June 16th, 2021

Thinking along with the animals

By Submitted Article on June 26, 2020.

Submitted by the Southern Alberta Group for the Environment

In thoughtful times, what Canadian doesn’t turn to Leonard Cohen? Suzanne, the lyrics go, takes you down to her place by the river and “feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.”

All the way from China? Yes, for this was written in 1966 when China was reasonably considered far away, both in imagination and geography. Now goods cross international borders, span what we once thought of as vast oceans, fly the (pre-pandemic) crowded skies and arrive in our stores at a fraction of the price of Chinese oranges in Cohen’s era.

But at what cost? What does it cost to curtail production here and take advantage of cheaper labour costs in other lands, to fly fresh produce around the world, and to truck pigs, cattle and poultry across borders as though they were no more sentient than crates of oranges?

If the world seems close and perhaps claustrophobic to us now, we are left to imagine how the walls of civilization close in on the ecosystems of other life forms. Species who once had the luxury of space separate from human exploration and exploitation.

Charismatic fauna like tigers, elephants and mountain goats have long felt the impact of human encroachment both territorially and as objects of cultural significance. Animals that are hunted not for meat but for what it means to have their hides or heads adorning our spaces. Others, like the pangolin, are less famously centred in awareness but are of increasing importance as the most heavily trafficked wild mammal across the world today.

Working with the Lele of Central Africa (circa 1964), Douglas described the pangolin as a scaly anteater with the body and tail of a fish yet with four legs used to climb in trees. Pangolins do not fear people and reproduce like us, usually having only one child at a time. These anomalies suggested to the Lele a special link between humans and animals – a creature that could spiritually mediate between the two. Killing a pangolin, they said, would bring animals to hunters and babies to women.

Curious as is the pangolin, neither its threatened status nor its presumed medicinal qualities are unique. Many animals perform a similar role as anomalous creatures believed to bridge the worlds of spiritual and secular. Many believe we can incorporate the special qualities of an animal in a number of ways but most usually by hunting and eating. Science may well prove otherwise (such as pangolin meat having no liver-enhancing qualities), yet humans persist in making the animal a way to gain favour or think about ourselves within the infinite.

Many of us are anxious to get back to normal after the lockdown lifts – but what version of “normal”? Can we develop a more harmonious relationship with nature? Admire animals not for the way they help us think about us, but for what they intrinsically are? Can we set aside tracts of wild land like the Yellowstone to Yukon where we tread lightly, sacrificing some of our freedom for their very survivability?

Cohen has passed on to whatever lies beyond, but his songs remain for us to ponder and enjoy. Like animals in traditional Lele cosmology, his music is good to think with. Like animals worldwide, life is not only analogies and poetry, but the reality of a warm beating heart – good to think and good to respect.

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great letter, because it is informative and real – true to the heart. moreover, it comes with no malice or anger, just love. i find myself increasingly in the anger stage when i consider the plight of all living creatures imperiled and tortured by humans. people need to change: they need to understand that because we are dominant does not mean we need to be thick, thoughtless and cruel. hope your message helps improve conditions for creatures in distress and under attack, everywhere.

SAGE Chair

Thank you, biff, for reading our SAGE article and (as readers of these Commentaries) for your ongoing advocacy for the natural environment.