A man with the right scruffed-up beard and breadth of chest swaggered into the S and M dungeon that was my place of business, and twenty minutes and one grand later had my chin — still soft with the downy fluff of teen-girl skin — held steady in one paw while the other one flew at my face so hard and fast that I ceased to exist as the same collection of matter I had been the previous instant.
When Sarah’s mother, Penny, got sick four years into our marriage, we decided to move back to Mississippi, considering it penance for the sins of our youth. We signed a lease on a house, a white one-story on the historical register with a wraparound porch and angels, stars, and the moon painted on the transom above the front door.
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“One Nation, Indivisible” features excerpts from The Sun’s archives that speak to the current political moment.
For a while we thought what distinguished humans from other animals is reciprocal altruism: when an individual acts in the best interest of a group or of the species in general, even though that individual doesn’t directly benefit. Obviously we will protect ourselves and our home and family, but we’ll also go to war to fight for an enormous abstraction called our culture. When a young man leaves his home and goes to the other side of the world to fight an enemy and gets killed, that’s reciprocal altruism in the extreme. We thought there were no other animals who do that, but, guess what: there are. For example, Susan Lingle in Canada discovered that mule deer exercise reciprocal altruism. She was putting radio collars on newborn fawns to study their movements, and some of these fawns, when captured, would make a loud, bleating cry. In response to the cry, here would come a mama mule deer with an attitude. Lingle wondered whether does would differentiate between their own fawn and another baby deer. So she recorded the cries and played them back through speakers hidden in the wild. She found that a mother mule deer would abandon her fawns to go fight the mountain lion or bear or whatever might be threatening the unseen fawn whose cries she had heard. That doe was risking her life, and thereby her offspring’s lives, to save another doe’s fawn.
“A Walk on the Wild Side,” Joe Hutto, interviewed by Al Kesselheim, May 2017
Children have such a capacity to identify with animals. Eventually we learn to put animals in a separate place, apart from us, but as children we don’t make that distinction. They’re fellow creatures. I remember watching this little girl once: She was probably five years old, and she was prancing along, and there was a bird singing in a tree. She turned to the bird and said, “Hi!” and then kept going, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And why not?
“Every Reason to Stay,” Eva Saulitis, interviewed by Christine Byl, January 2017
René Descartes . . . considered the father of modern Western philosophy, . . . believed that the mind does not arise from matter but is an immaterial essence separate from the body — a soul. In his view other animals don’t have souls, which makes it all right to do whatever we like to them; we need give them no more consideration than a stone or a carrot. He infamously practiced live dissection on dogs, by the way.
“Signs of Intelligent Life,” Carl Safina, interviewed by Sam Mowe, August 2016
I did a short stint as a part-time animal technician in the basement home of animals kept for experimental use by University of North Carolina researchers. . . . They were doing all sorts of weirdo experiments on them: injecting lead into the bloodstreams, cutting nerves in the spinal cords, etc. . . .
It shook me up. I felt like an accomplice somehow. Two-faced me, going in and playing with the critters and then just letting all those things happen to them afterwards. (I only liberated one.) I was glad when an old employer offered me a job.
I have become convinced that any system of science or medicine whose advance depends on the maiming and killing of these animals (they call it “sacrifice”) can’t be valid or good. The foundation is rotten and contradicts the motivation.
“Animals” (Readers Write), Dee Dee Small, January 1979
After much consideration, we bought eighty acres more than an hour’s drive from the nearest supermarket. One of the deciding factors was the bobcat tracks we found circling the spot where I had peed the first time we’d driven out to look at the land.
We share this place with cougars, coyotes, and bobcats. Seeing how they spend their days has taught me a lot about how to spend mine: Sleep often, but not always in the same spot, and stretch luxuriously when you wake up. Engage in physical play whenever you can coax a sibling or a mate to join you.
Find just enough food for yourself, and savor every bite. Howl whenever the magic is right — especially when the sun is setting or the moon is full. Mark your territory and be prepared to defend it. Bear no more offspring than your environment can sustain. Groom the ones you love. Don’t mingle with overly domesticated species. And, when it comes time to die, choose a beautiful place to lie down and leave your bones so you won’t be a burden to the rest of the pack.
“Cats and Dogs” (Readers Write), Wendy P.S. Lynch, August 1999
Compare the dog and the wolf. The two species have similar traits and evolutionary histories, but dogs were able to see themselves as members of our pack, or vice versa. The result is, there are something like 50 million dogs in this country and only ten thousand wolves. So domestication was a good evolutionary strategy for the dog, if you measure evolutionary success in numbers. The same was true for the pig and the chicken. It was a good strategy for them to trade a certain amount of independence for the relative safety of human protection. Of course they’re trading their flesh, too, because pigs and chickens are killed in this relationship. But in the meantime we feed them and protect them from other predators, so their populations grow.
That said, I think the original reciprocal relationship has been replaced by a relationship of complete dominance and exploitation. It’s hard to imagine the evolutionary advantage for pigs of finding themselves standing on a steel-slatted floor over an open sewer, in a box too small to turn around in.
“Lost in the Supermarket,” Michael Pollan, interviewed by Arnie Cooper, May 2006
For hundreds of millennia prior to the advent of agriculture — which reduced wild animals, via domestication, to soulless “property” — our human forebears hunted, killed, and ate animals, just as animals hunted, killed, and ate them. Throughout all that formative time — a time that made us what we are now, both good and bad — humans everywhere on earth had an animistic spirituality in which animals were not lesser beings but equals. The only difference was in “job description.” Hunter-gatherers believed — and the few tribal societies that survive unblemished by agriculture or missionary invasion still believe — that prey “willingly” give themselves to right-minded predators for consumption. But they just as strongly believed that our duty, our debt of reciprocity, was to honor and respect the animals who give their lives and whose lives are taken. This animistic spirituality, in my view, provides the highest moral guidance as to how we should relate to animals. But with the spread of agriculture and domestication, animism was replaced by increasingly human-centered dogmas that conveniently put us on a higher plane than “soulless” animals.
“The Good Hunter,” David Petersen, interviewed by Jeremy Lloyd, December 2009
I ’ve met people who say they can’t sleep on the ground and ask me how I do it, as if it were some kind of trick or talent. I say, “Well, you get on the ground, and then you sleep.” Their confusion is both funny and disconcerting. We evolved to sleep on the ground. Our spines can be fitted to the earth’s contours like a puzzle piece. We shouldn’t lose that. Sleep in beds, but don’t forget the ground. Civilization separates us from these older experiences. Maybe it’s not civilization itself that’s maddening; it’s the way it detaches us from the past that can drive us insane.
“The Skeleton Gets Up and Walks,” Craig Childs, interviewed by Leath Tonino, June 2016
The exterminator arrived at my front door. He was in uniform and was a young, nice looking, boy-next-door type. He had come to fight the wasps. He had come to save my life. As he marched around to the side of the house to attack the nest, I wanted to strew flowers in his path.
A few minutes later, he was back. “There,” he said, “that should take care of them, ma’am.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said.
“You see, you gotta kill the queen. Otherwise, she’ll just keep producing more and more wasps. Trouble is, she’s protected way inside the nest, in the royal chamber. But bees and wasps are very social. The workers are going to be going in and out of the nest now. They’ll get that poison on them. Then, when they do all their rituals for the queen, the poison on their bodies will kill her.”
“Yeah. They clean the queen, and feed her, and do a dance for her. It’s a whole ceremony. That’s when they’ll be poisoning her.”
The wasps are gone. We must have got the queen. It’s silly, I guess, but I can’t shake her. I see her enthroned within her royal chamber, her dying subjects performing their instinctive and marvelous ceremonies, and, in their devotion to her, unknowingly covering her with poison. Never mind that she has killed her rival would-be queens or that she murdered her mate as soon as he impregnated her. That’s their business. It’s just that, somehow, I don’t feel that dispatching her worshipping slaves to be her assassins was any of my business.
“Other Animals” (Readers Write), Barbara Mitchell, January 1986
Nature has a way of taking over. We put up these magnificent buildings, and we move around in our remarkable machines, and we think we’re so dominant. And in a lot of ways we’re too dominant. But the fact is, we weren’t always here, and we won’t always be. We need to understand that. This is not a perpetually human world we’ve moved into. This is our moment, but the world is larger than us.
“The Undiscovered Country,” John Elder, interviewed by Leath Tonino, June 2013