There is a poem by Mark Doty in which the speaker looks up from the car park of a mall somewhere in Massachusetts and, seeing a flock of geese pass overhead, imagines that he is
. . . up there, somewhere between the asphalt
and their clear dominion – not in the parking lot,
its tallowy circles just appearing,
the shopping carts shining, from above,
like little scraps of foil.
In many ways, “Migratory” (from the 1995 collection Atlantis) epitomises Doty’s poetic vision, with its attention to natural and psychological detail, its subtle analysis of longing – or, in this case, one might say, of our homesickness for the wild – and its philosophical inquiry, in which risk-taking is an essential element. Indeed, few contemporary poets take the risks Doty does – and those who do rarely come through with such elegance:
. . . Only animals
make me believe in God now
– so little between spirit and skin,
any gesture so entirely themselves.
“Migratory” is a poem that both delineates and accepts the limitations of being human, rather than animal, but what Doty achieves is neither the homespun philosopher’s easy consolation nor the Pyrrhic victory of the “less deceived”. As the birds fly over and away from him, forcing the speaker to admit “I wasn’t with them . . . of course I wasn’t”, we nevertheless see that, for the moment at least, he is touched with wonder and a lingering faith in a natural order that we all too frequently ignore. He has seen – and to see another animal in its true light, however briefly, is to recover a little of the connection that makes us compassionate, which is to say: whole. The leap skyward that Doty imagines reminds us that, unless we are able to experience the world, not just alongside but with other living things, we are incomplete. Compassion isn’t just what makes us human; it is what makes us real.
To become compassionate, however, we must first see the other, not as hearsay or prejudice would have it be, but as it is. Throughout her life, the conservationist Rachel Carson stressed the importance of appreciating other presences: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us,” she wrote, “the less taste we shall have for destruction.” Yet she also pointed out that, to understand those presences fully, knowledge alone is not enough. “It is not half so important to know as to feel” was the central tenet of her philosophy – and surely the most glaring flaw in our dealings with the natural world is that we deliberately (and perversely) restrict our relationships with other living things by relying entirely on that faculty which fools us into believing that we are being “objective”. That we are never entirely objective is usually ignored – perhaps because we are so very afraid of appearing “sentimental” (a word whose original meaning was “characterised by or exhibiting refined and elevated feeling” – a condition for which we now seem to have no adequate term).
Yet it is not just scientific objectivity that has removed compassion and refined feeling from our lives; gross self-interest, ignorance and a seemingly inexhaustible tolerance for destruction have also played a part. Woodlands, meadows, animals, oceans, rivers, lakes, the very earth under our feet: nothing is valuable enough in itself to be considered indispensable, even though our physical and (another sentimental word) spiritual endurance depends on them.
This is a truth that should be repeated like a mantra: to have any chance of a ful - filling life, we require not only clean air and a steady climate, but also an abundance of meadows and woodlands, rivers and oceans, teeming with life and the mass existence of other living creatures. It would be naive to imagine that human beings can live on this earth without doing some harm; there are seven billion of us, after all. Yet because we are so many, we should be thinking carefully about what we do, especially when it comes to killing; and right now, in England, everyone should be thinking about badgers, not because the planned cull will place them on a list of endangered species, but because every time we kill for no good reason, we damage our own credibility as fully formed creatures, with all the faculties one would expect from the living: attentiveness, knowledge of and care for their habitat, the spirit of inquiry, an ability to feel and to imagine. I very much doubt that any life form possessed of such gifts would casually visit wholesale destruction on another species, purely on the basis of hearsay, local prejudices and innuendo.
One of my mother’s favourite sayings was “Ignorance is bliss” – which confused me, as I had never seen an ignorant person who was anything but suspicious, fearful and bitter. My own ignorance, as a child, I took for a severe limitation, especially when it came to animals. The son of a Fife mining town, sledder of coal-bings, bottle-forager and picture-house troglodyte, I was decidedly urban and knew little about native fauna, other than the handful of birds I saw on trips to the beach or Sunday walks.
The animals I did know came from cartoons and books: I could probably have iden - tified a roadrunner or a coyote in the wild, but my knowledge of British creatures was based on even more fanciful models – such as Badger, from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, that good-hearted avuncular figure with his vast underground chambers and “very down-at-heel slippers”, who turns out to be a fierce warrior when the need arises. Like most children, I loved him for his kindness; an accomplished wounddresser and short order cook, a tactful confidant and a true egalitarian, he also dispensed encouraging words and folk wisdom without undue ceremony or self-regard. In short, he was the perfect surrogate father. At the same time, however, he was no less misunderstood than his real-life counterparts have been for centuries, in some quarters at least. At the close of the book, for instance, the mother-weasels bring their children out to watch as Badger and his friends pass by on an evening stroll:
“Look, baby! There goes the great Mr Toad! And that’s the gallant Water Rat, a terrible fighter . . . And yonder comes the famous Mr Mole, of whom you so often have heard your father tell!” But when their infants were fractious and quite beyond control, they would quiet them by telling how, if they didn’t hush them and not fret them, the terrible grey Badger would up and get them. This was a base libel on Badger, who, though he cared little about Society, was rather fond of children; but it never failed to have its full effect.
How could a child not love this character who cares so little for Society? Though we all knew that badgers didn’t traipse around in a dressing gown and slippers, we sensed the essential truth in Grahame’s portrait of a self-contained, self-reliant and attractively detached old soul – and that final image of a reputation besmirched by idle gossip and calumny was echoed elsewhere in the limited reading material I had access to as a child. For example, in Badgers’ Year, a 1950s nature book by F Howard Lancum that I rescued from a pile of almanacs and Pools coupons in my uncle’s kitchen, the author describes an encounter with a chicken farmer who, “asked what evidence he had for his declaration that badgers had been kill - ing his fowls over a period of years, replied, ‘I don’t need any evidence; I know they have.’” Though Lancum was able to provide clear evidence that badgers very rarely take chickens (“For every fowl killed by a badger a vast number are killed by foxes,” he wrote) his words fell on deaf ears:
Often I have wondered what there can be in the unfortunate badger to arouse such unreasoning dislike. I know one old farmer who, long ago, really did have one of his fowls killed by a badger. That case has lasted him for thirty years, although he has never had a repetition of it. In the meantime, this man and his farmer neighbours have lost hundreds of fowls to foxes, yet in his memory
only the solitary badger’s lapse remains clear, and to this day he hates the badger tribe, root and branch. I know another man who is regarded as the expert badger digger of his district and who has been practising his peculiar craft for half a lifetime. Yet, on his own admission, he has never seen a live badger apart from those he has unearthed for slaughter. The habits and history of the animal are almost a closed book to him.
Such attitudes are by no means limited to a few farmers. I was startled by a normally rather placid acquaintance’s sudden and vehement diatribe against badgers, uttered to a group of like-minded cronies over a toxic cider in a West Country pub. When I asked why he hated them so, he said there was “something odd about their faces” – he paused, as if searching for the best word to summarise their many flaws, before concluding in a low mutter, “something womanly”. At first, I thought I had misheard. “Did you say woolly?” I asked. He shook his head. “Womanly,” he said. “There’s just – something of the female about them.” Embarrassed and awkward, he looked around the table in an appeal for support. “Besides,” he added, to nods of relieved approval, “they cause TB. Everybody knows that.”
And there it was. We were back on safe, apparently rational ground; although, as it happens, there is no good evidence that badgers do transmit tuberculosis to cattle; and among those researchers who think they might, many believe that, because it upsets the balance of badger communities, any cull will send displaced animals far and wide as they search for new homes. So, if badgers were indeed vectors for tuberculosis, the disease would spread, surely defeating the object of the cull in the first place.
Such reasoning is irrelevant to pub gossip. What is more disturbing, however, is that evidence is universally irrelevant, unless it happens to weigh in on the “right” side. Data provided by anyone not embedded in some commercial-political infrastructure is, by definition, either inconclusive or ill-founded. For example, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs refuses to ban neonicotinoid-based insecticides because it says there is no conclusive evidence that such pesticides kill bees in large numbers. On the other hand, all that is needed to draw up plans for a badger cull is hearsay and a few angry noises.
Similarly, there is not only good reason to rule large wind turbines out of an econo - mically sound energy programme, but also clear evidence from Spain and the US (for example) that they kill birds and bats by the million. If we resort to logic, it becomes clear that the only reason we continue with a wind energy programme is that powerful landowners and developers are making huge profits from subsidy schemes.
In short, for purely political reasons, erecting 400-foot turbines and culling badgers are among the political gestures du jour, while protecting bees is not. But why? Turbines line the pockets of the rich, but what profit is there in needlessly harassing the badger? Could it be that he is hated because he cares little “about Society”, thus provoking a deep antagonism in those who most want to control the natural world? Or is it just that he is the kind of animal that quickens in us a latent desire to kill?
In an early episode of The X-Files, the maverick FBI agent Fox Mulder finds himself in pursuit of a creature that might be the Jersey Devil, a reputedly cannibalistic Neanderthal who has been preying on the homeless of Atlantic City (a nice touch, this, with echoes of Peter Benchley’s Jaws – the local authorities, led by an ignorant and suitably hard-nosed police chief, are quite prepared to turn a blind eye to the Devil’s activities as long as it preys only on the lower orders and stays out of the tourist areas). Mulder is played, appropriately, by David Duchovny, an actor whose face and whose entire manner have “crazy like a fox” written all over them. Bravely pursuing the suspected predator into the customary derelict building, he loses her in the shadows (for it is, in fact, a she) and soon the wild thing pounces. “Where there is personal liking we go,” says Marianne Moore in her poem “The Hero”, and heroes such as Mulder do not like “going where one does not wish/to go” any more than we do, but he is driven by the desire to know the truth that is “out there”:
. . . He’s not out
seeing a sight but the rock
crystal thing to see – the startling El Greco
brimming with inner light –
In short, it is not his fearlessness that makes him admirable, but his desire to encounter the real, even if that brings him into terrain where he must stand and listen “where something/is hiding”. When Mulder is dragged down by the Devil, we take a deep breath and wait anxiously for Agent Scully to arrive at the last minute and save the day (she often does and it is never absurd, because Gillian Anderson’s characterisation of Scully makes it seem, in this domain of metafiction, as if our hero is being rescued by irony itself). On this occasion, however, something else happens: the Devil pins Mulder to the floor and, during a long moment that is both threatening and undeniably erotic, she scents him; then, satisfied that he is not a threat, she flees – straight into the path of the inevitable Swat team.
A typical X-Files denouement, one might say; but in this case what matters is Mulder’s remark to Scully as she comes to his aid. “You should have seen her,” he says. “She was beautiful.” Nevertheless, he and Scully continue their pursuit, assisted by a Park Ranger with a tranquillising gun, in the hope of taking the Devil alive (this, apparently, is the sole alternative to random slaughter), and in doing so he contributes, indirectly, to the beautiful creature’s death. “Why did you kill her?” he asks the stony police chief, who responds in the timehonoured fashion of all such ignoramuses: “Same reason you kill a rabid animal.” Yet the woman Mulder came close enough to see as beautiful was not rabid; in fact, as we come to understand later, she was simply protecting her children. As the episode closes, we see Mulder hurry off to pursue another case, chastened by his failure to save the “devil” but still possessed of the central qualities of Moore’s hero –
. . . lenient, looking
upon a fellow creature’s error with the
feelings of a mother – a
woman or a cat
- and with the “reverence for mystery” that makes him capable of perceiving beauty where the ignorant find only a rabid “devil”. Like all true heroes, Mulder is neither perfect nor always right, but his narrative reminds us time and again that, no matter how rational or even brave it may seem, any action against the truth that is “out there” (the wild, the natural order, the mystery) betokens not heroism, but a disastrous failure of imagination.
At a time when such observations were less common, Rachel Carson remarked: “The human race is challenged more than ever to demonstrate our mastery – not over nature but of ourselves.” In her mind, “wonder and humility” were the most important virtues – and the only way we can achieve both is to go out into the world and either acquire “knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be”, or listen, with due attention and an open mind, to those who have obtained that knowledge in the field. Just as our TV hero comes to understand the Jersey Devil as a mother protecting her offspring, so the naturalist who goes into the woods at night to watch badgers comes back with observations that are vital not only to our understanding of that animal’s life cycle and behaviour, but also to our wider moral compass. If we listen to what these people have to say, then the supposed sacrifices – and the serious compromises – may no longer seem acceptable. This is the lesson we learn from the naturalists: that life comes first. Everything else is debatable – and where compromises harm life, they have to be rejected.
The great pleasure that comes from reading poets such as Mark Doty and Marianne Moore is the realisation that the essential virtues – compassion, wonder, humility, respect for the mysterious –are far from conventionally heroic. In the past, we learned these virtues from our frequent encounters with other creatures; now those creatures are conspicuously absent from our lives, and we are the poorer for it. Who, reading Lancum’s account of a badger family’s dayto- day existence, would agree to a cull without some overwhelming evidence of danger? Not all of us can or would choose to stand in a damp wood, watching a group of badgers at play or paying a visit to their neighbours, but we can only benefit by paying attention to those who do:
Ever since I first began to study badgers, I have been impressed by their general clannishness and what, in a human community, one would describe as a spirit of comradeship. This applies not only to badger families but to different families living in the same sett and even to families in adjacent but separate setts. I believe that badgers mate for life, and one has only to study any given pair to realise that the ties between the two animals are strong. Except for a brief space when the cubs are imminent or are very young, boar and sow seem always to like one another’s company and to keep together as much as possible. This, to me, is a very pleasing trait and, sentimental though it may be in a serious naturalist, it is one of the many badger characteristics that have endeared the species to me.
Where there is personal liking, we unheroic ones go; yet personal liking is so narrow, while our dislikes are often so irrational or ideological that they can lead us, if not to hunt down and kill the beautiful, then at least to pardon those who do. Our attitude to the badger epitomises what is wrong with our attitude to animal life in general. We say that animals, like the poor, or the inhabitants of faraway places, have every right to exist and, if sufficiently photogenic, they may even be subjected to a vague, though mostly ratings-based sentimentality; but should they impinge or even threaten to impinge on our lifestyle, they are immediately considered expendable.
We do not need to be heroes to save the world; all we need is humility, a critical view of the commercial and political interests of those who would mislead us into wrongdoing, and a sense of wonder. After all, as Kenneth Grahame’s basely libelled old Badger says, “People come – they stay for a while, they flourish, they build – and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I’ve been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again.”
John Burnside is a poet and novelist. He writes a column on nature for the New Statesman.