let Moti decide.
The boy called to the dog with a new name he had given him. My brother just said â€œMoti.â€ Moti walked in a leisurely fashion toward my brother and me, and sat down by us. The trial was over.
After we moved back to Delhi, we would return like homing pigeons to my grandparentsâ€™ house every summer, and every summer for many years, Moti was there to greet us. He was an amazing animal. Iâ€™ve had the privilege of having other dogs in my life, each different and special in his or her own way (including some whose aim in life was to do nothing but snooze on the sofa, Motiâ€™s polar opposite), but Iâ€™ve never forgotten Moti. My friendship with him was one of many Iâ€™ve had with animals over the years.
In India, even in a city of several million humans, like Delhi, animals are everywhere.
In the morning you are woken with a chorus of bird song (although, sadly, there are few house sparrows in Delhi any more). Since apartments and houses are rarely sealed off from the outside world, the open window lets in sounds of pigeons cooing with manic overtones, mynahs cackling in the bushes, parakeets feeding noisily on the neem trees. Birds come into verandahs and balconies of peopleâ€™s homes and make their nests, or take shelter in winter. Apart from the resident pariah dogs there are cows and buffaloes, pigs and donkeys, and the occasional camel or elephant. All this is mixed in with the sounds of innumerable car horns and bicycle bells, echoing in the cement canyons of the city.
Throughout my childhood and grown-up years Iâ€™ve always been conscious of the non-human presences around us — trees, fungi, birds, insects, snakes, muskrats, dogs. Not only are they a constant source of fascination and delight (and discomfort and fear, too, sometimes) but I learned early on that we live in an interdependent web of life, that every living creature plays a role, that we are only one of a bewildering number of species living on this planet.
So it was surprising and disappointing to me, as I grew up (and still is) that these 99.9999â€¦% of Earthlings didnâ€™t figure much in our modern-day consciousness, from economic policy and city-planning to literature. As far as literature was concerned, if I wanted to read about non-human living things, I would have to look for them in a special section of the bookstore. Pick up any regular piece of fiction, and youâ€™d be guaranteed to find in it not one animal or plant that would play any role other than backdrop, if that. (There are wonderful exceptions, like the books of Barbara Kingsolver). It seemed as though humans were so intensely obsessed with their own concerns that they didnâ€™t â€œseeâ€ other life-forms, let alone recognize their significance.
I have come across this oddly blinkered view in other circumstances. For instance in almost every TV science fiction show Iâ€™ve seen, the ship that travels across space is a sterile, hospital-like environment where you rarely see a plant or animal. Even the living ship Moya in the show Farscape is strangely devoid (as far as I can tell) of other denizens living symbiotically within her. Yet we know that each living organism is an ecosystem — as attested by anyone whoâ€™s suffered a disturbance in the balance of their intestinal flora due to sickness or antibiotics. (Part of it is that we have this modern icky attitude toward germs, as though all germs are â€œthe enemyâ€ and health is a state of being germ-free — tell that to the mitochondrion). For a ship that goes on long, interstellar journeys, it makes sense to create an ecosystem inside it, to assure oxygen and a fresh food supply, among other things. The one book Iâ€™ve read where this is beautifully worked out is Molly Glossâ€™s stunning generation ship story, â€œThe Dazzle of Day.â€
Hereâ€™s another example. In the U.S., where I currently live, I see a lot of dead animals on the road, the victims of hit-and-runs by cars and other vehicles. The technical term for these is â€œroad-kill.â€ Now Iâ€™ve been driving a car for about twelve years (I started late) and while I have had near misses with squirrels and raccoons and all, and can understand that one can have an accident once in a while, Iâ€™ve so far never hit an animal.
Iâ€™m speculating here but I wonder if the fact that there is a dead squirrel on the road in front of my house at least twice a week means this: that people donâ€™t â€œseeâ€ living things other than people and dogs and cats.
So what Iâ€™m suggesting is this: just as there are and were â€œThe Women Men Donâ€™t Seeâ€ as immortalized by James Tiptree Jr. and others, there are also the â€œOther living things humans donâ€™t see.â€
It wasnâ€™t always like this. If you look at old stories in any culture old enough to have an antiquity, there are animals in them galore. These animals might talk or behave in other strange ways, but they are there. So are trees and mountains and rivers. They have a voice and a presence. Humans in these stories constantly interact with other species.
In India this is still true in places. The environmentalist Valmik Thapar, who narrated the excellent Nature Series India: Land of the Tiger, maintains that various animals are not yet extinct in India because of religious sentiments. Despite the huge population pressure, people have a philosophy of co-existence with other creatures, which, although a Hindu sentiment, is not limited to Hindus in India. I know that farmers whose fields are marauded by monkeys traditionally put some food aside for the monkeys so that their fields can be safe. They might drive off the monkeys but the thought of killing them wouldnâ€™t cross their minds. My mother always puts some grains out for birds and ants because they, too, must eat. In Hinduism, animals and trees have souls as well, and are therefore our fellows. Although it certainly does not follow that animals are always well treated in India (if only it were that simple) this attitude, according to Thapar, has gone a long way in preventing any more extinctions than are already happening.
But today this attitude is eroding. The enormous economic boom in India has meant dire poverty for the rural poor, and besides, the countryâ€™s planners are still in the mind-set where they think they have to play catch-up with the West. So, for instance, my friend the environmentalist Ashish Kothari informs me that there are probably not many more than 1500 Indian tigers left in the national parks (poaching for the Chinese market is a major reason). And the Indian government, in its determination to catch up to the West, is rabidly intent on building mega-dams, which are known to have massive environmental consequences, including the displacement of tens of millions of people — Ashish tells me that for the North-East along, about 160 large dams are being planned. This insanity occurs despite massive peopleâ€™s movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which has slowed but not stopped (so far) the governmentâ€™s love affair with large dams.
Well, why should we care if species are going extinct on a mass scale around the world? If habitats for people and animals are vanishing? Why should writers of speculative fiction, in particular, care?
I believe that the current environmental crisis we are in is a direct result of our exiling the rest of nature from our lives and our consciousness. That just as being blind to the oppression of women creates conditions where this oppression continues unchecked, being unable to â€œseeâ€ other creatures allows us to go about blindly and stupidly destroying the ecosystems on which we depend. There are fully 20% of the worldâ€™s mammals facing extinction because of us. These are just the mammals — one shudders to think about the fate of less glamorous species. The tragedy is that as we tear apart the web of life, we destroy the basis of our own existence. To not recognize the connection between us and other species, to see nothing outside of the box in which weâ€™ve placed ourselves, is to suffer from a sort of mass autism. The consequences — for us and for all other living things — are dire.
Part of the problem is also that we are caught in false dichotomies, such as â€œeconomic progress versus conservation.â€ Iâ€™m happy to say that environmental groups like Kalpavriksh in India believe and have always believed that it is only through the participation of village communities that conservation can happen, and their work has shown the truth of this assertion. In India there are places where villagers have set up their own wildlife sanctuaries. The wisdom of â€œordinaryâ€ people (at least ordinary people whose reality isnâ€™t defined by TV) has proven to be an important ingredient for positive change in India.
To be able to see other living things as entities in themselves rather than in terms of their usefulness or threat to humankind, requires a giant paradigm shift. Weâ€™ve been used to thinking about animals as inferior species who didnâ€™t quite make it; people even assume the point of evolution was to create us. We have the arrogance to call ourselves Homo Sapiens. But research as reported in recent issues of New Scientist confirms that the differences between humans and animals are not as enormous as weâ€™d thought. From what Iâ€™ve read there and elsewhere, male mice compose songs to female mice, other mammals exhibit compassion, chimps can be mean, parrots really do understand a large part of what they are saying. Here is a quote from writer Henry Beston (1888-1968):
“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
Biologist E. O. Wilson believes that humans have biophilia, an innate affinity with nature. This makes sense to me. I think modern urban culture denies this connection to other living beings. To talk seriously about animals as independent entities, or about our relationship with a dog, or a tree, is to invite ridicule. That stuff is for children. The naturalist Gerald Durrell says in one of his books that any concern for other animals is regarded as sentimentality, taken about as seriously as the ravings of a dowager duchess over her pet poodle. As a result, people donâ€™t articulate what they might feel about their companion animals or other species in general. The level of this silence and denial was brought home to me one cold February some years ago.
My dog Jasper had died a couple of months ago, at the age of fifteen. His death hit us really hard. I realized, as I was going through the grieving process, that there was no custom of honoring the lives of our animals in public. Humans have memorial services. Why not one for a beloved dog?
So I talked to my friends, the local Unitarian Universalist church opened its doors, and a bunch of us organized an inter-faith public memorial service for the animals we had lost. Although we didnâ€™t advertise it widely, I was amazed at the response. A man turned up, a well-to-do doctor who was utterly broken by his dogâ€™s death. At his synagogue he had not been allowed to say the Kaddish prayer for his dog, so he was looking for a place where he could honour his memory. Another elderly man came to talk about a dog he had had in his childhood. Heâ€™d been carrying around that sense of loss for decades. A young vet broke down, saying she had to euthanize so many animals at the end of their lives — for good reasons, but she had never had a chance to express her grief. Strangers embraced each other and people wept unrestrainedly. It was as though all the masks we wear in public, all the little social deceits and attempts to impress, all that was gone. It was amazing.
A paradigm shift in our attitude toward other species is a prerequisite for change. Speculative fiction writers are practitioners of the art of imagining alternative scenarios — what would be the consequences of imagining a different relationship with other species? Which works of fiction have done that? (One of the most stunning stories I can think of in this regard is Karen Joy Fowler’s What I Didn’t See. Also note Ursula K. Le Guinâ€™s extraordinary Always Coming Home). How can such works contribute to the shift in world-view that we need?
People are imagining alternatives in other fields. For instance urban geographer Jennifer Wolch of the University of Southern California proposes an alternative to the traditional conception of the city: Zoopolis. (The essay at the link is well worth reading in its entirety. The writer and critic Claude LalumiÃ¨re first brought the concept to the attention of the SF word through his essay Toward Zoopolis, which I can no longer find on the web.). To explain the concept, I can do no better than to quote from Wolch herself:
To allow for the emergence of an ethic, practice and politics of caring for animals and nature, we need to renaturalize cities and invite the animals back in, and in the process re-enchant the city. I call this renaturalized, re-enchanted city zoopolis. The reintegration of people with animals and nature in zoopolis can provide urban dwellers with the local, situated, everyday knowledge of animal life required to grasp animal standpoints or ways of being in the world, to interact with them accordingly in particular contexts and to motivate political action necessary to protect their autonomy as subjects and their life spaces.
So a Zoopolis is a city where, for instance, one would build around wetlands or animal migration routes instead of razing them down. People would find ways to cut down as few trees as possible, and to live in a way that is sensitive to â€œanimal standpoints.â€ There are places that are actually attempting to redefine cities in this way, at least to some degree, such as the town of Harmony in Florida.
I want to live in a Zoopolis. It would be a place with no (or very few) â€œroadkillsâ€ and where you couldnâ€™t casually raze an entire forest down (as happened behind my house over the last few months). It would be a place where people ate a mostly plant-based diet, where you could walk to most places, where you wouldnâ€™t have to go out of town to take a walk in the woods or observe other species. There would be moss growing on roofs, and my wild, shrub-filled front garden would not arouse the ire of neighbours. There wouldnâ€™t be any perfectly manicured lawns with the little yellow stickers indicating theyâ€™ve been sprayed with pesticides, and dandelions would bloom everywhere.
I want to see Zoopolises in speculative and other fictions.
Before the realization comes the dream, the conception. Before that comes a willingness to develop the ability to â€œsee.â€ I know the difference between â€œseeingâ€ and â€œnot seeing.â€ When I walk my dog Bandit, sometimes Iâ€™m in a hurry, or preoccupied by something, and I notice nothing around me. I return home all stressed out about the millions of things I have to do. Other times I walk more slowly, and I open my awareness to the presences around me — the trees, in their various slow-dance postures, the rustle of small creatures in the bushes, a squirrel watching us warily (my dogâ€™s reputation precedes him), a bright-eyed rabbit in the long grass. A bat, an increasingly rare sight in my part of New England, swoops in the air above and I wonder what the world looks like to a creature with sonar. Iâ€™m aware of whole sagas taking place in the beds of moss between tree roots, where water bears live their extraordinary lives (read this remarkable book if you are curious).
A paradigm shift of this sort would require not only looking ahead, but digging into our past, to times before we humans became so divorced from the world. I suspect that each tradition (religious and otherwise) will have something to offer to this new consciousness. Thereâ€™s John Muir, and St. Francis, and more recently Gerald Durrell from the West (although I claim Durrell as a fellow Bihari since he was born in my home state in India) along with legends of the Green Man in Europe, Baba Khidr in the Middle-East. There are ancient verses in the Hindu texts wishing peace for every living thing. Thereâ€™s the story of Yudhisthir in the Mahabharata and how he was led to heaven by a dog. In all these we might find inspiration to imagine other ways of being in the world, other ways of living our lives. But I will leave you with a succinct one-liner from another person who happened to live in my home state many centuries ago: the Buddha.
As a bee takes the essence of a flower without destroying its beauty and its perfume, so let the sage wander in this life.
28 comments on “The Creatures We Donâ€™t See: Thoughts on the Animal Other”
Wonderful stuff here, though I would have to say that the roadkill metaphor is less than apt, based on my own personal experience. I hate hitting anything, and I neither speed or drive blindly when behind the wheel. Before this year, I had only hit a few things, two or three birds and once a racoon, in the course of my driving life. Yet in the space of the last few months I’ve hit over fifteen birds (with a rabbit as a grim sort of prize to top it off). It’s been a strange and puzzling experience, and somewhat disturbing. I feel guilty, though in each and every case there was nothing I could have done. There was no time to react, no chance to avoid the collisions. Indeed, of those fifteen, four or five were part of a flock. Yes, I hit a flock of birds. They were hidden in the dry-bitten weeds at the side of a county road, and as I drove past they whirred up into my car. For a moment it was like feathered hail. There was nothing I could do, no action I could take to avoid this. This wasn’t blindness, the lack of acceptance of a coexisting world, but merely the odd workings of chance. Count yourself lucky if you haven’t been so unfortunate. Really, I feel like Charon on some big metallic boat. Not a feeling I want to keep around, needless to say.
As for the rest of what you’ve written, it’s all quite wonderful. I, too, think it would be wonderful to see this greening of science, and of science fiction. Perhaps that’s simply because I’m not a tech guy, and live in the county and like to write fantasy full with images of a lush natural world. Perhaps that’s one of my unconscious frustrations with science fiction, the cool sterility that I feel but have never yet articulated. If so, I thank you for articulating it so nicely.
My best to you and yours,
A lovely essay, with which I am much in sympathy. Thank you (I’ve enjoyed your other posts thus far, too).
Thank you. You’ve given me a lot to think and write about.
Great post. I linked to it on my lj.
An excellent post ,Vandana do you know of the hymn written in Rigveda in honour of frogs?A whole chapter-‘Mandukas’ is dedicated to even these ‘lowly’ creatures .The hymn is a panegyric of frogs described as raising their voices together at the commencement of the rains like Brahmin pupils reciting the lessons of their teacher.Such has been the tradition of animal love in India.
Thanks for your post, Bryan, and all my sympathies. I’m sure there are real accidents involving animals — what can you do, if they run out just in front of your car? You seem to have gotten a lot more than your fair share. I hope this doesn’t last, for your sake and their’s. And I hope I continue to be lucky. It makes sense that luck and the place where you are driving would be important factors.
Although my use of roadkill as an example is speculative (not having done a study or gotten any numbers), it is hard to imagine that statistically there could be so many dead animals in the streets around my neighbourhood, without the sort of “blindness” I describe. I am quite certain that nobody runs over these animals on purpose (except for one time, when I was returning from a conference in Florida by car: I actually saw a van in front of the vehicle I was in go off-road to hit an armadillo who’d been walking on the dirt at the side of the road — even remembering it after all these years is upseting).
Jessica, Erik, Kater, thank you!
Arvindji, thanks for the wonderful reference. I was not aware that the Rigveda had such a passage and will look for it.
Great post. I found it a moving, elegant statement of and for Zoopolis.
We had a bear family– single mom + two kids– move into our suburban utopia recently. Apparently, they’d been spotted rummaging through neighborhood trash cans. A circular was sent out reminding everyone to take trashcans indoors and empty birdfeeders and to create a din if the bear family was spotted. The idea was to encourage them to move on. An earlier circular had warned against feeding deer. A still earlier one drew the line at storm-weakened trees. From a human perspective, these circulars make sense. A bear is not a teddy bear. Deers can be carriers for lyme disease. Falling trees can seriously damage houses. Zoopolis and a low tolerance for risk are basically incompatible.
I’m not sure what the solution is. As Christopher Alexander suggested in his essay A City Is Not A Tree, perhaps the answer lies in letting habitats develop via accidental interactions, instead of designing them based on preconceived notions of interaction. I remember how cows used to settle near the steps of my college hostel. I’m not sure why the grand dames picked this particular hostel, but it was a fact of life we had to arrange our bicycles around.
Science fiction often sets alter spaces in outer space (George Zebrowski has written a lot of great stories around this idea). I’m fascinated however by the concept of alter spaces on Earth. I think we call them islands. At the moment, people cannot really vote with their feet. You have a few communities like Harmony but they’re tied to the economies, politics, demographics and psychological concerns of their host countries. What we really need is to be able to create Americas on demand. Perhaps it’ll then be possible to build a world where the risks of having hungry bears, lyme-infected deer and dying trees are outweighed by the pleasures of having bears, deer and trees around.
Maybe you are right that “Zoopolis and a low tolerance for risk are incompatible.” But if there were enough bear-friendly woods and pastures around in your area, the bears woudn’t have to be looking for food in your neighbourhood trash. Even in the current situation I can see that a more animal-centric town administration might take responsibility for the welfare of the bears rather than look at them as a nuisance — they might, for example, entice the bears to a place where they are not a threat to humans. I’m sure a way would suggest itself if people had the right mindset. Same thing goes for deer. I’ve read, by the way, that the epidemic of lyme in these parts has to do, again, with a lack of ecological balance. I think (if I recall correctly) that the dying out of predator species (of the deer) was a factor.
Storm-weakened trees? Let’s imagine: How would a tree-worshipping culture on a distant planet deal with that threat? Bind them to a support? Move the house?
Before people razed the woods behind my house, we had deer, fisher cats, beavers. On full moon nights the coyotes would set up a howling. We had to be careful with walking our dog at night, some times, but the coyotes had plenty of food in rabbits and the like, and didn’t bother us. Now there’s nothing there. The large animals are gone, and there are homeless small animals everywhere. A neighbour found a painted turtle wandering around her yard (they are supposed to be very territorial and this one seemed dazed and confused). She finally took it to a sanctuary.
I’m not saying that we don’t need to cut trees down once in a while, but with a more respectful attitude, would we cut down so many? Woudn’t we, instead, design our buildings and institutions and houses so that the least possible damage was done to the natural environment?
I recognize that your point is valid. I’m just suggesting that some of the issues we have would not have arisen (possibly) had we started out with a different mindset, and that there may still be innovative ways of resolving them if we change the way we think now.
Maybe that day will come before it is too late.
I think the thing about lyme disease etc. is the perspective of someone who doesn’t hike much or interact with true wilderness. I could be wrong. one problem is that fewer and fewer people really experience wild spaces and thus have strange received ideas of the level of threat posed by certain elements of it. many american cities have greenspaces intended to provide corridors for wildlife btwn different wilderness areas through urban or suburban landscapes. this puts wildlife in contact with the urban but not directly.
I would argue there is no reason a tree cannot be a city, and redwoods provide a good example of ecosystems in microcosm. we have to redefine the idea of city anyway if we want to survive. chances are in the next 100 years many millions of people will die because of our reliance on nonorganic cities. possibly billions.
This is beautiful, Vandana. And I agree with you, Jeff, and then some. A tree is a city. In fact, I play a game that could be called A City for the Looking. This game can be played with any tree. Just look, or put your hand out. It is impossible to find a vacant space. Whether it is something that is as large as a spider (camouflaged or not) or as small as a fungal spore, the tree is a place that houses many cities, countries, planets. It is a universe. Even the putting out the hand game always surprises. The last time I did this with my left hand when I wasn’t even trying to, it rested on a dessicated earth star.
As to the natural environment, we tend to talk about it as if we don’t live in it, and it, in and with us.
I very much like this story that explores this myth: “Excreta, etc.”by Bharatram Gaba, http://annatambour.net/Bharatram_Gaba.htm
“Excreta, etc.” reminds me of another unforgettable story, “A Dream of Winter” by Rosamund Lehmann (Oxford Book of English Short Stories ed. by A.S. Byatt).
I am lucky to have come across this post.Like THose that wanted to publicly show their sense of loss on deaths of their pets, I needed this post to feel that I was not being stupid all my life stopping by and trying to do something for an injured animal lying on the road or a dying one.THe whole idea of seeing plants and animals as “enchanting Nations” is dying out of our lives. Now a days animal stories and cartoons make them look like inferior funny creatures . An inculcation of empathy and undrstanding is neither seen nor encouraged in houses anymore.A fear of germs and disinfectants rates all living things as potentialy harmful to us.
For the record, I like the idea of Zoopolis. The storm-weakened trees in my yard continue to stand. The mention of Lyme disease etc. were meant to illustrate instances of a larger problem, namely, our increasingly obsessive need to eliminate risk from our lives. It doesn’t matter if the perceived threat is real or not. The hysteria starts when a danger is identified. A host of dubious statistics is marshaled. A medical connection is devised. A villain is found. A ridiculously high cost-to-society is estimated. Then a group starts to agitate to control the danger. The end-result is usually a law. Edward Jay Epstein traces this process to Richmond Hobson, the grandfather of the war on drugs.
One solution is to create communities like Harmony. But these islands are utterly dependent on the underlying economy and at the mercy of state and federal laws. For example, it’s impossible to sell raw milk in Virginia. There are farmers who are willing to sell it and consumers eager and willing to assume the risk. Many of these consumers believe their kids will be healthier if they’re raised on raw milk. The state disagrees. Such clashes with the state are likely to be multiplied a thousand-fold with a deeply radical worldview such as Zoopolis. That is why I suggested that small, independent island-states could be one way to try out different micro-worlds, different ways of living. America started in one such attempt after all. It was common enough in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
Also, Christopher Alexander’s essay title seems to have mislead a few. He’s talking about the mathematical conception of a tree. The essay is an argument as to why the layouts of old cities like Damascus, Delhi, Rome and Cairo are preferable to the hierarchical layouts of consciously-designed cities like Kenzo Tange and Brasilia. It’s an argument to let randomness have a say in the shape of things. Alexander’s cities are likely to be far more supportive of Zoopolis.
Anil: Not meaning to clash with you, as I agree there are problems. I guess my main point is that a lot of us have gotten so disassociated from the natural world that we tend to think in generalities or even specifics that are incorrect. But I think some kind of radical change has to take place or we’re more or less doomed in terms of maintaining what we think of as a technologically advanced civilization. Which might not be a bad thing.
Thanks for your clarifications, Anil, and thanks to Anna, Roopa and Jeff for writing. I will respond late tonight in a more specific manner. Right now I’m working (frantically!) on my last post, which will go up late tonight.
I’m learning a lot from these discussions. Thank you.
Anna, I just read Excreta etc. on your website. It is lovely. Can I forward it to a yahoo wildlife group that I am a member of. It reminds me of a two penny guard of a residential area of Delhi who hit a little monkey so hard with a stone that bright red blood drops from its tiny hands fell on the ground but it hung from the sewer pipe on the third floor nevertheless, having nowhere else to go.
Jeff: Agreed on the disconnect from the natural world. Were the education system already not being thrashed so regularly, I would’ve been tempted to give it another thrashing for this state of affairs. btw, I like the word “dissociation.” Just like Zoopolis, it feels like one of those words around which people, ideas and movements can gather.
Vandana: I echo the need for different mindsets. I’m quite optimistic about the planet’s prospects actually. Life has been around for a long, long time, and perhaps we beat ourselves up too much over the last 4000 or 5000 years. Here we are, idiot-geniuses, six years old, thrown into a dark and shadowed room, with just enough grub for a few weeks and told that all of life depends on our unraveling this
humongous ball of chewing gum and twine. What’s amazing, really, is that the kid is even bothering to try.
I think the major cause for such a lack of animals in literature is simply – lack of imagination. Unless one is genuinely imaginative, it would be difficult to write as anyone else but human and for anyone else but human. (I cannot write in a male voice, no matter how much I try – I cannot get into their head. If I try really hard I can personify plants – animals are too complicated.)
Dune trilogy had a lot of animals in them, I guess it depends on the story as well.
Road-kill, I believe, is a different problem, the causes might overlap but I think are essentially different. (For instance tho I neither identify with the male of my species nor with the plants or animals, I have always been very aware of the people and the birds on the road and have never killed any.)
After a sobering experience involving a truck and my bicycle a few years back, I began to wonder just how many of those dead animals on the road are accidents:
I’m surfacing after a very busy period at work and apologize for the late response. Neha, I hear you about lack of imagination, imagination being a faculty of which I’m rather fond. I do want to clarify that the roadkill example (which I suggested in a somewhat tentative way) was motivated not by identifying yourself with a plant or animal but simply by being aware of its existence as a fellow being. I think other creatures are so peripheral to our existence that we don’t really see them. That was what I was attempting to point out.
Celsius1414, narrow escape! Glad you are here to tell the tale.
Anna, I finally got a chance to read the story Excreta Etc. Thanks so much for the link. the story was stunning. Brought back memories, too, of the pigeons who nested on the window ledges of my various homes in India. Some of them chose the weirdest places. A couple of years ago my aunt’s fourth floor balcony was the site of one such unusual place. There was a square-shaped depression in the balcony’s cement floor, presumably for drainage of rainwater, and the bird chose to build a nest there. My aunt made sure nobody disturbed her and I even managed to take a photo from the window, of the motehr bird sitting serenely on her eggs. the balcony was a little too high for cats so it turned out to be a good spot for a nest after all.
Vandana and Roopa,
You might also like another story by Bharatram Gaba, who has a fine rage, and an indelicate compassion.
and you can see more by him at his site,
including essays such as Gropeway of India
Your pigeon story is delightful, Vandana. And your point of other creatures being “so peripheral to our existence that we don’t really see them” is important. It strikes me often that people have pets and don’t even think of them as anything more than animated decorations. The last edition of New Scientist had an essay that is many years overdue: Flaws on Paws: Welfare Problems in Breeding Pedigree Dogs.
We live in the middle of bush here, and occasionally, a raptor-injured racing pigeon stops by and recuperates on our balcony–it looks to humans as protectors.
In New York, the hawk-nest controversy gained international attention.
But what I really should say is that this post by you and the comments it has sparked are what I think that the web should be. Thank you for writing it.
I have grown up, like you, in the beautiful, lazy, laidback town of Lucknow of the 1970s and the nature in everyday life that we as children had the priveledge to access. The concept of zoopolis is neither surprising nor dramatic, but a feeling of great loss and regret of how much has got lost in the process of growing up and development in the western mode of cities and societies. Loving animals and nature prompted me to co-found CUPA in Bangalore , and your article helps me to re-affirm the faith we had then and sometimes threatens to get lost now, with the mindlessness around. I hope we can restore the concept you have written about so well….suparna
Thanks for what you do — I looked up CUPA and am very impressed. Here it is, folks: http://www.cupabangalore.org/. A great response to the random, cruel mindlessness of our species… wishing you best of luck and strength…
I was reading one of the latest article by Jai Arjun Singh n I saw the link to your article. You know Vandana, my husband and I ran a shelter cum hospital for stray animals in Kolkata n by doing this I have collected all sorts of bitter experinences about how humans treat other animals (most of the time its their own pet!). Vandana I was feeling very very low today because of constant fights with other fellow humans in creating a little center for my these hapless friends, when I came thru your article. I also read Excreta and few others too. Now I feel I will definitely win my race coz am really not alone in this holy crusade (as I call it!). now am searching for your other articles..
With Lots of Love,
I’ve recently been trying to explain the same thing to my pals but I think it’s better if I just email them the link to this site instead. Thankyou for writing such an insightful article.Hey!
Interesting essay. In comment to raw milk, I used to drink it as a child but now that I am a vegan it’s no longer an issue whether raw milk is available or not. A harmonious vegan community wouldn’t have to worry about that kind of a law. However, a different kind of problem would exist that county laws require flush toilets and frown on compost toilets and “humanure.” That would be the major problem of a vegan environmental community unless it was far, far away from the eyes of county inspectors, really out in the boondocks. And another problem is marijuana. Some favor it and some are totally against it. So it’s really hard to have a harmonious community.
Comments are closed.