Writing about other species
I’m currently writing a collection of short fiction exploring our relationship with animals. When I tell people this, they often ask me if it’s a book for children, and it’s true that many classics of children’s literature feature animals: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952) and Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972) all spring to mind, and if you search online for animal stories, many of the results are stories for children. But thinking about and appreciating the lives of animals shouldn’t be something we associate only with children.
Our interactions with other living species interest me partly because our attitudes contain so many contradictions – we treat some creatures as pets, others as pests; we revere some wild creatures and try to save them from extinction; but we breed others in order to eat them. How have we made these distinctions between species? And are we sometimes mistaken in our attitudes? In her book The Secret Lives of Cows (2018) Rosamund Young suggests that cows are sensitive, intelligent creatures with strong family bonds and that the separation of mothers from their young (a routine part of dairy farming) causes a huge amount of distress. Yet we don’t keep cows as pets, as we do horses and dogs, and many in the UK are squeamish at the thought of eating horses and dogs, but happily tuck into steak tartare and beef lasagne (and these attitudes differ considerably around the world, of course).
Another somewhat irrational attitude is our passion for pandas – millions of pounds have ben spent trying to save giant pandas from extinction, yet some naturalists have argued that it’s a huge waste of money, and that preserving ecosystems, not isolated species, should be our priority. Every day, many species of insect and plant go extinct – species that have never been described or recognised by science – because of the wholesale destruction of habitats, such as the Indonesian forests being destroyed for palm oil. We don’t even know what we’re losing.
But fiction is no place for lecturing and haranguing. It is, however, a potential space for an exploration of these ideas and for a consideration of how things could be otherwise. I’m wondering how we can move away from anthropocentrism, a philosophical viewpoint arguing that human beings are the central or most significant entities in the world, towards biocentrism, a point of view that extends inherent value to all living things. So far I’ve written, or have in progress, stories exploring animal testing, zoos, bird watching, lobster fishing and oyster eating. And I have some new stories brewing which may involve pet budgies, extinction, tiger poaching, and taxidermy.
I’m also interested in exploring our limitations with regards what we know about other species, particularly what it’s even possible for us to know, given our differing methods of sensing and perceiving the environment. Some writers have responded to this idea by making non-human creatures their main protagonists. Barbara Gowdy’s novel The White Bone (Flamingo, 200) traces the lives of a herd of elephants, and Gowdy creates a special language that the elephants use to suggest how they might perceive things – for example, ‘flow-stick’ is a snake and ‘jaw-long’ is a crocodile.
It’s easy to accuse such writers of anthropomorphism – the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities – but the truth is that it is very hard (impossible, perhaps?) to avoid. We can’t know what it’s like to be another creature, can’t perceive the world through their eyes, with their sense of smell, or with senses we don’t even have – bees can see ultraviolet light, birds can detect the earth’s magnetic field, sharks can use electricity to find their prey – so we are restricted to our human worldview. In his fascinating book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2017) Frans de Waal explores the difficulties of getting under another creature’s skin, and suggests that we often ask the wrong questions when we measure animals’ intelligence, because we fail to take into account the world as they perceive it (also known as their ‘Umwelt’, German for the ‘surrounding world’). There’s a famous essay by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ (1974) which also explores this impossibility.
But even if we can’t know what it’s like to be another creature, we can imagine it – and I’m convinced that even trying to consider it is a valuable imaginative experiment, one that can shape our own understanding of the wider environment – and our human impact on it.
A handful of my favourite books which explore our lives with animals include:
- John Berger’s Pig Earth, a collection of stories (and a few poems) exploring peasant life in France (Bloomsbury, New Edition 1999)
- Alistair Macleod, ‘The Fall’ a short story from his collected stories, Island (Vintage, 2002)
- I am addicted to Reaktion’s Animal series – they have dozens of books, each exploring a different animal, including Lobster, Swallow, Octopus and Snake, offering scientific information about the animal as well as a cultural history.
I’d love to hear from the OCA community about your favourite stories which explore the lives of other creatures – and if other species inspire your work too, whatever discipline you work in.