My mentor-poet-friend, Nickole Brown, says, “Hope is a verb.”
I hear this as, “Hope is action. Learn and do something.”
For the months of October and November, I met (online) with some incredible people who are acting on behalf of various non-human animals. Thanks to Nickole’s class, Kingdom Animalia, we read and studied eco-poetry and essays, listened to guest speakers, watched documentaries, shared research, wrote and read aloud two of our own poems. In our last class, we brainstormed how we could best apply our skills as writers to take further action on behalf of beings we were drawn to but whose languages we did not speak.
One of the many things I love about Nickole’s approach to teaching is her willingness to ask questions, her humility in admitting she doesn’t have all the answers. Here’s how she’s written the Kingdom Animalia course description:
“In a time of great anxiety both social and environmental, how can we foster a literacy of non-human beings? What might they have to teach, and provided animals do have something to say to us, how might we listen? How might we move beyond video clips and zoology texts to get a sense of a living beast, each entirely complex and individual, real and breathing now? What words might we find to accurately depict their struggles without anthropomorphizing them or using them as metaphors for our own emotions? What words might we find to help save what’s left of them, to have art serve in stewardship, bringing awareness to animals and protecting them at the same time? This course will seek answers to these questions and more. With a diligent mix of research, observation, and an exploration of your own memories, dreams, and real-life interactions, we’ll deepen our awareness of all things fauna. Together, we’ll discuss poems and essays by others but also find our own poems that might bridge the divide between our kingdom and theirs.”
Kingdom Animalia somewhat fulfilled a childhood fantasy of mine. I am the daughter of a teacher of languages. My father studied Latin, Greek, Italian, French, Spanish, Polish and Russian, and he spent most of his career teaching high school Spanish and Latin. He instilled in me a love of sounds, the melodies and rhythms of human speech, and he also taught me to how to call birds–cardinals, doves, chickadees, whippoorwills. Given this background, I hoped that someday, along with being able to study human languages, we could also take courses in Dog, Dolphin, Deer, Pig, Cow, etc. While Kingdom Animalia was not exactly this (we humans are not there yet), my colleagues and I did practice getting to know other animals through a focus on umwelt. Umwelt is ‘the environmental factors, collectively, that are capable of affecting the behavior of an animal or individual.’ Stated another way, umwelt is communication not only as language but through the senses.
This was the magic and the challenge. We were encouraged to research how non-human others might experience the world through their senses. For example, a wolf can hear sounds, even the smallest sounds, like a deer’s hoof snapping a twig, 10 miles away. We can’t do that. Wolves also greet one another by smelling each other’s teeth. In doing this, in a single sniff, they can tell, among other things, what a fellow wolf ate that day or days ago. They can smell time. Take that in for a moment. We can’t do this either. It’s amazing and humbling.
I was humbled many times during this course and my classmates were too. It was a deep, confusing and emotional process to try to write toward and for another animal. We had to acknowledge that no matter what we wrote, no matter how hard we tried not to, we would create from an anthropomorphic perspective, because we couldn’t escape our human bodies. In trying to connect with other animals, in slowing down and diving into how their bodies might experience the world, we learned about them as well as our individual selves and other humans.
In Oregon, a woman faced loss, the cycle of life and death by studying Vultures and Horses. They taught her to how to move through fear and speak the name of her grief.
In Seattle, a woman felt the slow progression of time and wrote for the preservation of a Marbled Murrelet’s home within old-growth trees.
In Las Vegas, a woman had a conversation with a Scorpion. She honored his aged wisdom and respectfully asked if he would please stay outside of her home.
In Arizona, a woman who was both attacked by dogs and protected by one as a child, stated that animals communicate the whole range of human emotions. She knew there was a social aspect to grief and beyond it was love.
In South Carolina, a woman named a fawn Whisper. As she spent time with the deer in the woods, she learned more about love, health and resilience.
Also in South Carolina, a man named his outdoor studio his thicket, and as he called to beloved song birds, he waited for his time to migrate.
A woman who migrated from New Mexico to North Carolina saw flocks of cardinals in her backyard. She called them Red Birds, and because of the joy they brought her, she knew she would love birds for the rest of her life.
Also in North Carolina, another woman stood very still as a Bison stepped out of the woods to smell her. His breath took hers away, and she would remember the sound of his exhale forever.
In Maryland, a young woman asked forgiveness from a Woodchuck. She vowed to share her vegetable garden with him.
In Pennsylvania, a woman saw that a Silver Maple held a Black Bear like a mother. She wrote love poems to the Bear’s eye and to all the beautiful browns she felt as part of the earth and within the bear’s fur.
In Massachusetts, a woman remembered the tomboy inside her, all the Snakes she had ever held as a spirited girl. When she wrote her poems, ancient snakes crawled elegantly from rocks and she held them once again.
In New York, there were four women.
One honored the warm Earth homes of Star-nosed Moles and the cool caves of Little Brown Bats. She chanted for the health of both animals.
Another spoke with and for a Spotted Owl. Channeling Emily Dickinson’s poem, she sought hope in the owl’s feathers.
Yet another passionately reminded us about the individuality of farm animals. I had just watched one of our assigned documentaries, “Gunda,” before this last woman spoke. Because of her words, and this like-no-other nature film, I have begun to change what I eat.
I wrote about Wolves and Dogs. Through my exploration, I traveled back to losses and wrote about my childhood dog, Duke, and one of my brother’s beloved dogs, Sally. I recalled my visit to New York Wolf Sanctuary and renewed my membership to this organization. The beautiful wolf in the picture above lives at NY Wolf. He has been named Zephyr. After looking into his eyes and hearing him howl, I want him and his kind to thrive.
To close, I send a howl to Zephyr and all his packmates near and far, to my teacher and my classmates. I am filled with gratitude and love, and I will continue to hope.