Animals have always been with us, adored, reviled, abused and shamefully exploited. As the earliest fables and cave paintings attest, they occupy a shimmering presence in the human imagination. Today domestic animals take up more space in our homes than ever, while so many wild animals are passing alarmingly into extinction. Running Feet, Sharp Noses: Essays on the Animal World features both the wild and domestic.
Classic essays from two ground-breaking animal writers are reprinted here.
John Berger’s Opening a Gate uses Pentti Sammallahti’s photographs of dogs to meditate on “the brief moments” when “we see between two frames ... a part of the visible” not “destined for us ... Dogs, with their running legs, sharp noses and developed memory for sounds are the natural frontier experts of these interstices.” Edward Hoagland’s heartbreaking The Courage of Turtles is both a song of praise for the magnificence of turtles and a lament for what humans have done to them.
Sara Baume’s opening essay features the eponymous “Dave”, one of the rooks in the rookery of her mother’s garden. Beginning deceptively with what seems a rural idyll, Baume’s signature, precise, observational imagery builds into a moving, atmospheric threnody for time’s passage. Here Baume accompanies her mother on an atmospheric night-time investigation to see if rooks snore. “The sound the rooks make tonight is a disgruntled squabble as opposed to a snore. Our knees are clammy with dew ... the eyes of a rat flash from the hedge ... we ... hear the voices of people walking home from the pub laughing at a muffled joke.”
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What unites Baume with the other 15 authors represented here is the absence of any sense of hierarchy between us and our fellow creatures. Darragh McCausland’s ruefully funny Light Thickens, set in an addiction treatment centre – its Macbethian title reminding us of another great animal writer – reflects, “Recovery is full of fellowship, colonies of people chattering, looking out for each other, co-operating, like crows in trees.”
[ My mother and the majestic rook seem to have a thing going on. He has become quite tame ]
Animals can break our hearts but there is so much humour here too. Baume and her mother hiding behind the sofa when the doorbell rings or Vona Groake’s playful meditation on imaginary pets, underscoring how much care real pets need. Jessica Traynor begins hilariously, “Most dogs I knew growing up were called Brandy or Guinness or Whiskey, but the family who owned Taupe had white-painted walls ... art in thin frames ... instead of calling their dog after a drink, they called him after an intangible shade ... ”(Taupe and Precious) before descending into typically uncanny Traynor territory. June Caldwell’s ludic What’s New Pussy Cat? dives deep into the personality of the cat, concluding, “We’ve been in the company of domestic cats for ten thousand years. They will be there with us when we are part-machines in the far-off future ... waiting for us, sprawled ... on free-floating velvet couches, with translator voice boxes to tell us clearly what they expect of us and how exactly we should deliver.”
Stephen Sexton’s Fox and Sparrow takes its cue from Japanese fairy tales in a stunning, layered meditation on family grief and loneliness set against the haunted landscape of Northern Ireland. Universal tales of creatures silenced by having their tongues severed provide effective counterpoint for the stories Sexton’s father begins to tell “in shy refracted speech” of the “dark country roads with which the past is riddled”.
[ Niamh Campbell: ‘I do think life, for everybody, is a private hallucination’ ]
Niamh Campbell’s challenging Cats and Girls details the intense relationship between her niece Lani and a cat called Mitzou alongside a subtle exploration of art censorship versus the objectification of young girls, “those things people hate in cats are the same things people hate in girls, incidentally ... killers, disloyal and absurdly elegant ... not really the fluffy fools we think they are. People tell you this as if you’ve been taken in by a cat ... ”
Campbell’s essay brings to mind Colette, who wrote so perceptively about both young girls and cats – Colette’s writing style in The Cat has been described by Thurman as “particularly feline – both detached and voluptuous”, and indeed this collection is all about style, each distinct voice engaging with the stylish creatures who haunt its pages, from the spine-tingling cave paintings in Sabrina Mandanici’s Then, Horses; to Honor Moore’s sophisticated, intelligent collie beauty Brussels; right through to Erica Van Horn’s quiet, companionable robin Brian, which makes such an indelible mark on the handful of journal pages which end the book. Spirited and intense, compact as poetry, Running Feet and Sharp Noses reads like a classic.