I asked my daughter what I should write about this evening. She pointed to her toy barn and said, “Barn animals.”And I thought, Yes, of course. The animals among us deserve their due, especially after the heron visitation yesterday.
So, the topic of “barn animals” made me think instantly of a couple of paintings and of a neighbor.
One painting is part of the Dallas Museum of Art’s permanent collection, where I used to visit when in my twenties. From the 1700s, its title was something like “College Days.” It depicted an interior space inhabited by various mammals – a raccoon, let’s say, and a fox and bear, all clothed in the finest and most colorful silks and playing violins and getting drunk and ransacking the room. The implication, of course, being that college boys are “a bunch of animals.” (Just read Anya Kamenetz’s DIYU for a less-than-becoming but colorful history on the college days of yore.)
In retrospect, the painting seems more insulting to animals than to college boys. And I’m not being facetious.
The other painting (from a series of paintings) is one of Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom paintings from the 1800s. It depicts animals of various sorts – predators and prey – encircling a child peacefully. I’ve often taken this Quaker’s paintings to suggest something of an idealistic peaceful co-existence among our fellow mammals. But at least one commentator suggests that Hicks, concerned with his fellow Quakers new-found materialist quests, was working out some ideas about humanity as implied through the personality qualities of certain animals. I’ve often wondered how certain animals became reduced to human personality traits. You know – how did “lion” equate with ego? Coyote with “wilyiness”? That sort of thing.
So in one painting, animals stand in for unsavory human behavior. In the other series, animals stand in symbolically for human personality traits. We do go about projecting ourselves, don’t we?
Which brings me to my neighbor. She’s the town’s dog officer. And she also takes in a full farm’s full of abandoned or neglected animals. Two peacocks. Three horses, the latest one named Levon (after Helm, who lives not far from here). Petal the pig and her new friend Rose. A turkey. Geese. Goats. Ducks.
My daughter and I wander down the road sometimes to feed them. I sense my neighbor sees the animals for what they are and not as some projections of what we think we are. That’s my hunch, at least – even if she does name them, which does sort of endear one to a sow named Petal, for instance.
It’s a challenge to just see things, even other mammals and other people for what they are and not for what we think they should be and not for some vessel for own projection. It’s a challenge.
David Abrams’ new book Becoming Animal offers some complex reflections about this very thing that I cannot even begin to summarize so I shan’t try. Suffice it to say that if we did let ourselves become just a bit more animal, just a bit more connected with other parts of our mind and body, just a bit more attuned to the nuances and signals and patterns of the world, we might, we just might feel each day with more aliveness.
I need to go now. My daughter’s calling me. “Night, night, animals.” It’s time to close the barn and say goodnight to the various animals, to the various parts of ourselves we feed and let out to play and tuck in for the night. To all you animals, good night, and happy weekend.
What about you? Any animal encounters today? Share your day’s three highlights and let us know where you’re writing from.
See you in the woods,
The Three Highlights Guy