I've been thinking recently about our relationship to animals; we love our companions and are fascinated by untamed creatures. There are endless posts on Facebook of pets, of nature videos; there are numerous television shows dedicated to telling us the stories of wild animals. I remember being in Central Park one day, wondering what all those people with telescopes and zoom lenses were looking at; they were following the lives of the red tailed hawks living on Fifth Avenue. An essay that I'd read years ago by John Berger, the French artist and writer, came to mind; I remembered him writing about the intertwined lives that humans and animals used to have and how that had changed with modern life. The influential essay is called "Why Look at Animals" and was written in 1977 (which you can read here). I was happy to reread it; it's full of interesting insights, but is ultimately a bleak assessment of our modern human/animal relationships.
Berger writes that the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century began a process "by which every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature was broken.". Before then, animals and humans were together, leading parallel lives; animals offered metaphor and magic; the human and the animal regarded each other across an "abyss of non-comprehension". How often do we feel when we return the look of an animal that we are encountering another kind of consciousness? but we can't know what this other is thinking. Berger writes that "Such an unspeaking companionship was felt to be so equal that often one finds the conviction that it was man who lacked the capacity to speak with animals..."
It was when animals became marginalized in the 19th century that zoos became popular, as did realistic animal toys and then pets. Berger sees this as a relentless removal of animals from human lives: "That look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, had been extinguished."
Berger has no sympathy for the contemporary pet owner, those of us who feel that we have a close connection, a deep look into the eyes of another species, so I was pleased to read an opinion piece, "Pet Lovers, Pathologized" in the NY Times last Sunday by the philosopher Kelly Oliver. In it she complains that "to love animals is to be soft, childlike, or pathological. To admit dependence on animals – particularly emotional and psychological dependence, as pet owners often do – is seen as a type of neurosis." She asks that society, philosophy, culture, take seriously our love of animals. When my dog Ginger – the charming, overly exuberant big dog who I could never train not to jump up on visitors, with one perked ear and one flopped – was alive, I often spoke of her as my best friend. When she died, I, who am not sentimental, buried her ashes under the spot by the house where she most loved to sit and survey the world.
Holstein heifers on a farm in northern Vermont.
I believe that even though we are far removed from John Berger's ideal world of the peasant, we are greatly enlarged by our encounters with animals, with these other spirits, whether in intimate relationships with pets, or with seeing animals on the farm or in the zoo, or if we're very lucky, in the wild; I vividly remember my two encounters with local bears, and my moose visitors. It is always good to remember that humans are not alone on this earth; we share it with all manner of creatures, all beautiful, all trying to survive.