H- on the beginning of a listserv name means “Humanities,” which denotes a group of listservs focused on a variety of topics and all taking an academic approach. (Go to www.h-net.org to find out more.) H-NILAS is about “Nature in Literature and Story.” The people who have the firmest grasp on what that means seem to be Boria Sax, Marion Copeland and Thomas Dean who all have one foot firmly on a college campus. They are not PETA people nor are they against all animal restrictions. Rather they are trying to explore underlying assumptions embedded in stories, so the review by Marion of “Melancholia’s Dog” is a fairly typical posting.
They constantly state that they want to emphasize the story teller, esp. the oral story teller, but that somehow seems to escape most of the time. These reviews are often the most useful and valuable posts for me. My thinking dwells at the edge of story telling, always running the narrative through my head while feeling for the underlying structures. I don’t take a “pop” view of animal stories nor do I get into the high polemics about what “should” happen. This is in keeping with my vocational life (which was supposed to just pay the bills) which has careened from low (animal control officer on the street with a truck) to high (Unitarian Universalist ministry).
This book seems useful in the first place but even MORE useful with Marion’s comments added. I’ll also look for Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ review as I’ve found her admirably anchored in but not blinded by reality since “The Hidden Life of Dogs” when she followed some dogs to find out what they really wanted. (Other dogs.) This kind of thinking is on a middle ground somewhere between high-flown debates about the souls of animals and the obsession some people have with the “cute.”
Since the Aquarian Revolution in the Sixties and Seventies, which didn’t (thank God) go as far as the Chinese Cultural Revolution (at least we didn’t send our academics out to shovel coal and cut off the hands of our violinists), there has been a much-needed lifting up of humble topics that had been ignored by our mandarins of academia who had run their heads into a corner formed by unyielding assumptions. They were like Greek philosophers who argued that men had one less rib than women because God took one rib out to make Eve. This in spite of the fact that both genders with the same number of ribs abounded in plain sight.
Asking why and why-not, challenging those assumptions, and inventing the whole concept of “post-” this and that opened the way to new development to admit new facts. (What Thomas Kuhn meant by a “new paradigm.”) The trouble is that once the gate-keepers yielded and the resented fences came down, the sense of where the boundaries were has been much eroded, if not lost, without new boundaries to guide us. It was once conventional that dogs should be tied up or run loose, conventional that they ate the scraps of their humans, accepted that one should give them a whipping if they were “bad,” and assumed that dog ownership was legitimate. OWNERSHIP. What IS ownership? Doesn’t it mean it’s yours and you can do anything you want with it? Or does it mean you’re obligated for its care, including veterinarian bills as high as those for humans?
What a lot of people got out of “post-” conventional was that they could do as they pleased. What a lot of others got out of it was simply that the rules could be re-invented to suit their own prejudices and then imposed on everyone else. In both cases this was aggravated with a growing lack of contact with real animals of any kind alongside a growing “shaped and edited” understanding of animals from the media. Lassie and “happy feet” penguins became more real to the public mind than the feel of cow teats in their hands while milk went into the bucket. They tried not to think of the slaughterhouse, even as they ordered another MacBurger. Like three-year-olds, they demanded that they be able to eat meat without any animals being killed, leading to the efforts of some scientists to grow animal protein as sheets of tissue in vitro. And driving many a young teen to turn vegetarian for as long as they could hold out.
We seem to be constantly seeking the border of what is animal and what is not-animal, so that there is a constant stream of stories about animals who use sign-language or tools. But we deny our own animalness, ingesting poisons and sitting as immovably as gorillas in old-fashioned zoos. We have very little sense of humor about all this, not much sense of play.
Totally overlooked are the ongoing daily bonds developed with pets, the “taming” that the fox speaks of in “The Little Prince,” that comes from constant care and attention for another living being, whether human or not. (The Little Prince, after all, lavish much love on a vegetative being, his rose!) One doesn’t acquire a relationship with a dog by buying it, but by living with it and giving it the sort of understanding and sharing that develops nonverbal communication. Then the dog’s goals blend with your goals and two begin to act as a unit, hopefully to some positive end whether hunting or herding or sharing a home. I believe that much animal cruelty comes from people trying to “make” their animals do something through force, just as they probably do to their family and friends. Shouting, shaming, slamming, slapping, these people wonder why it is such a cruel world, never realizing that it’s a case of self-fulfilling prophesy.
What’s needed, obviously, is a middle ground of writing and other media that bridges “high” writing to busy folks who want their pets to fit into lives that don’t include much time or even much occupancy of the home where the pet is. After I’d been out in a truck for a few years, I kept telling my boss, Mike Burgwin, we needed an education program. One day he said, “Okay, you’re so smart, let’s see you do it!” I did my best but it was far short of what I wanted to do because the materials, the very thought, wasn’t there yet. Now they are beginning to develop. If we can talk to each other, “tame” each other, we might get somewhere.