When I was a kid, I used to sometimes sneak out of my classroom at my school in New Delhi, and hide in the library. My school environment was highly disciplined, with a great emphasis on academics and proper behavior. While this was all to the good, sometimes my imagination needed free rein. I still remember hiding behind the stacks, a shaft of sunlight coming in through the window, illuminating the page of the book I held on my lap.
It was during one of these escapades that I came across author Jean Craighead George’s book My Side of the Mountain. I devoured the book, marveling at the adventures of a boy who had run away from home to live in the wilderness. It had been a dream of mine to do something as bold. Many of the books I’d read while growing up involved children who ran away from home with monotonous regularity, usually to camp in the wilderness, and it seemed like the thing to do. My own attempt at it had been some years before my discovery of My Side Of the Mountain, when, as a ten-year-old, I’d run away to the tree outside my grandparents’ house. For the first couple of hours I had enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversations of mynahs and jungle babblers, and observing buffaloes pass beneath me, but the tree limb wasn’t the most comfortable perch. To my everlasting chagrin, when I returned to the house in a few hours, bored and hungry, I found that nobody had missed my absence.
But there was something different about this book. It made the animal inhabitants of that mountainside come alive, in a way that I had experienced in my own interactions with non-humans, but had not been able to articulate. Later I would realize that this aliveness was really a way of recognizing that animals had agency – they were actors in their own dramas, with their own agendas and worldviews. Without turning animals into cutesy Disney-style caricatures, without over-sentimentalizing, George had brought forth in her fiction what naturalist Henry Beston had so clearly articulated about animals: 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.