• Collected
  • Article

The Animal Inside

Naming, knowing and understanding

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I owe what I am to a cow.

My interviewer for admission to Harvard was bored; I was one more in a long list of tediously similar, predictably hard-working, sixteen-year-old females. She suppressed a yawn. ‘Miss Dickason, can you give one good reason why Harvard should be interested in you?’

Nothing to lose. ‘I can strip a cow in five minutes,’ I said. She stared. Then she laughed and began to scribble furiously.

I was admitted to Harvard because I had learned to milk a cow when I was ten. At university, I started to trust my imagination and write. My life unrolled.

It makes a good story. But more important right now are the details I still remember about that cow: her warm animal smell as I leaned my forehead against her flank; the grey-green, crackled, crusted dung I had to wash off her udder with body-warm water; the sting of her tail across my neck when I forgot to trap it in my bent knee. The layer of warm foam on top of the milk. The courage it took to grip another living creature so strongly and to assert such intimate authority over a half-ton animal. The ineffable contentment I felt as she began to trust me and let down her milk.

And the occasional irritation. ‘Kicking the bucket’ meant real, sudden, physical loss — all that milk, my work, gone. The real spilt milk that it was no use crying over seeped away into dirty straw when she caught me off guard with a sneaky hoof, followed by a gleam of triumph.

That world is gone. Who now learns to milk? ‘Milking a cow’ is becoming an empty phrase, needing a paragraph of remembered details to give it substance. Writers can write the words, but how can they show details of what they no longer know? How can anyone, writer or not, understand what is increasingly unknown? We are losing animals, and with their loss, we damage language and our ability to communicate. Mere naming is not understanding.

What if we do not have even the words any longer? In Landmarks, the nature writer Robert Macfarlane argues that, with the loss of words to describe it, our world is shrinking. The Oxford Junior Dictionary, he says, has cut ‘heron’, ‘kingfisher’, ‘lark’ and ‘otter’ (along with ‘buttercup’, ‘fern’, ‘conker’, ‘acorn’ and numerous others) to make way for new, man-made words like ‘attachment’ and ‘broadband’. According to OUP’s head of children’s dictionaries, they merely reported speech as it was.

We are losing more than words to describe the world. It’s hard for us even to think without animals. They have filled our religions and myths: the Christian lamb; the Hindu elephant deity, Ganesh; the tricky spider, Anansi, of African and Afro-Caribbean beliefs; the animal-headed ancient Egyptian gods. They have filled our literature, most of all books for young children. They’re even in our cliches: ‘eagle-eyed’, ‘gentle as a lamb’, ‘fierce as a tiger’.

As human animals crowd the world and other animals disappear from our daily lives – with the exception of pets and urban vermin – we are not only losing imagery that we can name with understanding, we are losing resonance, the gift of stirring the human mind. How much longer will we be able to use our fellow animals as mirrors to spare us the discomfort of a direct look at the good and bad in us?

As children, we still face tough or scary lessons about life through stories about other little prey animals – piglets, rabbits, or mice – which we happily accept as stand-ins. In Beatrix Potter’s Jemima Puddle-Duck, for example, her foxy gentleman almost seduces the innocent Jemima:

‘Let us have a dinner party all to ourselves! 
         May I ask you to bring up some herbs from the farm-garden to make a savoury omelette? Sage and thyme, and mint and two onions, and some parsley. I will provide lard for the stuff — lard for the omelette,’ said the hospitable gentleman with sandy whiskers.

Potter’s fox is still frighteningly relevant as a warning to children to beware of modern risks — the internet groomer, for example. But the seductive image of this elegant rural fox loses much of its warning resonance for today’s city child who sees only (if at all) the dowdy, skulking urban fox.

As adults, we have displaced our sins onto animal scapegoats. (By the way, who still knows exactly what a scapegoat is? Do you get the smell and heft of a real goat, ritually burdened with man’s sins and sent away into the desert?) We shifted the darkest parts of our psyches, unfairly, onto wolves, which supposedly ‘massacre anybody who passes by with a fury of greediness’ (as translated from a medieval Latin bestiary by T.H. White). And onto werewolves that, more honestly, combine man with beast. Douglas Adam in The Beast Within describes a French version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in which the werewolf kills the grandmother ‘and put some of her flesh in the pantry and a bottle of her blood on the shelf’. Then:

The little girl reached the house and knocked [...]
‘Hello, Grandmother; I’m bringing you a hot loaf and a bottle of milk.’ 
‘Put them in the pantry. You eat the meat that’s there and drink a bottle of wine that is on the shelf [...] 
Undress, my child,’ said the werewolf, ‘and come sleep beside me.’

Murderer, cannibal, paedophile — the werewolf carries our human guilt.

Reflected in animal mirrors, we also show off. Owls spoke our human wisdom. We borrowed the power of stags, which could draw serpents from their holes, and took comfort from our projection onto dolphins of an almost-divine, selfless caring that echoed human empathy. Increasingly urbanised, we are left with debased images of these other selves, both good and bad: performing dolphins jumping through hoops and the mangy, dejected wolf behind bars at the zoo. What does that sad reduction do to our sense of ourselves? If, in the past, animal mirrors have helped us see ourselves clearly, what do we see now? What will our children see?

In Field Notes From a Hidden City, a naturalist’s study of the urban environment, Esther Woolfson has no doubt. ‘If we lose sparrows, everything will change’, she warns:

and as with every loss, our lives will be thinner, lesser; the future not only of the physical world but our mental world will be diminished, the world of our history and legend where the life of all our cultures resonates with all we’ve seen and all we’ve lived with, plant and animal, stone and cloud.

The American poet Wendell Berry writes of a yellow-throated warbler:

				[...] more beautiful
than any human mind, so small and inexact,
could hope ever to remember. My mind became
beautiful by the sight of him.

In the animal world, like Berry, we can also find transcendence.

Let us be clear. I am not debating ‘greenness’ nor our responsibility to animals. My plea is purely human and selfish. The needs of a growing world population for space and food are pushing back the wilderness, both domestic and exotic. We must, somehow, stop this pushing back because it affects the wilderness inside us. We must protect animals to protect ourselves, not just as writers but as a species.

It is bad enough that we will read the words but ‘understand them less’, as Woolfson goes on to say, and that we are losing ‘archaisms’ like the words for otter, kingfisher and heron as the creatures themselves fade from modern experience. But we are also reducing images of beauty and power and fear and awe to phrases of increasing emptiness, like the once-rich ‘milking a cow’. We are closing one route to transcendence. That depressed, mangy wolf behind bars or an orangutan behind glass with his level accusing stare, also reduces the power, dignity, mystery and beauty of the animal in us. We need animals not only as mirrors in order to see ourselves clearly but so that our minds may become more beautiful by the sight of them. It’s a paradox. We need our animal kin so that our spirits and imaginations can be most fully human.

Christie Dickason is a novelist, lyricist and librettist.

You might also like:

Colin Grant What We Leave We Carry. Image credit: Missohio Studios.
RLF News Article

What We Leave We Carry

WritersMosaic, a division of the Royal Literary Fund, is launching a new podcast series, What We Leave We Carry, to…

New RLF Fellows clap at the 2024 Induction event. Photo by Adam Laycock.
RLF News Article

Welcome to our new RLF Fellows

At the end of last month, we welcomed 44 new Fellows to the RLF with our yearly induction event at…

An image of the 'end' button on a keyboard. Photo by csy302, CanvaPro.
Collected Article

The Finishing Line

So – what now? RLF Fellow Mary Colson on what it’s like to actually finish a book.

Royal Literary Fund Substack

View our Substack. All our articles are free to read and are written by either the RLF team or our contributing writers.

Subscribe on Substack