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The tale of a stuffed echidna: what we see when we look at animals

Picasso, missing nipples and how we relate to other species. 

Sometime in the 1940s, Pablo Picasso emerged from a cave in south-western France in a rare mood of humility. The Lascaux cave was occupied by humans in the Upper Palaeolithic Age; it was discovered more or less untouched as war raged across much of Europe. Scrawled on to its stone walls more than 17,000 years earlier were images of bulls, 12 feet long; a spindly-horned deer of the extinct Megaloceros genus; stags, aurochs, cantering dun horses; a dude with a bird head having an altercation with a bison. The animals seemed in endless motion. They flowed. They were crudely rendered but each composition was alive with the hidden harmony of things.

“We have invented nothing,” said Picasso, reflecting on what he had seen inside. By “we”, the painter meant the artistic and cultural vanguard of the early 20th century that had challenged the long-held assumptions of Western art, jettisoning (or, at least, reconfiguring) traditions that had calcified into a sort of rulebook since the Renaissance painters showed us all how it was done. For Picasso, Matisse and others, immediacy trumped “good sense” or mere technique. “It took me four years to paint like Raphael,” Picasso later declared, “but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

But painting like a child – freely, expressively, unconstrained by convention – was something human beings had been working at since the very beginning. It was nothing new. And, as all children do, the earliest of our species chose animals as their subject. This was a natural choice, since, as John Berger wrote in About Looking, animals were “with man at the centre of his world” until as recently as the 19th century: we depended on them for “food, work, transport, clothing”, and saw in them magic and kinship. Today, for most of us, they are a marginal presence, locked up in zoos; or they have been transfigured into toys and cartoons and logos and mascots; or they crop up sliced in our sandwich, or boiled into jelly in our Haribo. We can coo over cats and think of dogs as our best friend, while thinking nothing of killing 56 billion other animals for food each year. It’s a case of us versus them. 

Yet they remain a part of us, as we are a part of them. At the Grant Museum of Zoology in Bloomsbury, London, I looked up at a balcony display of five skeletons, arranged as if in a police line-up. Beneath them were their identities: orang-utan, chimpanzee, human, gorilla and gibbon. I asked the museum’s manager, Jack Ashby, whether he was trying to bridge the gap between animal and human by arranging the bones in such a way. He told me, “There is no gap. Up there are five different kinds of ape. Humans are displayed as a part of the animal kingdom . . . It’s interesting and important that, if you look at those five apes, it’s quite hard to tell the difference between them.” 

It was true. Stripped of all flesh, the chimpanzee and the human next to it looked like closely related cousins. The English surrealist painter and zoologist Desmond Morris once said that he viewed his fellow man “not as a fallen angel, but as a risen ape”. But how far had we really risen?

I was at the Grant Museum to ask Ashby about its taxidermy conservation project “Fluff It Up”, in which several stuffed animal skins from its collection – some over a century old – are currently being restored to their former splendour. The specimens being repaired have been replaced in their glass cabinets, for the time being, by cuddly toys. And so it was that I stood with Ashby, a 35-year-old Cambridge graduate with an infectious enthusiasm for dusty, dead beasts, gazing at a fairground-prize-style doll representing an Australian echidna.

He told me the story of the absent echidna, whose feet had been positioned the wrong way by the original taxidermist back in the 19th century. Such errors were frequent. “Taxidermists often wouldn’t have seen the whole animal, let alone the live animal,” he explained, so they had to rely on guesswork. The settlement of Australia, which began in earnest in 1788, resulted in “a huge interest in marsupials and other [newly discovered] mammals – six-foot-tall, hopping kangaroos, these really strange, weird animals”, he continued. Echidnas and particularly platypuses – egg-layers – had “a huge amount of controversy around them, because there were no other mammals known to lay eggs. And these were obviously mammals, because they had fur and a few other mammalian characteristics: the way the jaw was arranged, the way the ankles looked. But echidnas didn’t have nipples.” 

I asked Ashby why this was so disturbing for natural historians in Europe. “Well, a defining characteristic of mammals is that they produce milk – ‘mammal’ comes from ‘mammary’,” he said. “Echidnas do produce milk, but it kind of oozes out of their skin, like sweat, and the young lap it up.” They were freaky.

Meanwhile, it took almost a century to demonstrate that the creatures did, in fact, lay eggs. Resistance to the theory was fierce. “I think that the people arguing against all this were uncomfortable with the idea of mammals doing something so reptilian as laying eggs, as it pulled the mammalian class down into the mud with the reptiles and the amphibians,” Ashby said. The way echidnas reproduced upset “the idea of the hierarchy of animal kind – that mammals are better than everything else, with man at the top of the tree”. So the natural historians of the 19th century were engaged in a debate about animals that was, in reality, a debate about themselves: one about humanity, and where we fit in the order of things.

Since July 2012, when an international group of scientists gathered at Cambridge University to refute the notion that consciousness was exclusive to mankind, there has been a growing consensus that many non-human species have an awareness of themselves not dissimilar to our own. We eat animals, we wear their skin, we forcibly domesticate them and exploit them in almost every conceivable way, but they are more like us than we are sometimes willing to admit.

Despite this likeness, they remain an other. It’s difficult to think of echidnas and cows as our fellows, especially since they can’t talk and tell us how they feel, or what they’re thinking. Yet throughout human history, we have talked through them – they have been symbols of our own inner lives. Picasso once said that an artist “paints not what he sees, but what he feels”. If he was right, those cave paintings in France were representative of how early man experienced the world, rather than what those animals were truly like. I suppose that’s what gives the images such power, millennia after they were scrawled on to those cold, stone walls. Human beings are Earth’s great narcissists. When we look at animals, we’re looking for our own reflection. 

 

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon