Spring 2016

Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright



Interview

To Understand the Place of Animals in the Human Imagination

An Interview with Alison Hawthorne Deming



Amy Wright for Zone 3:
How would your ideal reader respond to
Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit?

Alison Hawthorne Deming:
More empathy, more curiosity, more appreciation for
the importance of animals to the human imagination and moral sense.

 

AW:
You were bitten in the face at three years of age by two escaped kennel boxers. Such an encounter might condition you for an antagonistic role toward other creatures, yet it has the “uncanny” effect, you say, of generating a strong attraction to other animals. How do you make sense of that?

AHD:
As I wrote in
Zoologies, I felt in some way claimed by the animal world, humbled but it. Of
course such an experience occurring at such a young age will remain inexplicable. That’s what makes it interesting to write about my fascination with how powerful animals have been in the human imagination—in art, mythology, storytelling, and science. At the most primitive level of my perception, I learned that it would be smart to pay attention to animals—that my life might depend on that. And certainly now the disappearance of so many species into the oblivion of
extinction brings that message home in a much larger context.

 

AW:
In spite of the fact that Earth is losing dozens of species daily due to the current Sixth Extinction, you suggest the very uplifting possibility that humanity may yet “leap forward in our evolutionary story.” What newfound intelligence or adaptations would spur the kind of
transformation you’d like to see?

AHD:
The grief we feel about loss and injustice can be a spur to the moral imagination. That is my hope. Now that we understand how dire is the fate of animals, our love for them rises and that empowers us to do better. In the long story human existence, our kind has overcome some
astonishing challenges (ice ages, plagues, ceaseless wars, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis). Often our best behavior and inventiveness comes out during the toughest times. I once heard W. S. Merwin say that when you’re in a lifeboat it’s time not for your worst but your best behavior. It’s possible to see climate change and the extinction crisis as a time of beautiful opportunity to get right with ourselves and planet.

 

AW:
In the preface, you say you “want… to write about animals and [yourself] as animal.” What would you say to those who seek rather to set human beings as far apart or above other species as possible?

AHD:
I’d say they are delusional. We are animals. We evolved from other animals. We owe our existence to animals and the long story of their evolution. Of course we are different from other species—we have greater technological and artistic prowess. And we have a moral intelligence
and a consciousness capable of asking questions like, What kind of people (i.e., animal) do we want to be? We seem to be able to make small corrections over time to our collective behavior based upon how we answer that question—hence the move from totalitarian and feudal forms
of social organization to democracy and egalitarianism.

 

AW:
You say that part of your inspiration for writing this book, is to “help extend the moral imagination so that it reaches beyond personal loss to grieve for the broader diminishment.” Will you talk more about how the moral imagination rouses change and/or action?

AHD:
When we lose a loved one in our family or friendship circle, we gather together in rituals of grief. We do our grief work, expressing sorrow, feeling our love, taking comfort in shared grief, and this makes us want more than ever to protect those we love. When we speak of the
extinction crisis only in the language of data and policy, we rob ourselves of the community that comes from sharing our grief at the loss of so many fellow species. We need stories that remind us of our love for animals—and acknowledge the whole range of emotional richness they bring into our lives across the spectrum of emotion—sadness, joy, surprise, fear, wonder. That emotional richness can be called love. We are more likely to protect what we love so I am committed to bringing an awareness of the animal world into a more central position in
reflecting about our daily lives in the hopes that this may spur the sense that we owe animals some of our care and intelligence.

 

AW:
I love that you “liberated a lobster” to honor your brother’s death. Why was it the animal you most associated with him?

AHD:
Well, my brother loved lobsters so much and it was a family joke when we were growing up, his avarice for a good lobster feast. It just came to me when I was looking for an improvised ritual in his honor to start with something that he loved.

He had a complicated and painful death. I wanted to erase all of that, to imagine liberating him from that struggle.

 

AW:
The freed lobster doesn’t respond as expected, like doves released at a wedding, but burrows instead into a nook between two boulders. Thus, it nudges you out of your own story to reckon with another perspective. Is that the effect you would like your essays to have on readers?

AHD:
Yes, I think so. What we assume we know about animals is a very narrow sliver of perspective. I wanted not only to understand the place of animals in the human imagination but also to learn more about the terms of each creature’s life for its own sake. This is, I suppose, what I
mean by empathy. Each creature wants its life, as I want my mine, and has an individual and evolutionary destiny to fulfill. I want to teach myself to see and respect that. I don’t want elephants to survive because they make people happy or rich. I want elephants to survive
because they are uniquely amazing beings with a deep history, with emotions and memories that make them perceivers of each other and the planet of an order wholely different than the human. That seems profound to me and worthy of understanding and empathy.

 

AW:
Personal experiences enter into
Zoologies  but only to serve the larger narrative of how animals help us determine what it means to be human. At what point in the writing process did you determine the book’s primary focus?

AHD:
From the start. This was a book about animals. But as an essayist, I’m obligated to weigh my ideas against my own experience. The essayist may do tons of research and incorporate the thinking and research of others, but until she has filtered the material through the lens of her
experience she can’t trust her words.

 

AW:
How do personal anecdotes and experiences inform or help you access a more universal story in your work?

AHD:
In tapping into the most authenticate feelings and thoughts I have on a subject, I assume I will connect with readers who share those feelings and thoughts, even though their individual experience may be quite different. In this case, I think a lot of people are carrying this grief
around about the fate of animals. And they want and need to share it. This has certainly been my experience giving readings from Zoologies. People really want talk about amazing experiences they’ve had with animals—opossums hanging by their tails from the clothesline, a hiker being stalked by a mountain lion, finback whales swimming alongside their kayak, coyotes in Central Park. Despite all the volatility and grief, it really makes people happy to share these stories.

 

AW:
You relay Ernesto from Punta Chueca’s story of the Black Vulture, which reveals how the oft-maligned predator can actually be a protector. Have there been other moments where your conception of a particular animal shifted significantly?

AHD:
Certainly, this happened for many species as I researched for the book: pig, hyena, crow, stork, vervet, northern spotted owl. Sometimes the shift came from a different cultural perspective, as with the vulture, sometimes from diving into science or mythology. And other times the shifts happened simply by paying attention and looking for an animal story in a place where I was unlikely to find once, such as a bar in L.A.

 

AW:
You wonder if art is a biological need, while appreciating the desert flower cones of sand and gravel sculpted by leafcutter ants in your backyard. Can you give an example of a work of art that has served a utilitarian as well as aesthetic function for you?

AHD:
That’s not quite what I mean by art serving a biological need. Just as the ant’s flower cones are an artifact of their foraging that reveals the underlying imperative in nature toward pattern and form, so does art making reveal this in our make-up. We have a biological need to take in food and turn it into energy. Perhaps we have a need to take in experience, with all its disorder and randomness, and turn it into form and pattern, which is art (and also science!). As I see it, our artistic drive is a reflection of that imperative toward form that shapes all of nature and so part of our biological heritage.

 

AW:
That’s a wonderfully vivid idea. Does all art exemplify this imperative equally, or do particular works come to mind that are as illustrative as those cones?

AHD:
When I think of the received poetic forms—sonnet, villanelle, sestina and such—they remind me of the variety in leaf or flower form, each quite distinct and yet following the inventive rules of its kind. When I think of the abstract expressionist paintings of DeKooning and Pollock
and Rothko, I think these are perfectly matched with the 20th century’s interest in the theory of relativity and quantum dynamics—imprecise and yet speaking of an underlying truth, an imperative toward form and the dissolution of form. Stravinsky said if you give me form, you give me freedom. All art teeters on the edge of that paradox.

 

AW:
Did
Zoologies have any alternate or different working titles?

AHD:
Too many. The first set of essays was published in The Georgia Review. It was titled “With Animals in Mind.” The manuscript was later called “A Bestiary for the 21st Century.” Oh, there must have been quite a few more that I hung onto for awhile. I spent ten years on this book—intermittently as I also wrote and published two poetry books during the same decade. But I
liked Zoologies for its simple suggestion that there are multiple ways of “knowing” the
animal world and this book honored the scientific way but did not see it as the only way.

 

AW:
Dragons, you say, “take us into the zoology of inwardness,” as reflections of unconscious fears and anxieties. What then do you make of the fact that they breathe fire?

AHD:
Ah, well, don’t we all breathe fire in our inner worlds? Of course, of course. Fire as both the destroyer and also the agent of transformation in the manner of Prometheus.

 

AW:
You describe several of your dreams in which animals play a key role. How much did curiosity about these archetypes and symbols inspire this collection?

AHD:
I was seeing a Jungian analyst during this time and working to honor these archetypes and symbols of the inner world as equal in validity to experiences in the outer world. I had a flood of dreams about animals and I was very grateful whenever this happened. It reinforced for me the
belief I had that animals are a key constituent of who we are in the psychic realm and that they continue to offer us food for thought, soul food, in the most unlikely places.

 

AW:
Perhaps the most fascinating creature you mention in the book is Glyptodons, or car-sized armadillos that once inhabited the Americas alongside woolly rhinos. Picturing them changes our sense of the landscape and human scale against it. Was one of your goals for the book
to alter the way we look at the world?

AHD:
Indeed, of course. Paul Martin, author of
Twilght of the Mammoths, who I had the privilege to interview when I was working on the book, opened my eyes to the amazing bounty of megafauna (giant elephants, sloths, bears, camels, shrub oxen) that existed in the America’s before the incursion of early human hunters. He thought we had something on our continent to match the pyramids in Egypt—dozens of gigantic creatures, like the Glyptodons (armadillos the size of a car) that once roamed the very land we now inhabit. We know about dinosaurs. Why don’t we know about these? He thought “we were selling out our heritage” by not educating ourselves and our children about them—and their rapid decline after the arrival of human hunters. The story of human violence against animals is a long and deep one. If we hope to rewrite that story, we’d better understand it.

 

AW:
Your epigraph by John Gardener positions Grendel and other forms of “brute existence” as the foil by which humanity defines itself. How does one define by contrast without falling prey to a sense of superiority or entitlement?

AHD:
I suppose the entitlement we have that merits cultivating is our moral agency.




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