Archive | October 2015

Animal stories – hearts and souls

I begin (ironically) with a quote.

Only the Animals is an award-winning collection of short stories by Ceridwen Dovey.

Winning awards and getting into the front window of Readings means Success in Australia and, given the Animals in the title, a must read for me. I’ve been meaning to blog about this book for a while but I couldn’t because Anson Cameron‘s book was trapped in a cardboard box in storage. Stay with me, I mean well. Now freed, shelved and at home in the new house, Pepsi Bears is also an award-winning collection of short stories, which I need to consider while thinking about Only the Animals.

Only the Animals is a beautifully presented book. The cover is sparse grey with a grim domestic picture of radiated cats glowing green and streaming about a human couple made of some kind of modelling clay in a horrid kitchen. The slim line of the pale title font continues into the front pages and arrives at two illuminating quotes, one of which is: “On one side there is luminosity, trust, faith, the beauty of the earth; on the other side, darkness, doubt, unbelief, the cruelty of the earth, the capacity of people to do evil. When I write, the first side is true; when I do not the second is.” Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog. Portentous, no?

So, once in the door, forewarned, we see the collection is ironed, folded and separated out into time and place and souls of different animals.

There’s a lovely picture at the head of each story, based on seeing the animal of the moment in the stars. The first story is for a camel from 1892 and Henry Lawson and the camel tells ‘a good story about death in the wastelands’. The next, a story about a cat, opens with constellation and quotation, like a dramatic chord in preparation, decorating the mantle and introducing us to Collette, who apparently owned the cat of the story. Most of the stories have one or two such defining moments from the pens of others on the headstone and as we delve further into the stories we realise the quotes are a key. We’re hearing echoes of other writers through the sculptured stories. Collette stains the voice of her cat (mimicry? catticry?) and style of whimsy. Back to the first story, and yup, there’s the soul of Henry Lawson knocking on the table. Only the Animals is in fact a séance of dead writers – not only the animals!

The unseen energy drives the empty glass fast across the ages, chimpanzee followed by dog, followed by mussel, swerves relentlessly through bear and dolphin to end in parrot in 2006. “If nothing else, you could at least say she’d been perspicacious.” Certainly clever, witty and erudite, Dovey’s stories are wonderful creations. I read on, filled with admiration for the architecture, the structure of the tales, the clean organisation and the orderly manner these blocks of civilisation arise into an elegant edifice.

I had a similar experience when visiting the Victorian National Gallery to see one of the Top Arts exhibitions. As I wandered, seeing colourful sculptures and dramatic paintings, I turned a corner to face an extraordinary pencil drawing, larger than life, of some young person’s grandfather, done over the course of a year, in such incredible detail that one’s mind convulses with the effort, the concentration and devotion it must have taken to create that piece in the final year of school. And so I gazed at the Souls, glimpsing the homage and the heritage inherent, particularly evident in mussel’s soul of the beat poets (thinking well, I just don’t know enough, maybe there’s more fossils of interest embedded in the strata) and I yet I yearned for more, I longed to be, well, pushed, surprised, angered …

None of these cut-glass images etched by stars managed to lodge in my heart (they’re called souls not hearts after all) and I kept recalling a story called ‘A zebra in no-man’s land’, which could well have a place in this cosmology, from Pepsi Bears, the recently-shelved-in-my-new-house, award-winning collection of stories about animals. (Okay, shortlisted in the 2011 APA Book Design Awards – obviously another good-looking book!) But, you know, these stories have heart.

I don’t think Anson Cameron evoked so many writers or floated souls into his designs but he is certainly another witty human being who enjoys an earthiness alien to Ceridwen. There are stories in Pepsi Bears about shit and vengeance and a zebra accounting for a ceasefire in the First World War. Anson’s opening chord is: “In which the nature of mankind is cruelly illuminated by various beasts”.

I’m all for stories about animals – for animals that can read – although personally I find them an acquired taste. If you do not fancy reading either of these tomes, try one for yourself. Perhaps you too might find ‘luminosity, trust, faith, the beauty of the earth’. I encourage you to head to your favourite writing method, seek your muse and imagine what life might be like for another species. But take it easy, lest the construction of the cage stills the beating heart within.

Our relationship with dolphins. Or knees.

How can you have a relationship with nature when you are part of nature? Is it like having a relationship with your relations? You’re part of your family and you relate to all the other parts? Or you have a relationship with your knee? It’s part of you?

When you watch the film The Cove, you see the fisher-folk protecting their (profitable) livelihood of capturing and/or slaughtering dolphins and porpoises. And these guys, all with their own families and knees, bark at the observers and activists like guard dogs. They snarl and growl and a chap nicknamed Private Space taunts the camera operator and the guilty dolphin trainer, Ric O’Barry (who stole the original Flippers from their mothers), trying to make those bleeding-heart liberals strike him. Only, it’s his taunting that’s recorded in The Cove, we never see him struck. (Of course, that does not mean it did not happen.)

So how are all us keen film-goers related to these beastly fisher-folk? As we chow down on our steak sandwiches and our lamb chops (the lamb ads repeated in every ad break on SBS-on-demand). You’ve heard of it, I take it? The Cove? This film that sneaks undercover to film the unwatchable? It’s about a town in Japan called Taijii that thrives on its proximity to the annual migration of dolphins. The film is made by Louie Psihoyos, the same director/photographer who made Racing Extinction (coming soon to a screen near you).

The Cove is the big undercover, under-rocks, under the law, covert filming adventure. Dolphins are traded to become performers (Traditional? Boats with engines? Seaworld?) and the rest are killed for meat which no-one likes very much anyway. Which also just happens to have a very high mercury content. So high that bargin-hungry schools are now refusing to feed the tainted meat to children at lunchtime.

Ric O'Barry with dolphin meat.

Ric O’Barry with dolphin meat.

The blood in the water and it still continues and it does not seem the world cares very much. Or at least, it seems our human relatives are more concerned with matters closer to home, like their relationships with their own mortgages, careers and genitalia. The USA enthralled by their relationship with their guns and their own personal arms race. Their President sadly expecting to offer condolences to the next grieving families because the beastly Congress has ‘politicised’ (as if it hadn’t already) the industry of arms manufacture and dealing. If we can’t deal with the millions of displaced persons, thousands of gun deaths and desperate refugees left to rot forever in concentration camps because they fled persecution in their own countries how can we deal with a mere 23,000 dolphins and porpoises killed annually in Taijii?

Can’t last, can it. If the dolphins don’t work out that this is a place to be avoided every year and change their own migratory path, they’ll just get wiped out, won’t they? So if we did want to have a relationship with any of them, we couldn’t. They’ll be gone. Is that what we wait for? Problem gone.

As for Blackfish, well, Free Willy it ain’t. There are a few similarities of course. Again, you’d think as a result of watching a story about a particular infamous orca called Tilikum the more vociferous of peeps with those caring activist relationships to nature would have strong-armed Seaworld into giving the kid a break. Recently, there has been movement in preventing Seaworld from breeding orcas, which I suppose means they’ll just go out and catch more from the wild. OH&S say humans can no longer risk their lives going into the same ponds as the potential killers (ie crazed, imprisoned orcas). But Tilikum is still on show. So again, we protect humans and their investments while some of us pathetically dream of lovely sanctuaries for sea creatures driven nuts by solitary confinement in a bath.

Sometimes flashbacks to books I’ve read about slavery – and I didn’t pay much attention at the time – those relationships, those attitudes – those poor dumb brutes – they were people, sentient beings – bought and sold for market, just like orcas, dolphins and racehorses. And cows, of course.

How dare economists say the market will save the environment? How can it, possibly? All the market can save is itself. Some rich bastards, their bank accounts and their property. If the property happens to be alive, so be it. If it be better dead, so be it. If it be in pain, then, so be it. That’s our favourite relationship. Not to nature. Does the fish know it swims in water? No. Our favourite and most assumed relationship is to a fiction. To money. It doesn’t even exist. Can’t eat it. Can’t sleep under it. Can’t even shoot it. But it will buy you a performing dolphin. Or an orca.

Or make a movie.

Watch The Cove trailer here.

Watch Blackfish trailer here.

The Signature of All Things – big story, big picture, big biggness

The Signature of All Things strides across centuries, across science and across the face of God. It details (and I mean, really details) the life of the father, the daughter and the Holy Angel. It looks at our relationship to nature in a learned, scientific light. It’s a book, it’s big and it’s by Elizabeth Gilbert.,28804,1733748_1733752_1735978,00.html,28804,1733748_1733752_1735978,00.html

But I wasn’t paying attention to the writer when I began because I was drawn to the reader. I listened to this behemoth on Audible books read by the delectable tones of Juliet Stevenson. Ah.

If you have never had the pleasure of being read to by Ms Stevenson, may I recommend you rush to Audible for your introductory book and plug your ears into anything at all, say for instance, Middlemarch or Persuasion. I could listen to Juliet read the phone book and herein lies the problem, because I began to wonder if indeed The Signature of All Things might not in fact be a bit of a phone book. Juliet’s mellifluous golden tones seeped into my mind like a pleasant dream but once in a while I would be jumped out of the loveliness and mentally exclaim, ‘What is this stuff?’

Like Joyce, Gilbert is heavy on the lists. It sometimes feels as though she’s deliberately setting out to write an enormous masterpiece, covering a great sprawling canvas, and therefore she must conjure all the things that pertain to the thought she has in mind at that moment, that circumstance, that idea, that shade, that currency, that minutiae, that detail, that nuance, that secondary motif, that other thing that just might resonate with some reader somewhere because of something a second cousin once said at a wedding where she wore a beautiful dark dress with a large floral print in pinks and leaves but her shoes were too tight and she got a blister on her heel that took days to fade away and MEANWHILE back in the real world you’re starting to wish Ms Gilbert had found a slightly sterner editor and that maybe Juliet is reading the phone book after all.

There’s no doubting Gilbert’s steady and erudite construction of sentences and, apart from slight Americanisms like ‘pinky’ and ‘route’ most notable toward the end of the book, the prose is indeed suggestive of Elliot. In fact, and this reveals more about my lack of current popular knowledge than anything about Gilbert, I didn’t know who she was. It wasn’t until some way into the work that I looked the woman up. Der. She’s quite wise really.,_Pray,_Love#/media/File:Eat,_Pray,_Love_%E2%80%93_Elizabeth_Gilbert,_2007.jpg,_Pray,_Love#/media/File:Eat,_Pray,_Love_%E2%80%93_Elizabeth_Gilbert,_2007.jpg

So I went and borrowed Eat Pray Love (in that order) from my local library. The strands of this memoir are the concerns of the main character, Alma, in Signature. The corporeal, the spiritual and the emotional. That is to say, All Things. A lot of people really like it, apparently, and you might want to watch the movie. I shan’t dwell on ELP except to say it is based on Gilbert’s private journals and acts as a kind of miasma or swamp of the mind from which might grow a mighty lotus blossom. That blossom might well be The Signature of All Things.

Signature is an extraordinary vision and it features many real life characters like Captain Cook, Joseph Banks and Darwin. It could be that the story is based on a real person. The idea is not so far-fetched after all. A female scientist joins Darwin and Wallace in examining the world and seeking answers. There’s nothing preposterous in that. Female thinkers have been, like Alma’s moss, quietly gathering science ever since records began. Many have disappeared. Perhaps Gilbert found an account or diary somewhere that kicked this giant opus off?

There is much to ponder in Signature. There is much, full stop, much of everything really. It’s big, I tell you. An amazing feat. Alma is big, her father is a titan, her husband is an angel. Her view of God is not singular. Ms Gilbert really likes numbers and the basic trinity is always present (as are other numerological games in both ELP and Signature). Gilbert is an intellectual, after all. However, God is not in the moss. Heaven is not within. Heaven is somewhere else.

You might like Gilbert’s TED talk on creativity. She describes the need to separate artists from their muse – genius comes from outside. (Like God!)

Humans are part of nature – and her discussion of the development of the theory of evolution is even-handed and I welcome her embrace of Wallace. Although Bill Bailey on the subject is probably slightly more amusing.

I’m sorry I can’t be more conclusive about The Signature of All Things. I do love hearing big books, especially read by Juliet. I did enjoy many parts of this enormous blossom, this mossy roll, but in the end it did feel unsatisfying. Did it go on too long? Did it start too early?

It is amazing. That is all. It is about All Things. That said, I do wonder if Gilbert has been in communication with George Elliot’s muse?