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2 January 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 2:47pm

In winter’s eerie half-light, I hear animals calling back and forth and feel a tug of belonging

It’s a miracle that we are all here.

By John Burnside

Anyone who has ever stood alone in a desert at nightfall – or walked out in the eerie blue half-light of the winter tundra and heard the coyotes, or the wolves, calling back and forth in the dark – has experienced the fleeting, and inexplicable sense of what Jean-Paul Sartre once called the nothingness that haunts being. In a seminar room, or a library, this sounds like a bleak, if somewhat academic proposition – but en plein air, it is strangely exhilarating.

Outside, far enough from the town lights to really see the sky, that nothingness can claim us, not, as we might have expected, for some kind of oblivion, but for the call and response that all lives share – with other lives, certainly  but also with the void. This may sound fanciful, but it is a commonplace of every speculative tradition that we come from: we go back to nothing, whether we picture that nothing as the absolution of the all-healing earth, some pulverising wind, or just the thin light of the horizon, when the desert sun goes down.

All this will seem unlikely, no doubt; and there is no scientific reason to supply such metaphysical interpretations to the various calls that pack animals make in the dark (calls that, in reality, are part of an entirely practical vocabulary of hunting, territory and courtship). Still, to a human ear, there is something about this music that can render us exquisitely aware of the fact that life itself – for which so many unlikely variables had to lock precisely for it to happen at all – is something of a miracle. A miracle that is distilled to a hoarse bark in the dry scrub out on the prairie, or to a lingering and, hopefully, more distant howl over the snow.

Yet this is only the half of it. The other part of life’s tall story is the even more surprising fact that I am here, conscious, aware of my mortality, listening.

I must confess that this fanciful train of thought comes not from a recent moonlight ramble in the Sonoran desert, or the Canadian wilderness, but from the armchair pursuit of flicking through a field guide – in this case, José R Castelló’s marvellous Canids of the World, recently published as part of Princeton Field Guides series. I have always loved books of this kind, and Castelló’s is a bible of “wolves, wild dogs, foxes, jackals, coyotes and their relatives”, as the subtitle proclaims.

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However, I have never seen such guides merely as reference books. In fact, when they combine factual detail with a certain lyrical quality, which the best always do, a field guide can be the beginning of a long reverie, a reminder that, even in this comfortable armchair by the stove, I am also a natural creature, bonded in a loose web of interanimation with everything else that depends upon this earth for its improbable existence.

We are here by the grace of one planet’s precise axial tilt and the bizarre chemistry of water. It comes as no surprise, then, that I feel a tug of belonging, of ancient kinship even, when I read Castelló’s entry for New Guinea Singing Dogs, who have “several unique vocalisations: the howl is similar to a wolf howl with overtones of whale song. When in a group, one animal starts and then others join on different pitches, each with its own unique voice. Some vocalisations resemble birdcalls. They also whine, yelp, bark and scream.”

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I can almost hear them and, one day, I may even get out of this armchair and go and listen to them in the flesh. For the moment, however, it is enough just to know that they exist. 

This article appears in the 02 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions