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22 December 2021

Nicola Davies: in an age of eco-crisis, can talking animals help us?

After years of avoiding anthropomorphism in her fiction, the prolific childrens’ author and zoologist reveals why she thinks it’s time to listen to the thoughts of animals.

By India Bourke

“Words changed me, shaped me, made me into something other,” the enigmatic Captain Skrimsli, who happens to be a tiger, says in Nicola Davies’s latest young adult novel. “I am not wholly tiger now; I am part human.”

Turn on the television this Christmas and you are unlikely to avoid a talking creature; from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe‘s stately Aslan to the ever-audacious (and fantastic) Mr Fox. But these speaking animals don’t interest Davies. Best-known for co-presenting the BBC’s original Really Wild Show alongside Chris Packham, the zoologist and author is passionately against overly humanising the natural world.

In her 80-odd previous books for children, Davies shied away from giving speech to animals. “That kind of Disney-esque anthropomorphism makes my toes curl,” the writer lamented to me over Zoom. “The escaped zoo animals in the film Madagascar – they are very funny and cute but have zero to do with real animals.”

To deliver an urgent environmental and political message, however, meant “creating a fantasy world that would allow me to say the things the real world would not”.

Fantasy gives her greater flexibility in balancing the demands of her publishers against her own beliefs. “I am in a fight with one of my publishers about a book they have commissioned on climate change’s impact on one particular species. And I’m being asked to water down the message – to make it sweeter, nicer and less direct.”

Instead of eliding animal intelligence with our own, Davies’s new novel, The Song That Sings Us, draws on the connections and the differences scientists suspect exist in the minds of various species. The result is a world in which human characters can listen to animals’ thoughts and use that power to take on forces that threaten nature. 

Davies’s 40-year career as a field biologist leaves its mark on every page. Early meetings with Roger Payne, the first person to study whales in the wild, influenced her idea of song as a connecting thread between all living beings, she said. While research on elephants’ use of infrasound by Payne’s former musician-wife Katy (the first to spot that humpbacks sing), informed the extraordinary character of Enkalamba, the last elephant on Earth.

Suzanne Simard’s exploration of tree-communication was also a large inspiration, as were studies into the heightened sense perceptions that indigenous hunters use to track animals on “glowing trails”, among countless other pieces of scientific work, the writer acknowledged.

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Yet perhaps the most striking real-world example Davies’s imagination leans on is the case of Washoe the chimp. Washoe was the first non-human to learn to communicate using American sign language, and went on to teach it to other chimps.

You can never “get inside” another species’ thoughts, Davies mused, but “you can have a better guess than totally making it up”. Moreover, the question as to how language defines our thought and our common experience as living beings is one Davies believes is central to creating a better, more empathetic world.

“You could argue you have a common language of touch and gesture with your dog. You can’t communicate terribly sophisticated things through that language; you can’t discuss politics. But you can communicate love and connection. In the terrible [environmental] crisis we’re going through, and the even more terrible crises we will probably face in the next century, if there’s one thing we’re going to learn it’s that what’s important is the basics – and love is the most important.”

Davies’s journey has seen her flung, like her characters, to the farthest ends of the Earth; from Caribbean islands to the rainforests of Borneo. Yet when we spoke, the author was bundled up in a scarf and gloves inside her living room near the western Welsh coast. Six miles over the hills was Davies’s neighbour and Covid-bubble partner, Jackie Morris, whose dazzling animal paintings lend their power to Robert Macfarlane’s much-acclaimed The Lost Words, and now also adorn Davies’s The Song That Sings Us.

The author wanted to share her world of travel, art and nature with her readers. “I really want to encourage children to seek out experiences other than those offered by consumerist society, which primarily involves getting a job so that they can get more stuff.”

And it is a political message that goes to the heart of her work. “The reason I was writing The Song That Sings Us, and the reason we’ve got into this stupid ecological mess, is political. It’s because of our history of exploiting other human beings, because of colonialism, because of capitalism. It’s the same story.”

“We need to own these links,” she added, pointing to an anecdote she was told by fellow children’s author Onjali Rauf, about a West African refugee who wanted to reach England to “talk to the supermarkets”. He wanted to complain to someone about the way his land was being ravaged by foreign developers and the chemical-heavy modern flower industry they brought with them.

The author’s consciousness of injustice and suffering is deep rooted, influenced by her father’s experiences during the Second World War. Part of the liberating force at the Belsen concentration camp in Germany, what he experienced there “scarred him” so deeply he only spoke of it twice during her childhood. “The awareness of humanity’s capacity to behave in a deeply inhumane way was a big part of my childhood; he didn’t have a good opinion of humans,” Davies said.

How do animals fit into these concerns? It’s a matter of priorities, she explained. “I don’t like anthropomorphism that projects on animals a conventional vision of ourselves and our values – and our desire for things and stuff – which they don’t have.” In the postwar era, writing about “the pursuit of happiness and happy endings” has been a priority, Davies believes. Yet more important, in her opinion, is purpose and adventure. “Happiness is nice, but it’s a bit like a butterfly: you pull its wings off and it flies away.”

In terms of where the current generation is heading, Davies has deeply mixed feelings. Certain political realities fill her with dread: the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s existence “is a daily sadness to me” she said, while in the UK, the government’s recent Environment Act was a “missed opportunity” to provide much-needed action. But she also believes that the capacity to achieve a better connection with the non-human world is possible – and it is “in us all”.

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