IN HIS “Ode to a Nightingale,” John Keats shows us a poet sitting in a garden listening to the bird until he feels one with it. But then, in that moment, he becomes self-conscious, aware of his humanity, and the connection slips away. What is it that causes the poet’s awareness? It’s language, specifically poetic language — abstract, disembodied, highly crafted for aesthetic effect — in contrast to the concrete, embodied, and spontaneous animal way of knowing: “The very word,” Keats writes, and we can hear the ache of separation, “is like a bell / To toll me back from thee to my sole self!”
Poetic language can separate us from animals, but it can also pull us up close, animating the work of some of the most celebrated natural history writers and their animal subjects, among them Barry Lopez’s coyotes in Winter Count, Ellen Meloy’s bighorn sheep in Eating Stone, Pam Houston’s moose in A Little More About Me, and the late John Haines’s mink, marten, fox, and wolverine in The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaska Wilderness. Being close to animals is urgent for these authors because we live in the Anthropocene, the geologic period in which human beings have touched every corner and every inch of the planet, causing an unparalleled decline of biodiversity among plants and animals.
This mass extinction is the starting point for Alison Hawthorne Deming’s Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit. “Human beings are degrading ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history,” Deming writes. “Now all animals are held captive by the global scale of change that human beings have induced. Even we are captives.” To combat our collective captivity, Deming captures readers with her prose — rich, insightful, curious, lyrical, and precise — and the reach of her moral imagination. In a chapter on elephants, for example, a zookeeper tells her that when the animals encounter a human, they know immediately how he or she feels. “Humans used to be that way,” he says. “But we’ve lost it.” Deming acknowledges but doesn’t condemn the destruction we’ve caused. She offers hope for change by connecting us with our animal natures and our animal past.
Though Deming writes with lovely compression — Zoologies is comprised of 33 short chapters — she delivers an expansive sense of the animal world. The creatures within include bobcats, wolf spiders, vervet monkeys, oysters, pigs, horses, vultures, crows, dogs, cheetahs, finback whales, and lobsters, among many more. Some of them come from myth — dragons and chimeras — others appear only in her dreams, such as the trumpeter swan. One is a human animal: the feral child. Still others are the posthuman “animals,” Spirit and Curiosity, the shuttles we have launched into outer space to roam the moon and Mars.
As her use of language reveals, Deming is a poet first, and can jolt us from our usual habits of mind, as when she chooses the word “cantilevered” to show the stance of a hyena, borrowing from one register — architecture — and applying it to another: an animal’s body. She’s expert with verbs: “[J]ounce” describes her hike to the end of a road, and in the arid American Southwest, she writes, cottonwoods have “torched” the path for travelers. She also reframes familiar idioms, as when rural legends about pigs “elbowed their way into [her] protective attentions.” And in a chapter on prehistoric mammoth, she says she came “to wrap [her] senses around the place.” Later, a friend from Oklahoma unfamiliar with the local landscape keeps her on her “bioregional toes,” by asking questions such as, “What’s the difference between a bog and a marsh?”
In fact, Deming loves the interrogative mood. It’s one way she deepens the meaning of her essays. Questions allow her to imagine historical events: “What bird sang on this stream bank at dawn and dusk in those years when hunters flensed meat from gigantic bones and hung it over pine rails to dry?” Questions guide her into scientific lines of inquiry: “Why do some animals mate for life?” Questions frame moral issues: “Is it ethical to ask animals to grow organs for human transplantation?” And questions move the concrete to the metaphorical. In a chapter on ants, they lead to queries about art: “Why is it that the arrangement of the petals is so symmetrical? The pattern of cone building repeated with such precise craft?” Deming’s questions — and there are dozens of them throughout the book — remind us just how full of wonder humans are about the world, about themselves, about animals, about the intricacies of language.
Interested as she herself is in those intricacies — and in the power of words — Deming revels in how meaning slips beyond the language meant to contain it. In the chapter on pigs, she plays with homographs. Sow is not only a name for females, but also the verb for planting seeds, she reminds us, and in ancient times, pigs were central to an autumnal festival dedicated to sowing winter wheat. Yet she’s careful — a lesser writer would take the easy route, elide the differences, and force the metaphor. But Deming doesn’t succumb to easy epiphanies. About a whale that washes up on a shore in Maine, she writes, “The finback is no victim of war, unless I call the undeclared and unremitting assault on Earth’s bounty a form of war.” In this way, she builds skepticism into her work and credibility into her narrative role, allowing us to trust her.
By the same token, Deming will extend an image when it’s called for. She compares the hundreds of mackerel on a beach where they’ve come to die to human suicide. But then she steps back: “I know the analogy has nothing to do with the instinct that drive the tiny fish to leap to their deaths, yet the paradox of that desperation, whether it is a mindless or a mindful act, stirs up a sense of tenderness toward life and the difficult terms it sets.”
In such a world, where mackerel die in mass numbers, perhaps one thing we can do is pray. Deming calls her own book a “secular prayer” — indeed, the book argues that linguistic exactitude is one way we can grieve for extinction of animals, and eventually, of our own species. Language used with such accuracy shapes us, defines our values, and opens us to fresh ideas by making us look again at what we thought we knew. In this way, Deming is right up there with the great supplicators of English literature — John Donne, George Herbert, T. S. Eliot — for whom prayer is an all-consuming aesthetic, a precise art. Though she isn’t religious in the traditional sense, she explains that the relationship between language, religion, and animals is best symbolized in the medieval bestiary, where animals intertwine with scriptural letters.
Juxtaposition is another animating force in Zoologies. After telling us that hyenas “live in clans of five to 90 members, led by an alpha female,” Deming reverses the idea, saying, “Aristotle thought hyenas resembled hermaphrodites.” In another chapter, she informs us “Storks and stories share the migratory urge.” The stork in Aesop’s fable is linked to ancient Buddhist animal tales, a tradition that also influenced Chaucer and the Arabian Nights, both of which are carriers of stories, in the same way the stork, linked to ancient fertility rituals, is a carrier of babies. These sorts of alliances create energy and meaning, reminding us that we share boundaries with the animal world; we are like them in spirit, if different from them in kind.
The subtle repetition of words, images, and themes insures continuity as well, even as Deming broaches diverse topics in the book, and moves back and forth in time and space. Bones appear in numerous essays, as does the trope of grief. And continuity, itself, is an important spiritual concept for the author. The Earth’s biological system is “biased toward continuity,” she says. And, she adds, “I find continuities not in the desire for them, but in their manifestation as cycles of growth and decay, arrival and departure, emergence and disappearance.”
Indeed, Deming is one of those writers who teaches you how to read the connective tissue of her writing. Language, too, after all, is a natural system (as Gary Snyder has shown in The Practice of the Wild), especially in the hands of a writer so skilled. In a chapter on passerines, whose feet are “anisodactyl,” meaning that the first toe faces backward and the other three forward, she relies on the word “dactyl” to freight the essay’s form and meaning. “Dactyl means finger,” she writes.
Dactyl means a unit of measure in a line of poetry. Dactyl is music. Dactyl is a bird claw. Dactyl is a group of ten small phallic males associated with the Great Mother in ancient myth.
Then she unravels each strand of meaning until it turns into a story of its own and comes back again to a center. “I’m like a student who cannot hear the difference between a dactyl and an anapest, an iamb and a trochee,” she writes at the essay’s conclusion.
Zoologies is not preoccupied with personal trauma in the vein of some memoirs and essay collections about the natural world. In an interview for the University of Arizona News, Deming said, “My writing is fed by the excitement I find in research — intellectual adventuring — and I want that energy of discovery to be apparent in the work and to become contagious in my readers.” So it is, so it does: the oldest known crow lived for nearly 30 years; lobster blood is blue rather than red. (Who knew?) And in the chapter on elephants, for example, she moves effortlessly from George Schaller’s conviction that “an appeal for conservation must reach the heart, not just the mind” to the founding of the London Zoological Gardens in 1828 to the entry of the term “zoo” into common speech.
When Deming occasionally dips into the personal it’s glorious, as with a passage about her grandmother, a French dress designer in New York City, whose “special gift was designing gowns for women with unusual flaws — a humped back or a sunken shoulder.” Indeed, Deming doesn’t miss a chance to tap into what cultural ecologist David Abram evocatively calls “becoming animal.” By examining our encounters with animals, Abram argues, we become aware that our sensitivity to our environment is part of our sensual, embodied selves — that is, our animal bodies.
In an era of increased scientific study and understanding of animals, this sort of anthropomorphism is often viewed as sentimental and naive. Yet anthropomorphism has its defenders, and rightly so. The art critic John Berger pointed out more than 30 years ago in his book About Looking that anthropomorphism is
the residue of the continuous use of animal metaphor. In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared. Today we live without them. And in this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy.
And the ecofeminist Val Plumwood argued that the term is sometimes used to bully people out of a concentrated look at the way we understand the similarities and differences between nonhuman species and ourselves.
In fact, transpecism, or the blurring of boundaries between humans and animals, has been with us for a long time. Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which first appeared in the eighth century, is a compilation of stories about animals and humans transforming into one another, sometimes under the most traumatic circumstances one can imagine. The story of Philomela is a case in point. As a young woman, Philomela is raped by her brother-in-law, a man she should be able to trust. During the act, she cries out to those who are supposed to protect her, first to her father and then to the gods. When neither answers, her rapist cuts out her tongue and imprisons her, therefore depriving her of voice and the ability to move. Instead of giving up, Philomela sits in her prison and weaves the story of her rape into a beautiful purple and white tapestry and has it delivered to the queen. When the queen unrolls the tapestry, she understands its meaning instantly and frees Philomela, whereupon the gods turn her into a nightingale.
D.J. Lee, an award-winning scholar of literature and history, has written and edited numerous books. She is currently editing a collection of essays called The Land Speaks and completing a memoir about the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho and Montana.