The Word Animal

The scaled and finned and furry are the ones who know.

Meaning: I don’t know them, utterly do not. I can’t fathom their way of knowing. They seem totally uncurious about my way of knowing, so, like a good human, I presume their way is superior. This opinion’s pretty popular with some folks I get on with. But there’s a lot wrong with it. I could go on about that, but I’ll just sum up by saying that, well, people are animals too, and in my opinion anything but utter wonder fails to do justice to the incredible inclusiveness of life–and, for that matter, to the deep responsibility that accompanies human perception.

But it’s a fine line. Robert Hass has this poem, just “Sonnet,” which is wistful about love and imagines the pods on some trees as little chambers for magical lovers, the two little black seeds inside, before it ends:

[…] Outside, white,

patient animals, and tangled vines, and rain. (13-14)

The animals live outside the human love drama, says the poem; they tolerate their tangled surroundings as natural; they endure wildness and concealed unknowns and rain with patience. They’re serene, silent. Furred angels.

This 1.3 lines has been cocooning in a brainfold of mine for about seven years, partly because the poem hits some feelings just right and partly because I kind of resent how the animals get dragged into it. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the word patient. It works excellently in the poem. Artistic unity always involves discrete bits of violent separation, shaves off the edges of a thousand squiggling little objects to fit the shape of its idea; but, like the stepsister in Grimms’ version of Cinderella who shaves flesh off her heel to fit into the prince’s glass slipper and drips blood all up the wedding aisle, sometimes a poem bleeds a little. For me, patient drips: it’s not the truth. Patience, even if dispositional, is a way of responding to circumstances that otherwise would involve frustration, irritation, or longing. Patience may be habitual, cultivated, or just part of a personality, but whatever it is, it’s an effort that stands in stark contrast to a million possible impatient responses. It’s a reining in of consciousness, a tethering to and acceptance of the present.

For animals, though, it’s a different story. There’s no reining in, no dichotomy. There’s no need. There just is. Animals at their wildest are phenomenally, effortlessly patient, in a way that radiates like the patience of Buddhist monks or yogic gurus. Therefore, they ain’t patient. They’re Being. And animals have one over the holy peeps, too: they don’t need to renounce violence to get there.

Sometimes I’ll catch myself lumping my own psychic loads onto animals. Oh look how happy that one is in the sun. That one is sad. That one. They don’t have names. Or words, for that matter. Happy. Sad. They don’t need them. Do they have feelings? I think they do, but that they don’t entertain feelings about feelings, which is usually how people dig holes. In the animal world, tongues are for eating and grooming, not ideal consciousness-shaping.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about closeness, not necessarily emotional or physical closeness but maybe spiritual closeness, true shared experience–I guess the best thing to call it is closeness of consciousness. That’s cool to share. I know that fear is the biggest obstacle to it, and that fear comes in all shapes, sizes and textures, from particulate to galaxy-sized. I know that at those still rare but increasingly frequent moments when I’m able to accept and stand outside of my own fear–and this isn’t raw fear I’m talking about, it’s learned, not-100%-relevant-to-present-reality fear, fear of fear, meta-fear–others’ fear is clearly revealed. And if there is no fear on the part of the other(s)–well, that is the first shine of the closeness. One of the most beautiful things about animals, for me, is that they live in that shine, all the time. Encountering them and being around them is just basking in that warm glittery stuff. Even when it’s raw and ugly, when nature’s laws get exposed down to the bone. Maybe especially then. To look at a cached carcass and admire it: the relentless beauty in the truth.

I have wrestled all my life with a fundamental paradox of language. It is the most thorough, most precise tool I can use to connect with people–with you. And, as I have used it, it has robbed me of more experience than almost anything. By which I mean: as per Wordsworth: true presence in any moment, except for the moment of fully intentional writing, precludes anticipated curation of that moment. This idea is not new to history or to me. It is not academically interesting. But it is so relevant now, in so many ways. We have lost the idea that writing could ever be that way: in our increasingly illiterate country we celebrate writing as a cultural vitamin; we tsk tsk about Instagram instead. And those are interesting points of inquiry, those tsk tsks. But I was not born an Instagrammer. Like it or not–usually not–I was born a writer.

I was (also) born a person. So, like a lost letter caught up in a dust devil, this question of how to live, which is also the question of how to connect, keeps spiraling up and coming back around, rising ever higher and faster but ever closer toward the bright strange hour when it’ll get spit out at the top toward some vague noontime sky.

While I was scrambling over some rocks yesterday evening, a minor buzz whirled around my head and struck. It didn’t bounce off. I was wearing a wool hat, which I removed to find a huge furry emerald-headed golden beetle. It was just hanging on there, gorgeous and shimmering in the twilight, like an expensive brooch. That bug wasn’t desperate or skeerd, it just dug my hat. I tried to get him/her/[gender-neutral pronoun] to move off the hat. Nope. Lil buddy just wanted to be on the hat. Just wanted to hang there for a minute, you know? It took me a few minutes of feeling kinda frantic–oh shit, I’m gonna hurt this lovely thing, it’s not going to know how to untangle its legs from the wool, it’s going to eat something it shouldn’t; I mean I was using words to ask it to move on, etc.–before I was like wait a minute. The beetle got on my hat. Presumably, it would crawl off at some point. I realized this, saw the uselessness of my concern. And I had about seven seconds of sitting there–the beetle and me, face to face (oh yeah! red eyes), just being in that encounter together, totally peaceful and free–before, abruptly, the golden wings whirred, and the animal left as suddenly as it had come, spiraling some sameness of purpose into the lowering sky and leaving another animal, a word-locked one, just a tiny bit freer and changed.


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