The Bedside Book of Beasts – a Wildlife Miscellany
Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Doubleday, 2009 first American edition
From the book jacket: The intricate, complex connection between the hunter and the hunted has define animal life on Earth throughout its long history. In [the book, the author] gathers from all eras and cultures works of art and literature that capture the power, grace and inventiveness of both predators and their natural prey. Here are myths, fables, poems, excerpts from nature and travel writing, journals, sacred texts, and works of fiction….
“Whereas birds are associated with creativity, longing, imagination—with spiritual matters rather than earthly ones—beasts are overwhelmingly physical. They and we—our animal side—are the body itself, with all its physical hungers, its strength and joyfulness, its vulnerability, grace, inventiveness and courage—and, beyond that, its mortality. “Pg xi
I – Echoes of a Working Eden: language without words
“In common with all living things, we humans emerged within the leisurely passage of evolutionary time. But then bipedalism freed our hands, and our opposable thumbs encouraged sophisticated tool-making. This, coupled with the remarkable complexity of our growing language skills, led to the development of our remarkable brains, which—unfortunately, given the reality of our animal origins—live inside us like alien beings. Astonishingly, it has almost persuaded us that we have no debt to nature, that we owe it neither allegiance nor respect, let alone reverence.” Pg 7
2- Diet of Souls: Take, eat; this is my body”
“Once we discarded animal spirits and adopted anthropomorphic gods, we began to thank them—and, by implication, ourselves—instead of the creatures who gave their lives to feed us. This shift served to depersonalize our relationship with the meat on our plate, in the same way that technology later depersonalized the killing of the living beast. ¶Now, of course, few of us thank anything or anyone for the gift of our food. Which in the light of industrial agriculture seems appropriate: it would be adding insult to injury to offer thanks to a battery hen or turkey, considering the horrors we’ve inflicted upon it. Pg 52
3-Beauty and the Beast: Folktales and Parables
“…as domesticated creatures ourselves, we identify with baby animals….Domestication causes predictable physical and behavioural changes in animals….The sum effect is arrested development, which is to say that domesticated animals have been infantilized.” Pg 89
4-Death’s Golden Eye: The Encounter
“In truth, the unfolding drama is a commonplace, one that all participants understand and accept: it is the way life works, day by day. A herd animal is killed and eaten, and the others soon return to grazing. We ourselves have retained this kind of immunity to daily bloodshed: we see a dreadful accident on the highway, we sense someone walking on our grave as we pass the wreck, we briefly slow down but soon enough resume our daily speed. We don’t spend much time worrying about the death we’ve just witnessed. So it is with the untouched prey in a herd.” Pg 127
5-Mighty and Terrible: “I made this monstrous beast”
“I’d simply had the extraordinary luck to be present when Nature flexed her very considerable muscles. As a result I’d experienced powers that utterly dwarfed me and my world—powers that preceded human life, and will certainly survive it.” Pg 173
6-Killing Without Eating: The Tablecloth of Civilization
“As we gave become largely dependent on monocultures, and on our dull, slavishly exploited and commercially useful animal domesticates—and as we have come to share many of these qualities ourselves—we’ve lost touch with the magic animals of our past, and with them the dynamic and redemptive sense of our collective place in the extraordinary even that is life on purpose.” Pg 217
7-What Immortal Hand or Eye: Great Hunters
“In exchange for the deeply mixed values of civilization, we’ve lost much of our elemental sense of belonging, along with the skills and sense of reverence for nature that evolved during our long evolutionary past.” Pg 266
8–Ceremony of Innocence: The Heart’s Solace and Delight
“If your instinct is to walk in a park or ravine when you’re melancholy or frustrated, you’ve most likely chosen an effective remedy: healing, wholesomeness, and wholeness are related, and to heal ourselves individually and collectively, we need to begin by rejoining ourselves with the wholeness of nature.” Pg 308
Thoughts on the book –
When I first picked the book, it looked interesting but I didn’t read the book jacket – I thought the author was going to talk about animals and their habits and lives. What I didn’t realize until a few segments in was that the author was really a compiler – he has compiled a book of quotes, thoughts and art surround the world of ‘beasts’ as he calls them, organizing them to fit particular themes.
For instance, Chapter 1 concerns not only how animals communicate with each other, but also with humans. Chapter 2 focuses on the killing of animals for food and on the thoughts of hunters. I didn’t like that chapter too much – the descriptions of animals dying and the pleasure of hunters taking their lives with little regard to their souls is chilling.
Chapter 3 is a compilation of obscure folktales and stories about animals. These aren’t your Disney fairy tales. Because the writing is often old (meaning, written in the 1800’s or even earlier, the meanings and/or intent behind the stories is often unclear – to me.
Chapter 4 was worse that Chapter 2 and even more miserable to get through–all these stories of triumphant men killing animals, more often than not without mercy. The last story, a personal account by George Orwell, was especially chilling as he related how he shot an elephant multiple times and the elephant died very slowly. And that he was glad he did it because otherwise he would have looked like a fool. Terrible. Glad to be done with that chapter.
Chapter 5 discusses the callousness of Nature, monsters and gods of nature. Chapter 6 discusses the horrors man has enacted upon the natural world – the unvarnished writings of men who killed without honor or thought of the animals they were slaughtering. I was able to only read three entries before I gave up on the chapter. It was the wholesale slaughter of tigers (we’re talking in the thousands of kills in less than a century) by the British government when they ruled India that did it for me. I just couldn’t take it anymore. Some folks may be able to read and become enraged by the inhumanity of man to animals and take action. Me, I weep with sorrow and do nothing. So I stopped reading the chapter.
Chapter 7 has more murdering of animals by humans and other animals. I understand animals killing each other, particularly predator and prey, it is just hard to read the glee that is in these various writer’s words. It just calls to mind how vicious and arrogant some men are thinking themselves better than animals and mostly likely, other people. I didn’t even finish this chapter. I can’t take all the bloodshed.
Chapter 8 is short but filled with beautiful descriptions of the magnificence of beasts. A herd of mourning elephants, a family of does and fawns led by a proud stag; the beauty and strength of animals is celebrated.
The book itself is full of illustrations of animals some going as far back as to cave painting days and forward to the early 20th Century. They are fascinating in their variety and viewpoints.
We will keep the book on our shelves even though it may not be read again in its entirety. The bloody writings the author compiled are more than I can stomach, but there is an importance to them that cannot be ignored. Maybe one day when I am able I will read them again and write about them. The terrible horrors mankind inflicts upon nature in general and animals in particular is devastating and needs always to be keep in full view of society.
Rating: 3 paws out of 5. Beautiful illustrations, terrible incidents recounted by awful men, proud animals in their glory.
Also by the author