Monday, March 07, 2011

On the Library Table - Being with Animals

Being with Animals, Dr. Barbara J. King

If one is fortunate, once or twice in a calendar year, she encounters a book which fills her with wonder and stirs up deep thoughts for some time after reading it. Dr. Barbara J. King, Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William & Mary, has written such a book, and when I opened it a few weeks ago, I was delighted to realize that her creation dovetailed perfectly with my previous reading. The preceding books this winter were David Abram's Becoming Animal, and David Lewis Williams' weighty publication on human consciousness and the origins of art, The Mind in the Cave.

To tackle three books like this, one after the other, is a lovely thing indeed, and an exercise furnishing one with much food for consideration. Being with Animals was a gorgeous conclusion to the winter's bookish wanderings, and since completing it, my thoughts have been going round and round - I suspect that will be the case for some time to come. Dr. King's opus is one I shall visit again, and it's a measure of the book's excellence that I needed to ponder its teachings for a while before tackling this review.

A love of art, the living world and the manifold beings with whom we share that world underpins this blog, and simply saying that animals are close to my heart is something of an understatement. There is a little pack of timber wolves on my hill in Lanark and a resident black bear, beaver colonies and their lodges all along the waterways, owls in the woods, geese and loons, great herons along the lake - one can lose all track of conventional time while watching herons along a shoreline. Closer to home, there is sweet Spencer, curled up beside me as I tap away here, and not so long ago, beautiful now departed Cassie, my loving companion for many years.

Humans are animals, although we like to pretend otherwise. What would our earthly journey be like without the companionship of other animals? We share the world with them, and their reciprocity is boundless, although our own conduct is often appalling. They provide us with food and warmth, function as beasts of burden and our protectors. Faithful allies, they go to war with us, travel along with us on our migrations, act as spirit guides and totems, give us a bridge to the mythic and the ritual. Humans are usually the predators, and the animals our prey; occasionally the positions are reversed, and we cringe in our boots. It has ever been so. The bond between humans and other animals goes right back to our beginnings as a species, but we don't think about it for the most part.

Being with Animals
traces human relationships with other creatures all the way to our early ancestors. There is fine scholarship here, thoughtfulness and eloquence; there is deep respect for those with whom we share the world, humor, warmth and humanity. Art, our ancestral bonds with animals and the evolution of human consciousness are inextricably linked, and Dr. King illustrates that wonderfully, beginning with the Blessing of the Animals at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, then moving back to the ancient caves of Chauvet with their exquisite artistic renderings of horses, cattle, deer, lions, panthers, bears and owls, and beyond even that to the African savannas. I found much to think about as I was reading.

If you only read a few books this year, make this one of them. Prepare to be astonished, to be delighted and filled with wonder. This book is a keeper.


One Woman's Journey - a journal being written from Woodhaven - her cottage in the woods. said...

Cate, thank you for introducing me to this book...Many animals in my woods that I have not yet discovered - but I know they are there :)Have a good day.

Unknown said...

Looking forward to reading this book! I've worked with animals and Reiki together, very rewarding...and humbling. My best lessons come from nature and animals.

Cindy said...

I'm inspired daily by animals, they have been my favorite teachers along the way.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the recommendation. I will get the book. Have had companion cats for the last 30 years and would hate to be without them. There is another book - "The hidden life of animals" - wherein a scientist discovers for himself the spiritual nature and intelligence of animals. Very interesting :)

the wild magnolia said...

Being with animals is ahhhh..... to my life. They thrill me and teach me and extend my happiness.

Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I have just discovered a wonderful book by Jean Houston called "Mystical Dogs: animals as guides to or inner life" published by Inner Ocean in 2002. I am sure yo wold enjoy it, Cate.