Wednesday, 23 November 2016

If we could talk to the animals again! by Steve Gladwin

Just recently I have been spending a great deal of time with animals. It would be nice to say that that involves any kind of close contact, but sadly apart from the usual visiting birds in our garden, the odd squirrel making a leap for a tree in our local churchyard and a variety of dogs with their walkers, it’s not quite as full in your face as this.
What I have been doing is spending much enjoyable and valuable time with animals in their symbolic, creative and inspirational forms through the composition of tales for a series of books. Because my animal encounters have been limited to just a few mammals, birds and insects, (eight in all), I have grown to know them in depth in a way I could never match if I were either visiting them in captivity, or preferably in the wild.
And yet there is something special about meeting the likes of raven and swan, hare and wren, wolf and butterfly and seal and swallow through the medium of story, myth and folktale and especially maybe about concentrating on a few certain attributes – say raven as a symbol of death and wolf as a representative of the pack animal, swallow representing both journeying and memory and wren the importance of being cocky when you need to be.

Margaret's Cards - The Hare by Rose Foran

Writing my stories and working in this way with these animals has made me think a great deal about our relationship with animals, about how that has changed, and how that has been reflected - particularly in children’s literature.
Like so many people, one of my earliest literary memories was of Aslan and the rest of the talking animals in CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.Even as an adult, one of my favourite sections in any book is the section in Prince Caspian, where Doctor Cornelius secretly takes the young prince to the top of the tower at night time. Here he reveals that everything Caspian has been told by his Uncle Miraz about Narnia’s history is untrue. What's more animals do talk!Well of course they do! I thought everyone knew that.

I  also remember my early encounters with Animal Farm and the tragic death of Boxer, Pooh, Piglet and the magnificently gloomy Eeyore,and of course there was Ratty, Mole and Badger, (I always felt that big show-off Toad rather ruined things!) in The Wind in the Willows'. How could I forget that magnificent sequences of getting lost in the Wild Wood in winter, and the wonderfully pagan ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ encounter with Pan, (although of course as a child it was just a bit weird!) This was of course all long before Richard Adams rabbits out on silflay in Watership Down, (one of my all time favourite words!), not to mention Redwall and Deptford and Duncton and the like. 

Nowadays we must be even more richly endowed with talking animal encounters and adventures, (my fellow abba blogger Ruth Hatfield's 'Book of Storms' series, where even the grass talks, is one of the most wonderful recent examples) but surely in some ways all we’re really doing when writing such stories, is filling in the gap where we used to have proper relationships with all animals and not just the cats whose antics we post proudly on youtube and the dogs we turn into cowardly cartoon characters. Surely ancient man and woman used to actually ‘talk to the animals.’

Thankfully there are still places in the world – often where the terrain is harsh and therefore the pickings poor – where a warrior knows respect for the animal he will eventually kill, where he or she will almost persuade it into death and mourn it when it goes.  Nor is this a transient respect, but one which the whole tribe will have known since birth.Something which is as deep a part of their culture as the need to kill in order to use the fallen creature’s meat to survive, it’s skin to keep warm and a whole host of other ways in which no wastage is ensured. Contrast this with the amount of meat and fish lost to sell by dates and the discarding of nearly every part of all those animals we do kill as part of the factory farm, slaughter and profit merry go round.

It was simply never meant to be like this, but surely it has gone too far now to change! And as well as that more natural and respectful relationship between warrior and animal, there is a whole other lost relationship, when we truly were able to talk to the animals.

I remember many years ago a work colleague of my then partner coming round and talking to our cat in a completely different language. Spats immediately responded in the same sort of ‘Prip, prow’ language which we had never heard before. Here was a woman who could talk to cats as easily as horse whisperers can talk to horses and a native warrior can talk a quarry down into death. Why not the rest of us? We felt a mite miffed - here was our cat conversing quite deeply it seemed with a complete stranger!

We have clearly lost touch with talking to the animals on any number of levels. Whether you believe in spiritual animal connections, such as the idea of having a particular totem animal, or would just like to tell your problems to a sympathetic baboon next time you've got one peeling the roof of your car in your local safari park, surely we can all agree that things have gone in the wrong direction.

A few months ago I posted a two part blog about the Willard Price books of my childhood and contrasted these with Gerald Durrell's 'My Family and other Animals' and the new generation of responsible TV naturalists as personified by Steve Backshall and the first book in his Falcon Chronicles series, 'Tiger Quest.' I commented how Price's old-fashioned view of 'hunt 'em, catch 'em and presume they'l be happier in dad's zoo' sat quite awkwardly nowadays. In a rather naive moment, I also expressed relief that the problems with poaching weren't half as extreme as had been depicted in Safari Adventure. Almost straight away I discovered that not only was poaching still a horrendous problem, but that the same was in danger of being the case for whaling, and the systematic destruction of animal homelands and sanctuaries and this before Brexit and the recent US election of a 'go and find more oil and profit' president elect'

Many of the problems and confusions in animal conservation come - as they do so with so many things - from the too long dominating patriarchal attitudes of the old testament, which - while being set down as laws for a particular people, are still taken as gospel, (pun absolutely intended!) by far too many people who should know better. The 'thou shalt have dominion' school of thought truly should have no place in our modern society, but then there are still people out there who believe in creationism and I gave up on them long ago!

Writers have not only had plenty to say about animal conservation, but about re-introducing our animal companions to us in a way which doesn't always have to be cutesy or trapped in old cartoon ideas of the forties. There are many naturalists who became writers while readily admitting that they used to more or less shoot everything in sight, who later preached that others should preserve it. Peter Scott say, is a classic example. For quite often there is no more powerful advocate than the convert, rather like the ex smoker who becomes the tobacco industry's fiercest critic.

thanks to

Of course, those of us who write, can also do a great deal to promote a better understanding of a truer, more honest and above all less systematically cruel relationship to animals, but I'm about to suggest another way which you may choose to adopt if you wish, or encourage in others if you don't.

Basically it's this - find your equivalent of a totem animal! Now before you go dismissing this clearly new age madness and thumbing back through my previous blogs to find all the evidence of my evil insidious paganism, just consider this. I'm not asking you to connect with an animal, or dance yourself into a trance states to discover it. Nor am I asking you to descend to the spirit world to find a cure for your mum's eczema! That's a power animal and it's more a shaman's department!

No, a totem animal is more one which you may already feel some association with, maybe because you've already adopted one via any of those schemes where it's usually the same animal who gets adopted by everyone, and ends up with an ego so big it can't fit back in the enclosure! Or you might just always enjoy it's appearances on Planet Earth 2 and the like!

All I'm asking is this! Engage with it! Learn more about it and teach others about it! And if you can't choose between a whole sub species - say the Big Cats - well all the better. Spread the word about the whole family, create or sign petitions to save them - anything like that. It will all in the long term make a difference to the world. 

If you're a a cat and dog owner, you're already halfway there!, but there are a lot of other cats, wolves, wild dogs and jackals to help too. And if you want to be really unconventional, pick something resolutely unsexy, like say those rather scary creatures in the ocean depths that carry what looks like a light bulb on a chord in front of them. Go for the unromantic - I dare you!  

Or as a writer maybe you can pitch a great new idea about wildlife - say a private detective heroine with an off-beat animal side-kick - via an adventurous editor or publisher,(I'm assured they do exist!) and do your bit that way.

Go on, have a go! Every bit of it will make a difference?

Steve Gladwin
Writer, Performer and Teacher

Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'


Joan Lennon said...

My favourite C.S. Lewis was always A Horse and His Boy. Thanks for posting, Steve.

Ruth Hatfield said...

A really fascinating read, Steve - I think one of the saddest things about life surrounded by humans and noisy traffic is the monotonous quality of the voices - always the same, every day. The natural world talks to us in so many different ways. It tells us we aren't alone, and it reminds us that a vast amount of lives are lived without ever being much concerned for humans, which I find happily comforting! Thanks.

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks Ruth and Joan. I caught up with The Horse and his Boy and The Silver Chair only a few years ago Joan and really got a lot out of them. I also have a friend called Aravis. And of course Ruth you're right about all of the voices that we miss because we've forgotten how to tune in! And good luck with Storms 3.