If you walk through the painting collection of a great museum like the Metropolitan in New York City, heading from the twentieth century into the past, one thing may strike you sooner or later: animals and birds, domestic and wild, appear ever more frequently on canvas. This, no doubt, reflects how much closer to nature and a wilder world we all once were. In this sense, my 1950s childhood in a great modern city was typical of how unnatural we had become. I was an only child and the closest I got to the animal kingdom was my dog. Jeff was the name I gave him, perhaps out of a desire for a younger brother, and I treated him accordingly. (Yes, I do now regret repeatedly tying his ears atop his head.)
Otherwise, I visited zoos, and that was about the only way I saw wild animals (regularly dozing in their cages), unless you count pigeons and rats. It's not that you can't find the wild in an urban setting, but who was looking then? Not me. Not until I was 12 and visited a friend who had a house in "the country" -- a somewhat suburbanized part of nearby Connecticut. There, while walking along a road, I saw a flash of red that stunned me. As it happened -- and how rare must this have been then -- my friend's parents had a bird book and flipping through the pages I was amazed to discover that I had seen a male cardinal. I mean, who knew?
Cardinals are a common enough bird, quite visible in New York City's parks if you wanted to look for them, but until then I hadn't. I went back to school the next week and for Mrs. Casey's class I wrote a little paper about that bird. Somewhere in the distant reaches of my closet, I still have it. Yes, I know now that a scarlet tanager makes a cardinal look almost colorless, but somehow that one flash of unexpected brilliance changed my relationship to the natural world. Jump a few years ahead and my best friend and I were sneaking out to Central Park on weekend days, especially in spring migration season. (The flyway goes over the city and if you're there at just the right moment, exhausted, hungry birds drop like so many jewels into that park.) Members of the Audubon Society (who were indeed little old people in tennis sneakers back then, as I am now) would show us wonders: orchard orioles, black-throated blue warblers, red-eyed vireos, egrets, and night herons. Again, who knew?
This was, mind you, the single most secretive part of my childhood. Admit, in 1960, that you spent time looking at birds and you had just ensured yourself of being summarily drummed out of the corps of boys. So I kept it to myself, but I've never stopped looking. That one cardinal, that one glance, opened an urban wildness to me. New York City has undergone some rewilding in recent decades, but one day in this world of ours, those massive migrations, which still populate Central Park in the spring, may grow ever sparser. North American bird populations are significantly in decline, thanks to loss of habitat and also, it seems, climate change.
In his usual fabulous way, Lewis Lapham takes up his own -- and our -- already semi-extinct relations with the animal world and the threat of far larger kinds of extinction to come in his introduction to "Animals," the spring issue of Lapham's Quarterly, which, four times a year, brilliantly unites some of the most provocative and original voices in history around a single topic. (You can subscribe to it by clicking here.) TomDispatch thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive look at his piece, slightly adapted for this site. Tom
The Conquest of Nature
And What We've Lost
By Lewis H. Lapham
[This essay will appear in "Animals," the Spring 2013 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]
London housewife Barbara Carter won a "grant a wish" charity contest, and said she wanted to kiss and cuddle a lion. Wednesday night she was in a hospital in shock and with throat wounds. Mrs. Carter, forty-six, was taken to the lions' compound of the Safari Park at Bewdley Wednesday. As she bent forward to stroke the lioness, Suki, it pounced and dragged her to the ground. Wardens later said, "We seem to have made a bad error of judgment."
-- British news bulletin, 1976
Having once made a similar error of judgment with an Australian koala, I know it to be the one the textbooks define as the failure to grasp the distinction between an animal as an agent of nature and an animal as a symbol of culture. The koala was supposed to be affectionate, comforting, and cute. Of this I was certain because it was the creature of my own invention that for two weeks in the spring of 1959 I'd been presenting to readers of the San Francisco Examiner prior to its release by the Australian government into the custody of the Fleishacker Zoo.
The Examiner was a Hearst newspaper, the features editor not a man to ignore a chance for sure-fire sentiment, my task that of the reporter assigned to provide the advance billing. Knowing little or nothing about animals other than what I'd read in children's books or seen in Walt Disney cartoons, I cribbed from the Encyclopedia Britannica (Phascolarctos cinereus, ash-colored fur, nocturnal, fond of eucalyptus leaves), but for the most part I relied on A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, the tales of Brer Rabbit, and archival images of President Teddy Roosevelt, the namesake for whom the teddy bear had been created and stuffed, in 1903 by a toy manufacturer in Brooklyn.
Stouthearted, benevolent, and wise, the koala incoming from the Antipodes was the little friend of all the world, and on the day of its arrival at the airport, I was carrying roses wrapped in a cone of newsprint. The features editor had learned his trade in Hollywood in the 1940s, and he had in mind a camera shot of my enfolding a teddy bear in a warm and welcoming embrace. "Lost child found in the wilderness," he had said. "Lassie comes home." The koala didn't follow script. Annoyed by the flashbulbs, clawing furiously at my head and shoulders, it bloodied my shirt and tie, shredded the roses, urinated on my suit and shoes.
The unpleasantness didn't make the paper. The photograph was taken before the trouble began, and so the next morning in print, there we were, the koala and I, man and beast glad to see one another, the San Francisco Examiner's very own Christopher Robin framed in the glow of an A-list fairy tale with Brer Rabbit, Teddy Roosevelt, and Winnie-the-Pooh, all for one and one for all as once had been our common lot in Eden.
The Pantomime of Brutes
Rumors and reports of human relations with animals are the world's oldest news stories, headlined in the stars of the zodiac, posted on the walls of prehistoric caves, inscribed in the languages of Egyptian myth, Greek philosophy, Hindu religion, Christian art, our own DNA. Belonging within the circle of humankind's intimate acquaintance until somewhere toward the end of the nineteenth century, animals appeared as both agents of nature and symbols of culture. Constant albeit speechless companions, they supplied energies fit to be harnessed or roasted, but they also were believed to possess qualities inherent in human beings, subject to the close observation of the ways in which man and beast both resembled and differed from one another.