Re-Post: The Creatures We Don’t See: Thoughts on the Animal Other

Note: Back in 2008, the incredible Jeff VanderMeer invited me to guest-post on his blog.  Recently I had occasion to re-read this post, and I decided to post it here on Antariksh Yatra, minimally edited.  Unfortunately the post isn’t complete without the discussions in the comments, so here’s the original link.  


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 “more-thee” without the ‘r’, and means “pearl”).  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 friend’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 grandfather’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 wasn’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 “Moti.”  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 grandparents’ house every summer, and every summer for many years, Moti was there to greet us.  He was an amazing animal.  I’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, Moti’s polar opposite), but I’ve never forgotten Moti.  My friendship with him was one of many I’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 people’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 I’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 99.9999…% of Earthlings didn’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 you’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 didn’t “see” 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 I’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 who’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 “the enemy” 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 I’ve read where this is beautifully worked out is Molly Gloss’s stunning generation ship story, “The Dazzle of Day.” 


Here’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 “road-kill.”  Now I’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, I’ve so far never hit an animal.

I’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 don’t “see” living things other than people and dogs and cats.


So what I’m suggesting is this: just as there are and were “The Women Men Don’t See” as immortalized by James Tiptree Jr. and others, there are also the “Other living things humans don’t see.”


It wasn’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 wouldn’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 country’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 people’s movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which has slowed but not stopped (so far) the government’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 “see” other creatures allows us to go about blindly and stupidly destroying the ecosystems on which we depend.  There are fully 20% of the world’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 we’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 “economic progress versus conservation.”  I’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 “ordinary” people (at least ordinary people whose reality isn’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.  We’ve been used to thinking about animals as inferior species who didn’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 we’d thought.  From what I’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 don’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 me 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 didn’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 dog’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.  He’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 that comes to mind is Ursula K. Le Guin’s extraordinary Always Coming Home).  How would 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 is well worth reading in its entirety. The writer and critic Claude Lalumiere 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 “animal standpoints.”  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) “roadkills” and where you couldn’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 wouldn’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 wouldn’t be any perfectly manicured lawns with the little yellow stickers indicating they’ve been sprayed with pesticides, and wildflowers 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 “see.”  I know the difference between “seeing” and “not seeing.”  When I walk my dog Bandit, sometimes I’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 dog’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.  I’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 or otherwise) will have something to offer to this new consciousness.  There’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.  There’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. 









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