Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2014. 256 pages. $18.00
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Bitten in the face by two escaped dogs at three years of age, Alison Hawthorne Deming seems an unlikely author of a book subtitled On Animals and the Human Spirit, but that’s presuming she would respond with fear or horror to at least species with incisors. Rather, she says, “uncannily, I have a strong attraction to animals, and I sometimes think that my animal self knows that I am of their world, that they have claimed me, humbled me, and left their mark on my body and spirit.” Thus, she becomes a reverent author of Zoologies, a contemporary bestiary that renders vultures, oysters, wolf spiders, and other animals into illustrations capable of raising the consciousness of humankind.
Considering that she writes in the midst of the current Holocene, or sixth wave of mass plant and animal extinctions in the past half billion years, her fourth work of nonfiction comes at a pressing hour. Indeed one might rue even the time spent reading it when he could be taking action to save the biodiversity disappearing because of habitat loss, air and water pollution, climate change, and introduced exotic species, except Deming positions these edifying tales within Geologic time, and us in need of understanding our context within it to move forward with greater insight.
This essay collection opens with “Murray Springs Mammoth.” Deming visits geoscientist Paul Martin who relays his initially dismissed theory that mammoths, which roamed the Americas along with camels, cheetahs, and pronghorn antelope, were hunted to extinction rather than dying solely from environmental cause. Martin’s willingness to admit the harsh truth of his findings comes from our historical world, he says: “Look at Rwanda. The death camps of Darfur. We haven’t found a way to stop [mass killing]. They did it for no other reason than . . . it could be done.” Beginning on this note, Deming gives readers pause to reflect on the usual distinction between brutes and civilized beings and how we might better deliberate our options.
As it happened, I read her collective vision for the future in light of the agreements made at the twenty-first annual Conference of Parties. I pondered her craw-sticking “what if” questions while delegates from forty-three countries determined to keep the planet’s rising mean temperature under 1.5 degrees Celsius. Thus, my heart vaulted to consider with her the possibility that the havoc we’ve created may catalyze, “the next leap forward in our evolutionary story.”
She lays the groundwork for this potential feat by demonstrating how we might learn from our own species as well as others. She helps us imagine, for instance, how those small bands of early hunters may have felt. Reading her description of mammoth “tusks the length of a Buick,” I recalled the relative size of her child face confronted with looming canine incisors. Picturing these swinging threats crossing the Pleistocene grasslands, I could understand how prehistoric people might have lost their heads. Commoner than kennel boxers on the run and outweighing American buffalo by seven to eleven tons, these large mammals would shake up a parent’s world in an instant. That stride from fear, though, to setting fire to their habitat to level the hunting ground is a dark crossing Deming investigates for the revelation it is.
She might have examined closer the “trophy kills” Martin mentions as a contemporary manifestation of the same waste-laying tendency. Considering that such practices mutate a fraught complex of ecosystem management, it could have added dimension to her essay to linger longer over our changed relationship to large mammals whose survival now depends on us for habitat conservation. Due deliberation, though, may await another essay written to answer the call of her conclusion.
Many are the opportunities in this book for readers to probe that “something” Deming finds in herself “that likes to be tested by empathy.” One’s heart might go out, for example, to the lobster she liberates from a takeout place into the Bay of Fundy. Even the crustiest among us will appreciate her grief for her brother in whose honor she releases it. She even makes of that hard-shelled crustacean a likeable figure, since it doesn’t swim away from her in picturesque Hollywood departure but walks calmly to a nook near the shore where it can wait, as she does, as did her brother diagnosed with cancer, for “what happens next.”
Other readers’ heartstrings will tug at stories of feral children, like Lobo of Devil’s River, whose pregnant mother died in childbirth and whose father was struck by lightning while riding away for help. Spotted a decade later with a pack of wolves, Lobo was captured by nineteenth-century Texans who launched a hunt to save her who did not want to be saved. After howling for hours for her freedom from the shed that held her, she escaped in the night when the wolf pack returned. Such legends, paired with the myth of Romulus and Remus as well as explanations of neocortical evolution in the mammalian brain, evince the tenuous nature of what gives rise distinctly to us.
Considering the relative proportion of humans to the Solar System—let alone the multiverse—might we take a lesson from ants? Deming does. Studying the sand cones scattered “like confetti” behind her desert house, “skirted with yellow petals from paloverde trees or purple petals from Texas Rangers,” she questions our bias toward non-utilitarian art. Isn’t it possible, rather, that art “too is an artifact of a process that meets a biological need?” She meets such a need in this text, probing the double helix that joins human to ant, heron, finback, and T. Rex. It may even be that Zoologies functions, as the flower petals leafcutter ants spread out to dry before carrying them into their burrows to garden, to feed a hungry brain millions of years of adaptations rewarded with analytical power.
The narrative arc of our species is being wittingly and unwittingly written through the action and inaction of billions. Thankfully, a conscientious draftswoman has penned a new chapter. From here, resolved characters can proceed in altered relationship to a planet that “still teems and steams with the shared breath of creatures.” This curve in the trajectory has climactic potential to carry off the page, but will we take the stage of the world to enact a more beastly gentle humanity? Deming’s “secular prayer” would have it so.