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Bearing Witness: The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs

Animal Dialogues

It began with pronghorns. As a child growing up obsessed with creature comparisons, the main allure of the pronghorn antelope was naturally its cheetah-esque speed, evolved to evade the North American version of the same predatory cat now ghost. Now in latter years and slower-paced days, other characteristics came to the fore: Those long-lashed doe eyes; that sly, set hint of a smile; the pair of ebony horns, sheathed in keratin; the trace of melancholy that comes with knowing that it is the lone survivor from its family, the last of its kin.

It was a fortuitous flip to the essay on pronghorns that swayed me to pick up Craig Childs’ The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild. It didn’t take long before I knew I had to write about it. In each intimately wrought tale on antelopes, hawks, and red-spotted toads, I found a writer and translator infinitely more versed in the subtle tongues of the non-human world than I will ever be. Childs honours the weight and magnitude of his encounters with creatures large and small, preserving and honouring the distance and mystery that comes with each meeting. He strives to convey in words what cannot ultimately be expressed in words. In each essay I see one who does what I try to do in my work: To connect with respect; to speak of those without voice; to bear witness to life, death, and splendour.

***

When I was in first grade, the teacher handed out a worksheet that asked us to group things as either “animal”, “plant”, or “other.” It seemed like a simple enough task. With my black and yellow Staedler pencil, I quickly circled the cow and looped it to “ANIMAL”. Next, a straight line from carrot to “PLANT”. Then, a man complete with bow-tie. I chose “OTHER.”

“In his great poem on the Nature of Things, Lucretius saw no barrier between man and the rest of creation; he saw the nonhuman world as the matrix in which mankind is formed and nourished, to which we belong as the garnet belongs to the rock in which it crystallized, and to which we will return as the sunlit wave returns into the sea.”

Cheek by Jowl, Ursula K. Le Guin

I still remember being surprised at being told that human beings were, in fact, animals. Since then, I have often wondered when and how my six-year old self learned so early on to forge that divide, to cleave the world neat into two. Was it a result of being born into a world of high-rises and concrete parks, where creature experiences came chiefly from books and cages and pieces of packaged meat? How different was my childhood compared with Childs’, who began The Animal Dialogues with his own early account:

“I was very young when I woke before dawn and grabbed the small knapsack beside the bed. In it I placed a spiral notepad, a sharpened pencil, a paper bag containing breakfast, and a heavy thrift-store tape recorder with grossly oversized buttons. I walked outside, through the neighbourhood, and at the edge of a field full of red-winged blackbirds, I took out the tape recorder. Their officious prattle lifted like shouts from the stock market floor. I pushed record and listened.”

–  The Animal Dialogues, p.1

Childs grasped the human-animal connection early. I learned it late. Very late. Not quite too late.

***

Things learned while reading The Animal Dialogues: Female coyote biology allows the species to shrug off attempts at population control. Porcupine spines have antibiotic properties that help stave off infections that result from accidental self-stabbings. Eagles can spot salmon from five thousand feet up and dive down without a single course change.

Peregrine Falcon Flight

A peregrine falcon in flight. Image by Kevin Cole.

Yet these natural history details, deftly woven into each narrative, never become the chief thrust of Childs’ tales; science and facts supplement but do not supplant. The prose, steeped in metaphors and rendered with a poet’s sensibility, broach closer to the essence, but are in the end still words. What moves most is Childs’ earnest impulse to negotiate with animals in their own domains, whether that be physical, down in the canyon depths of desert bighorns and up in the sculpted currents of bald eagles, or temporal, anchored in the immortal realm of the here and now. Shackled to our intellect, humans throughout history have envied animals for their ability to be at ease in the ever-present, for being wholly wedded to the world at large. The most poignant passages in The Animal Dialogues are when Childs grows urgent in his yearnings to cross over, to strive to understand what it is to be bear, or falcon, or smelt, before returning humbled and awed:

“The peregrine floats in the air just beyond arm’s reach. It looks back at me with such equanimity, such singularity, that I am emptied, contentedly bankrupt. This must be what it feels like to fly for the first time, to actually open up and soar, exchanging gravity for faith.

… The low voice says that my time is over and it would be polite for me to back away. I do. I slowly step from the edge, returning to the earth, where I can no longer see the floating falcon or the cliff cascading below. The world around me folds back into its neat little boxes of dimensions and nearby distances. Broken red rocks appear at my feet. Once more I am an ordinary living man, no longer eolian, no more a creature of wind.”

The Animal Dialogues, p.110

To be an animal is to be complete. To be enough. As humans we can only know. We have to make do.

***

“For Isaac – Listen for coyotes, follow ravens. Be one of the animals,” Childs writes in the top right-hand corner of my copy of the book. But being present and in the moment is not my natural state. Almost always, my attention beats a retreat into the abstract, impatient for senses to register so that I can begin to dwell in possibility. But recalling the inscription, I try to heed Childs’ advice in my own small way, knowing that even in the city there are stories, if I would only notice.

So after work one summer day, I sit on a park bench and look out at the sea. Seconds or minutes pass, I cannot tell. A swallow scrawls cursive loops on a canvas too vast and blue for any one thing to fill. Ahead, a gull on a perch, tensing in the way I do when I am preparing to dive, except while falling it pulls itself parallel to the sea instead of piercing it, leaving intact the shimmering quilt beneath stitched with strings of kelp and flotsam.

David Lam Park

David Lam Park in Vancouver. Photo by Author.

A city crow sporting a goatee of ruffled feathers charges the concrete pillars before me to scurry up beach hoppers. A heron overhead like a pitched spear. I do not know how much time passes between each event, only that they come one after the other, invisible arcs and parabolas continuously being drawn and erased in this spot. In all spots. I sit and watch. Four Canadian geese follow the tide and a raft of mallards in to feed within patches of seagrass, once land-grass. A child picnicking with her mother dips her bare toes into the sucking waves that break upon a sculpture upon which is inscribed “THE MOON CIRCLES THE EARTH AND THE OCEAN RESPONDS WITH THE RHYTHM OF THE TIDES.” I sit and write, filling nine pages with moments. The present still slip through my grasp like fine sand. But sometimes I hold onto a few grains. Sometimes words come out true.

***

My favourite essay in The Animal Dialogues is on violet-green swallows. It is one the shortest stories in the book, rounding out at less than two pages of text, and reads more like an interlude between weightier pieces. It does not possess the stomach-clenching tension of a play-by-play confrontation with a mountain lion, nor does it contain the sinister air of mystery as Childs describes his intrusion upon a conspiracy of ravens. Unlike his story with the car-struck deer, it is not tender and heartbreaking enough to make Jane Goodall weep. There are no twists with violet-green swallows. Nothing much happens other than Childs watching birds fly in the air as he swims in a pond.

I like it because it reads like a distilled moment of joy in the midst of a more universal one. It is an interlude, but an interlude that offers a glimpse into the world’s grand act, one of perpetual beauty, grace, and change. “The curve of a violet-green swallow is reminder enough to heed everything,” Childs writes, “to cinch down your life and your body like a harpsichord string and pluck it.” There is a purity to that statement I do not know what to do with, except to honour the sense of revelry which is its source. I have tried to keep it close, since then.

Related Ekostories

Reference

Childs, Craig. (2007) The Animal Dialogues:Uncommon Encounters in the Wild. Little, Brown and Company Hachette Book Group, USA.

Le Guin, Ursula K. (2009) Cheek by Jowl. E-book edition. Aquaduct Press, Seattle WA.

Featured image by Alexander Klink.

2 Comments

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. It hit a soft spot for me because as I child I have often been drawn to observing animals in their present moment, so absorbed in their seemingly frivolous behaviors that I often forgot about my own present moment. I particularly enjoyed this line ” Shackled to our intellect, humans throughout history have envied animals for their ability to be at ease in the ever-present, for being wholly wedded to the world at large. ”
    This is the ring of truth that I often muse about.
    Lovely words, poetic and profound. Thank you for sharing this meditation with us.

    • Thank you for reading. It is very easy to be absorbed in watching animals go about their day – the more one watches, the more there is to see. Secret lives indeed!

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