Childhood is a place thickly populated by animals. Teddy bears, cuddly crocodiles, squeaky parrots. Then as the kid grows, the menagerie expands from the toybox to the bookshelf. Two by two, then more and more they all come marching in: the Cat in the Hat, Peter Rabbit, the Blue Jackal, Paddington Bear and Winnie-the-Pooh, the tortoise and the hare – and then there’s the TV. Oswald the octopus, the Care Bears, and more penguins than currently populate the arctic shores: Pingu, and Henry, and Mumble, and a curious clutch of multicoloured baby penguins called the Ozzie Boos. The list goes with, the film industry adding its own spin on the animal tale with each new generation from golden oldies like Dumbo, Bambi, to The Rescuers, 101 Dalmations, The Lady and the Tramp, The Aristocats to Finding Nemo and Happy Feet…
Then at some point along the way, this area of rich bio-diversity is deforested. The teddy gathers dust, the lion goes back into the wardrobe, Nemo and his fishy friends stay hidden in the coral reef. Scanning my own bookshelf, I wonder what has become of the scaled, the curly-tailed, the pawed and clawed, the bug-eyed, the furry, the cuddly, the screeching, squawking, the feathered, furred and fishy friends of my youth?
Becoming adult, so our bookshelves seem to tell us, seems to entail an anthrocentric imagination. “I can’t stand nature writing,” one well-respected novelist and critic announced to me recently, “I keep thinking: come on get on with it. Where are the humans?”
I was secretly appalled, though I kept mum, fearing, I suppose, to reveal myself as one of those infantile, romantic creatures – that dreaded thing: an anthropomorphist, who believes that owls are wise, jackals cunning, lions brave, mice adorable. Oh, the curse of the cute! The contemptible inability to see only, short-sightedly, through these human eyes. The inability – oh, horror! – to acknowledge difference.
No wonder Richard Adams had a hard time getting a publisher for Watership Down. A book about rabbits? For adults? Who would have thought of such a thing? Adams’ novel is one of the few examples of an interesting sub-genre, xenofiction. Defined as a fiction or fantasy set among “species or cultures extremely different from humanity or human society”, it is about as far from the Chimpanzee’s Tea Party view of non-human others as it is possible to get. Of course, there are many other examples in adult literature – predominantly in science fiction, fantasy or what we’re now supposed to call ‘speculative fiction’ – which have xenofictive elements. And then, there are the ‘crossover’ books, read as much by adults as children, such as Zizou Corder’s Lionboy series, Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy and, of course, the world of Harry Potter, with its dragons and owls, cats and toads, Animagi who can turn from human into animal, and part-human centaurs and giants.
But surely this is all just innocent fantasy? Good old, plain old storytelling? Well, if you think that human society is made up by the stories we tell ourselves, then perhaps the picture becomes a little more complex. The urgent, overriding challenge that faces us as a species is that of global warming. With the publication of the Intergovernmental Report on Climate change recently, the world’s political ostriches are having their heads forced out of the sand. But the response, the world over, seems to have focussed solely on the implications for humans – the droughts, the flooding, the destruction of homes and livelihoods, the human cost. All very important. All very alarming. But sadly indicative of the very species-centrism which has brought us to the brink in the first place.
The ‘innocence’ of childhood, that so often comes as a package with talking animals, fairy tales, and magic must be reimagined – less Walt Disney than William Blake, the great English visionary poet. To be truly ‘human’, or ‘humanist’ is not, in his conception, to be ‘grown up’, but to recognise the humanity – the soul, if you like, or that spark of divinity – which inheres in all forms of life, and not just the prerogative of one.
As for bringing up children, as one mother of three recently said to me, “It’s a wild ride.” It is. And how often have new parents felt that sense of shock and awe at a new alien creature in the house? Looking into an adults’ eyes for a baby, is not so different from going eyeball to eyeball with a sea turtle or an okapi. A baby’s wonderous openness to the sensorium of life is a gift, a state of grace, from which we gradually fall as we grow up. And for our rapidly ageing planet, it seems like something we all need to – urgently – rediscover.
Perhaps it’s too much to hope that we, as a species, can accord the same inalienable rights to other living beings that we have so consummately failed to grant sections our own. In light of the IPCC report, the staggering statistics about the destruction of habitats, the emptying of the oceans, deforestation, and the extinction of species, the ‘happily ever after’ promised by our childhood tales seems a less and less likely ending for our planet.
Business Standard, 11 February 2007