Thursday, November 10, 2011

Inside "The Bedside Book of Beasts"

"Lying gracefully with its paws stretched out in front, its head up, and its emerald eyes motionless, the panther was a splendid specimen of the savage products of the country. Not a touch of yellow sullies its black velvet skin—of a blackness so deep and dull that the sunlight was absorbed by it as water is absorbed by a sponge. When you turned from this ideal form of supple beauty of terrific force in repose—of silent and royal disdain—to the human creatures who were timidly gazing at it, open-eyed and open-mouthed, it was not the human beings who had the superiority over the animal. The latter was so much the superior that the comparison was humiliating."—Barbey D’Aurevilly (1808–1889), France; Image by William Home Lizars (1788–1859), England
This pairing of image and gripping narrative is one of hundreds in The Bedside Book of Beasts: A Wildlife Miscellany, which moves through centuries and continents and includes art ranging from cave paintings to ancient Egyptian papyrus to the 14th-century Peterborough Bestiary, with its griffins and manticores, to the great 19th-century naturalists like Audubon (below, black bears and ocelot) and beyond.

A LITTLE FABLE, by Franz Kafka
"Alas," said the mouse, "the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into." "You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.

Here's an excerpt from Margaret Atwood's "It's Autumn":

It's autumn. The nuts patter down.
Beechnuts, acorns, black walnuts—
tree orphans thrown to the ground
in their hard garments.

Don't go in there, into the faded orange wood—
it's filled with angry old men
sneaking around in camouflage gear
pretending no one can see them.
. . .
They aren't hunters, these men.
They have none of the patience of hunters, none of the remorse.
They're certain they own everything.
A hunter knows he borrows.
Englishman on an elephant, c 1830, India
"How I hate the man who talks about the 'brute creation,' with an ugly emphasis on brute.... As for me, I am proud of my close kinship with other animals. I take a jealous pride in my Simian ancestry. I like to think that I was once a magnificent hairy fellow living in the trees and that my frame has come down through geological time via sea jelly and worms and Amphioxus, Fish, Dinosaurs, and Apes. Who would exchange these for the pallid couple in the Garden of Eden?"—WNP Barbellion (1889-1919), England

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read such a lovely description of a wild thing since "A Passion in the Desert", a story I read decades ago. It gave me a "Bambi moment" by making me fall in love with a beautiful creature that would suddenly be brutally killed. I felt so betrayed, I never read anything by the author again.