Thursday, June 9, 2011
Literature and the Environment 2: Writing about animals
I grew up with dogs. (That's a whole other story.) But when my first husband and I were living in married housing at Boston University in the early seventies and I needed companionship badly, we thought a cat would be safer than a dog who would bark and give itself away. The cat gave herself away too, by scurrying down the old hallway painted landlord green with her short tail aloft; the super, charmed, didn't care. But now we had a small black cat that we'd rescued from a cat shelter in Brookline; Bugs, as we came to call her, had come in a box of kittens left that very morning on the shelter's doorstep.
Cats were a mystery to me, though of course I bought books before I undertook adoption. Seven cats later, I think of myself as "cat mother," and am frequently consulted about all things feline. But cats remain a mystery to me; indeed, my definition of "cat" is "that cozy creature who curls up next to your left hip every night purring loudly and whose every sound and gesture you understand, but who remains a mystery."
I have of course written about cats. I suspect that most writers with pets come to write about them at some point; they're so good at conveying the human and the limits of the human. The title of my first book of poetry, Without Benefit of Words came from a poem ironically entitled "Dumb Animals." The speaker of the poem, one who has read far too much Lacan, watches the gestures of two cats who are cuddling her down to sleep:
As they settle me down for sleep
I wonder how much discourse goes on in my house
without benefit of words.
. . . .
Without words you nearly outwit Lacan
who stills reality with his claim to language.
My cats unfreeze joy's indeterminacy
with wordless purr of pleased longing
qualified by infinite inflections of tail.
We let Bugs have kittens and kept two of the three. Her daughter, Niagara, is one of my most mysterious cats. One day I came home with a long heavy box filled with a bookshelf I needed to put together. The door caught the end of the box, which came down suddenly--on Niagara's head as it turned out. I had dislocated her jaw and broken her mandible cleanly in two. You'll be relieved to know that I discovered this quite quickly because she always greeted me at the door. Seeing no sign of her, I went looking and found her under the bed. Yet two days later she laid, curled up in my lap, purring. The purr is both the simplest and the most complicated of the mysteries. She may have been purring to heal or comfort herself, or because my lap was the right place to be. Why she forgave me is a bigger mystery. How she seemed so calm in the face of her injury and the surgery that followed is the biggest mystery yet.
I have a theory, though. Or you could say that Niagara taught me something. Or you could say that I'm trying to salvage something philosophical from the experience of injuring a creature who purred me to sleep every night of her life. Take your pick.
I'm not sure many animals think about the future. I think the instincts of wild animals tell them to eat as much as they can, when they can, because they don't know when they'll find their next meal, but I'm not sure this is thought. Unlike the human relationship with pain which asks "How long am I going to have to bear this?" Niagara thought about whether it was bearable now. Even while I know that this conclusion is probably my invention, there have been many times in my life--like when I broke my own leg--that this feline wisdom helped me.
Animals grieve. Barbara Gowdy wrote about this brilliantly in The White Bone; I have seen it in cats who lose a sibling. Research also indicates that animals frequently express empathy. When Niagara, at the age of twenty, was slowly dying of kidney failure, Ariel and Nutmeg, two young males I'd rescued, would know when she didn't feel well, would follow her around the house and curl up with her when she settled down. Ariel often curled up behind her and put his front "arm" around her. Moreover, they teach us to be empathetic because we are forced to carefully observe and interpret their gestures and vocalizations. As I learned when I suspected Nutmeg was not well (though two different vets could find nothing wrong) they can't tell us what hurts, what is in this case killing them. Thus they take us out of ourselves, force us to occupy another mindset altogether.
Sheba shouldn't be a mystery. If she wants me to play with her, she'll drop a toy on my book or at my feet. If she's going to do something she shouldn't, like jump up on the kitchen counter to grab a blueberry from the colander or a string bean from the cutting board (two of her favourite foods), she will meow in a particular way that I recognize and swish her tail wildly back and forth. Yet if I'm having a sleepless night, what prompts her to get out of bed with me and follow me wherever I go? A sense of duty? Empathy? Human warmth?
Twig is a mystery. He was enthusiastically "adopted" by Nutmeg and Ariel, both of whom died too soon, Ariel of cancer and Nutmeg of congestive heart failure. Twig grieved and then quite easily accepted Sheba, in spite of the fact that she's clearly the alpha cat around here. Why does he bathe her with such care, often snipping off her white eyebrows? (In the photograph above he's got his paw on the top of her head while he gives her a bath). Why does she put up with these baths? Why does she so often curl up with him? In the wintertime, her big dilemma is deciding whether she'll sleep with Twig, who is behind Bill's knees, or at my hip, her usual spot. She'll stand on the bed in indecision: you can almost hear her thinking about it.
There is, of course, an ecocritical discourse around writing about animals. It involves the ethics of acknowledging that some of us use them for food, that they often live (if you can call it that) in appalling conditions and die in even worse ones. You might like to know that if you want to reduce your carbon footprint you can eat less meat: meat production not only inefficiently uses a lot of the grain that could be used to feed people, but it produces about a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases. Ecocriticism also takes up the issue of hunting, as Trevor Herriot did in Grass, Sky, Song. It asks why a culture of hunting is such an important part of the representation of masculinity.
But ecocriticism also takes up the question I've been circling around here. I had come to feel that I had appropriated my cats' voices in the four poems I wrote about them in Without Benefit of Words. But apparently this feeling is both exactly right and quite ethical. The animals on our planet remain an "other" that we will never thoroughly understand. It's useful, for all kinds of ethical reasons, to experience and acknowledge that fact. Among other things, it takes the human and human knowledge out of the centre of the universe for a few minutes. Also, if we use our imaginations to understand the dog or cat who lives with us, that imagination might, because it's getting some exercise, grow stronger. You know that person who makes you crazy--bordering on intolerant--because he/she does things you don't understand? As your cat will tell you, there's always another story and another way to understand it.
at 2:39 PM