At the end of our “Exile” exhibition, we close our series of pieces inspired by Becoming-Animal with two deeply contemplative short stories. We hope that you’ve enjoyed all the pieces as much as we have. Too many comments from me already, so I think I’ll let these pieces speak for themselves. I’ll just conclude by asking, as I think both of today’s authors do – who is it that we meet when we meet that which is not us? And when we do – if we ever can – genuinely meet the animal – is it then that when we begin to realise the endlessly becoming beings we all are?
The Woodlouse and the Bark Leaf
With my Karrimor boot-laces tied, my Barbour jacket draped over one strap of my matching waterproof backpack, I set out in search of wildlife; animals; nature. I’m not fussy, but with my Swarovski binoculars and leaf camouflage gloves I’m expecting to see an Accipiter gentilis, or a Buteo buteo, because I have previously seen them near to the particular glade to which I am walking.
It’s an Edenic spot that I discovered a few years ago, when I was living with my Aunt and Uncle. I walk down the byway, the grass cropped short by the grazing ponies of The New Forest. Although today is mild and bright, with clusters of clouds passing overhead with some urgency, my first visit in 2009 was much calmer. It was late November, and within moments of locking the car I’d spotted a flock of Corvus corone terrorising the resident Buteo buteo. And now I’m back. I tread carefully as I enter the aged beech wood. Despite my efforts, I still manage to snap a twig under my right boot, the brash sound sending a Columba palumbus flapping awkwardly to safety. It beats its wings together hard, warning the other animals of my presence. One hundred metres into the wood and the smooth, broad trunks soar to the shimmering canopy above: a splintered mosaic of green with pure white light filling in the gaps. As I come to a stop, listening for activity amongst the trees, a female Turdus merula plays her usual trick of disrupting enough foliage as to imitate a small mammal, leaving me disappointed to hear only a ‘tchook-tchook-tchook’ call from her hiding place within the holly bush.
I check the time on my phone, remembering to keep it on silent. I like the idea of being uncontactable while I’m out in the wild, and so I switch Flight Mode to “ON”.
The glade has developed considerably since my last visit, becoming much fuller despite the deer that no doubt prevent many saplings from growing around the stream. However, elsewhere the clearing seems filled with a more diverse array of flora. Sunlight filters in, shimmering off the water in the stream; leaves rustle lazily in the light breeze: the quintessence of a woodland glade. Minute organisms all around must be capitalising on this patch of sun-drenched ground – an oasis of sunlight in a deeply shady beech wood. I find a tree stump that I’d perched on during my first visit. It is softer now, and has been stripped of its remaining bark. I sit astride it, placing my book and binoculars on my lap, and pouring out some coffee from my Thermos flask into the small, smooth lid/bowl/cup. I wait, patiently, overlooking the ripe and vibrant area before me. I think I am alone. Ferns and beech saplings are vivid with chlorophyll. After last night’s rain, every cell of every plant has become more turgid, increasing the pressure against the regularly arranged cell walls; chloroplast eager to photosynthesise…
But is my ability to anthropomorphise really the best way to return to nature? Isn’t that the point of my trip, to return to a natural environment, and experience it? Lacan says the Real always returns. He says that the Real is beyond language: that it represents the raw and the visceral experiences that are impossible to adequately articulate. Nature is obviously real, it isn’t conscious of being anything else. But what am I doing? I’m sitting on a tree stump trying to look like part of a tree stump. I’m waiting and waiting (for three hours) to see the most impressive, most elusive creatures of the British woodland. I can’t relax for waiting. I can’t listen, or feel, or smell what is happening around me because I’m only listening for the call of a Goshawk. I memorised the sound from an audio CD that came free with my RSPB Handbook of British Birds, a book which happens to be poised, ready to be consulted, between my palm and left thigh. And I’m unconsciously concerned about my satnav that I left stuck to the inside of my windscreen rather than hidden in the glove box. I’m still unsure what to say to Rachel next time I see her. And will Chris at work ever return my laptop charger? In a fluid motion, I rotate my phone in my right hand, anticipating the moment in which I might capture either Accipiter gentilis or Buteo buteo with its camera. Or maybe even Accipiter nisus. The guys on Instagram would go nuts for an Accipiter nisus.
But am I really the centre of the universe that the world revolves around? Is observing a roe deer through my 15 x optical zoom lens the same as a chance encounter with a squirrel and my own eyes and fear? Can you even quantify something like that?
Disheartened, I put away my granola bar. I pour the coffee that remains in the lid/bowl/cup back into the flask before inverting the lid/bowl/cup in my hand to and screwing it onto the top of said flask. So is it a lid? Or a small bowl? Or a cup?
Does it even matter? Do I even need coffee to sit in the woods, when I’m supposed to be relaxing?
I stare out at the tree line parallel to the one in which I am sitting. I stare and stare until the pupils of my eyes no-longer adjust their aperture. I experience a serene silence reserved, usually, for the most committed of spiritual leaders. The immediate temporal and geographical zones around my physical body dissolve without drawing my attention. I picture my hands in the earth – sifting through it. I think of the last time I saw my nephew, Daniel. He is five. I was working in the garden, and I urged him to stand clear while I moved several concrete paving slabs. As long as I wasn’t tripping over him, I didn’t notice him. I was worked-up about something that day.
It took me fifteen minutes to move all the slabs and get them slotted neatly and safely behind the tool shed. I turned to look for Daniel. I called for him, but he was so utterly absorbed in what he was doing that he didn’t hear me. I was peripheral to the busy world of creatures that were living their tiny lives six inches from Daniel’s chin. He was lying on his front in the area where the slabs had previously been. Wind, rain, and insects had helped to form lines of dirt and minute detritus along the ground in the gaps between the slabs. I took several steps forward and crouched down next to him.
‘Shhh,’ he said. ‘The woodlouse is sleeping.’
‘Oh,’ I said, surprised. ‘How do you know when he’s sleeping?’
‘Because he has been really busy and now he is tired and he is curled up in a ball which means he is sleeping.’
A six-legged, exoskeletal crustacean-like bug is rolled up into a ball and sleeping because he has had a busy day. I have no idea how much of that is true. But I have no idea what woodlice really do, other than eat and be eaten. I don’t know what centipedes do, either; or why earwigs are called earwigs. But my five year-old nephew wanted to know. On that day in June, if I could answer his questions with any confidence, he would include that new insight into the narrative of the woodlouse. And if I couldn’t answer, then so much the better – he would just make something up.
I watched, transfixed, as he incorporated each item or insect that he came across into the story of The Woodlouse and the Bark Leaf with no hint of embarrassment, despite the inevitable inconsistencies and lack of character development. With his focus strictly on the tiny creatures before him, unable to fully articulate any logical method to their movements, he spoke in deep guttural sounds that mimicked a helicopter in one moment and a crackling fire in another. I did not know how this noise related to the story, but he did. It was pure creativity bred from pure curiosity. And it was my five year-old nephew experiencing and investigating, with every one of his five senses, a miniature ecosystem that had been living in a gap between concrete slabs.
When did I lose that curiosity? I remember earth-covered fingers. I remember not noticing it was cold, or that my jumper was soaked through from the moisture in the soil. I remember the consistency of the sap that covered the palms of my hands after climbing a fir tree. When did I become so desensitised to all of this that only a Goshawk is enough – when going to the woods is only worthwhile if a bird of prey can be spotted. I need to put away my binoculars; my reference book full of Latin names that aren’t that useful. I need to sit quietly, in true silence – body and mind – and listen. And then I need to lift up the nearest log and look underneath.
— Mark Ranger
Fear of Death by Hunger
The human looked at the animal and the animal looked back. Only inches apart from each other, the two mimicked each other’s behaviour; the animal’s head flinched to the side, blinking at the human with eyes iceberg-blue. Human eyes stared back, quick black eyelashes protecting the stare beneath them. They weren’t at all dissimilar. The two pairs of eyes blinked at the same time, the human sharply drew in air through her teeth, taken aback by the mirroring of beings. The animal, seemingly unperturbed, sat back on her hind legs and whisked her tail along the floor. The human imagined the infinite, microscopic shards of dust and crumbs and imagined the animal’s tail as a giant broom, sweeping away these remnants of the past with an unconscious flick of the tail.
Both sitting back on their heels, the human studied the animal’s face and noticed her black lips were stretched almost from ear to ear, like a smile painted on a clown’s face. An uneasy idea settled in the human’s mind: was lips the right word to describe what she was looking at? Her eyes screwed up as hard as they could so she was squinting through letterbox-slits; if only she could see hard enough then the answer would come to her. Lips was a word created by humans to describe a human body part, we use it to describe animals because they share the same function – lips are made to protect the teeth and mouth. But is function the only reason for a shared name? The human’s mind was flitting from idea to idea, her breath came faster and shorter as she began to think: how have I never thought about this before? She looked at the animal in front of her and felt herself thinking that she was sorry, she was sorry that she had never realised that in saying an animal has lips, she was projecting a human idea of what lips are and placing them onto the animal, arrogantly assuming that what they are to us must be what they are to other beings. Her mind was pacing, new thoughts bouncing around her brain like tennis balls across a court; humans do not think of themselves as animals because we do not think of ourselves as part of the food chain, we are not at the bottom and not even at the top because we simply do not exist within it. Humans are not prey, we do not live in fear of death by hunger, we are not part of the food chain because we are above it. All other beings are beneath us in that pyramid of prey and predatory cycles: the ultimate animalism that we are too civilised to join. Fear of death by hunger. Fear of death by hunger. The animal across from her was flexing her claws and the human came to think of the contrast with her own species; humans with their oversized brains tripping over their own feet and walking into things with the gift of 20/20 eyesight and peripheral vision. How can we still think of ourselves as superior? The human sighed as she thought, how can we still be measuring other beings against ourselves? We cannot judge others on ourselves when, looking at the animal’s wide smile and twitching paws, we cannot know anything about them other than the clues they give us.
The human shrank back, making herself smaller and more vulnerable in front of the animal, now lying down with its paws outstretched like the sphinx, still watching her. She knew there was no way to know what the animal was thinking and she knew that it was the same from the animal’s perspective. She comforted herself in this acceptance of mutual ignorance and felt a feeling of guilt leave her as she realised that they both knew just as much about each other as each other so how could one be superior over the other? She smiled as relief swirled around her chest, making her feel lighter within herself and closer to the animal outside of her. As she felt her human prejudices drift from her, the animal began to blur. Her paws, claws and wide smile began to swirl and fade, her fur and tail became fainter and fainter until all that was left was the animal’s eyes. The two pale blue smudges grew weaker and weaker until they became her own two iceberg eyes. With the realisation of the limits of her understanding the human was looking, with crystal-blue clarity, at herself in her totality: a human-animal.
— Lauren Haine