Pet projects

The Animal’s Companion – People and their Pets – a 26,000-Year-Old History

Jacky Colliss Harvey, London: Atlantic Books, 2019

The author starts this ambitious book with a redhaired man and his red setter wearing matching bandanas and sunglasses, who made her wonder why so many of us feel so impelled to allow unutterably alien animals live at our hearths, and lodge in our hearts. She then revivifies her girlhood’s ginger toms, bantams, guinea pigs, rabbits, voles, and a wolfhound named Fergus, whose basso profundo growl made bearable the blackest Suffolk nights. We move onto the anonymous 9th century poet-monk who immortalized his cat Pangur Bán, Anne Boleyn’s dog Purkoy, Samuel Pepys’ cat Gyb, Dr. Johnson’s cat Hodge, William Cowper’s hares, and many others. Inevitably, we think about our own companion animals – for me, spaniels, like the one that tried to follow King Charles to the scaffold, and terriers, like the one that charges across this book’s cover. So ensues an engaging, insightful consideration of how anthropomorphism, cruelty, egocentrism, empathy, realism and sentimentality have blended and blurred across centuries – teaching us a vast amount about animals, and even more about ourselves.

One of our oldest ideals is being able to talk to animals, as in Eden, although few of these mythic conversations ended as badly as Eve’s. Some cults adored animals; even animal sacrifice can be seen as a kind of communion. Not all Christians admired all Creation, or were sure where boundaries lay; there were medieval trials of ‘evil’ pigs, rats and weevils. A 15th century Dutch manuscript shows stains of feline urine, and the enraged monk’s caricature of the culprit and malediction against all cats. Puritans regarded animistic and Edenic ideals as near-Satanic, worried over-familiar pets might shade into witches’ familiars – although probably even the severest Puritans had four-legged ‘family’.

‘Pet’, a term from the Scottish-English borders, was probably first applied to lambs, but can encompass any animal if its ‘owner’ esteems it. Romans adopted locusts, hares, dolphins and moray eels. (The ‘crazy cat-lady’ has been a moralising motif since the time of Augustus.) Excavations at Navan Fort unearthed an Iron Age Barbary Ape. An eighth century Irish legal code listed badgers, cranes, otters, ravens, rooks and squirrels as pets for whom owners were responsible. Castile’s King Alfonso X commissioned a song of thanks to the Virgin when his weasel escaped death. More recently, people have made pets of cockroaches, pixels, even rocks.

‘Pet’ connotes amusement, companionship, ‘cuteness’, dependency, and smallness (and being pampered, and spoiled). Even confined to the ovine, the term is complicated. ‘Baa-baa black sheep’ is a cipher, whereas ‘Mary’s little lamb’ is a pet – because of the love felt by the girl for that lamb which had singled her out to follow. Even so, Mary’s pet’s outlook is uncertain. The hard histories of up-countries teem with lambs taken down tenderly from wintry hillsides to be hand-fed – to be slaughtered later, when the snow-fleeced frisker has become a valuable commodity.

The person-pet dynamic has always been pragmatic as well as psychological. We cannot know what relationship existed between the boy and the proto-dog who 26,000 years ago dared the totemic Chauvet cave, but the boy was probably glad of the company in case of cave-bears, as the author was grateful for Fergus in spectre-stalked Suffolk. Celtic law books recommended small dogs guard mothers-to-be against fairies, and gave a cat the same value as three cows if proficient at mousing and purring, and one-and-a-half cows just for purring. 1413’s The Master of Game suggested Nosewise, Clench and Holdfast as hortatory hound-names, to bring luck to the huntsman, and the 1486 Boke of St Albans ‘small ladyes poppes’ to ‘bere away the flees’.

We have forced horses onto chevaux de frise, consigned them to coal-pits, eaten them – and treated them better than we treat ourselves. The author uses a dragoon officer’s relationship with his charger as a parable of perennial love – the horse’s gravestone in a Surrey field almost the only trace of his rider’s aristocratic estate. Self-styled dog-lovers select breeds for appearance rather than health. White mice are toyed with, brown ones trapped. Technicians treat lab rats differently once they have been assigned names. Canaries were talked to – and jailed – and taken down mines to asphyxiate. ‘The cage is its native element’, thought a benevolent, blockheaded Boys’ Own editor.

Descartes notoriously viewed animals as automata, but his unfeeling ‘bête-machine’ was disbelieved in even by his contemporaries, because closeness to animals is intrinsically enlightening. Unarticulated ideas can be communicated by unspeaking animals, their exciting arrivals and disconsolate departures teaching children about duty, love, sex and death – lessons they can and do project onto people. As a fledgling ideology of animal liberation starts a long flight towards legislation, the next target is pet ownership itself. But the truth is we will always need animals because, in the words of Walt Whitman, ‘They bring me tokens of myself’.

The review first appeared in the Irish Times, and is reproduced with permission

Europe, from Cretaceous to Anthropocene

Europe: A Natural History

Tim Flannery, London: Allen Lane, 2018, 346 pages, £20

Seen from space, much of nighttime Europe blazes with light, evidence of industry, urbanism, and an existential restlessness that has long impelled Europeans to impose modernity on themselves and the world. Australian palaeontologist-ecologist Tim Flannery, amongst much else author of The Future Eaters and The Weather Makers, and discoverer of 29 species of kangaroo, explores what underlies the old continent’s insomnia, and the darker places between our electric islands.

He drills down through nameless, numberless layers, to expose a chthonic continent – when tectonics turned, seas dried and refilled, and centillions of alien life-forms moved urgently across an indifferent Earth ‘without form, and void’, where ‘darkness was upon the face of the deep’. The world’s first coral reefs may have formed here, the first moles sifted soil, and hills were made by snails, while the earliest hominids came out of Europe before humans came out of Africa. He expertly conjures up successive exotic ur-Europes out of rare petrifactions and the cultures of the human centuries.

We ‘visit’ Bal, Hateg, Modac and Tethys, the obscurely resonant names given to the primordial archipelago by theorists of Deep Time. We visualise giraffe-sized, leathery-winged Hatzegopteryx pterosaurs stalking out from Cretaceous cypresses to batten on blood, like Nosferatu – or the Langelian flood, when Atlantic waters cascaded four kilometres to fill the parched plain of the Mediterranean at a stupendous ten metres per day, like a vision from Paradise Lost. We reach down through rock to where we began, our faintly comprehensible antecessors who walked across a Suffolk storm beach 800 millennia ago – or, a mere 40,000 years since, ate each other in future Spain, carved the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel and the Venus of Hohle Fels, and speared or made obeisance to Transylvanian cave bears. A child and a dog explored France’s Chauvet Cave 26,000 years ago –  the first unequivocal companionship of humans and canines – the adventurer smudging charcoal as they passed palaeolithic paintings to the already abandoned Room of Skulls. Great auks stood guard on Sicilian shores – cave lions’ roars split the Cantabrian night – mammoths, aurochs, giant elk and wisent made the north continent from Mayo to Masuria shake with their weight.

Europeans were becoming ‘the mind over their land’, and wilderness was everywhere under attack. Big and small animals fled into the margins, but even as they went left spoor in the new apex predator’s myriad mythologies. The dreamtime tale of Europa abducted by Jupiter in bull guise, or the Bronze Age bull-leapers of Knossos, borrow from ideas of aurochs (which, royally protected, persisted in Poland until 1627). Polyphemus the cyclops may have been inspired by a fabulist finding an elephant skull. Androcles’ lion was terrifying, yet noble – the leopards on Armenian drinking vessels lethal, but lovely. Even the loathed wolf – Charlemagne founded La Louveterie in 813 to wipe them out, which it essayed with efficiency until 1971 – suckled Romulus and Remus, and padded into heraldry and vexillography. Secretive salamanders became basilisks, porcupines introduced by Moors grunted into the armorial bearings of Capetian kings, and alchemists kept toads (Europe’s oldest vertebrates) as lunar familiars. The Miocene bestiary might almost be medieval, and science could reinforce romance; seventeenth century clergyman Robert Plot identified a dinosaur fossil as a femur, but believed it had belonged to a giant from Albion-founding myth.

Palaeontologists were as colourful as their subjects, and good stewardship was seen in strange places. Sir Richard Owen pickled Gideon Mantell’s spine, but he also identified the largest venomous snake of all time (Laophis crotaloides – an allusion to Laocoön). Franz Nopcsa von Felsö-Szilvás loved a shepherd, aspired to Albania’s throne – and pioneered Cretaceous classifications. Romania’s bears owe their lives to Ceaușescu. The Nazi-supporting Hecks saved Przewalski’s Horse. German soldiers digging an air-raid shelter in Athens found and preserved the first fossils of Graecopithecus. One could cavil about typos, or the hoary canard that medieval scholars were flat-earthers – but any reservations are outweighed by bold and brilliant evocation of Europes forever vanished yet paradoxically present as engrams beneath our streets, in every landscape feature and wind soughing across ‘empty’ spaces.

Flannery looks far forwards as well as back, to see how pre-prehistory might inform tomorrow – advocating updating taxonomy and laws on endangered species, restoring biomass, and sensitive rewilding. Wolves are already loping unassisted into Denmark, Flanders and Paris, and golden jackals have got to the Netherlands, as attitudes alter, and millions of hectares of farmland fall into disuse. Horace observed, ‘You may drive nature out with a pitchfork, yet she will hurry back’. Holland’s Oostvaardersplassen, England’s Knepp and a growing number of other places tantalise with tomorrow’s safaris, adventures to be had in a newly envisioned Europe, as new and returning species reconstitute a continent, and lay down the fossils of the future.

This review first appeared in the Irish Times of 18th October 2018, and is reproduced with permission

The bounding, boundless main

The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans

David Abulafia, Allen Lane, 2019, 1,050 pages, £35

David Abulafia’s 2011 The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean set a standard in Middle Sea scholarship, charting a course from 22,000 BC to today, combining careful detail with epic sweep. This dazzlingly ambitious companion-piece looks far beyond the Strait and Suez, towards seaways older than those of Odysseus but less often explored.

Classical cosmographers dreamed of Okeanos, an all-encompassing, intermingling great water which both islanded and united humanity, an azure immensity played across by wanderlust and winds. Deities disported there with dolphins, adventurers hazarded lives against leviathans, and invaders crossed routes with traders. Even Homer’s storied sea was but a bay of the world’s water – a conception that harmonises with today’s ecology of oceanic interconnectedness.

The thalassographer’s imagination must be equally untrammelled, reconstructing ports and practices from single coins or cuneiforms, out-of-place amphorae, or tersely tantalising texts. Abulafia never lets enthusiasm overpower him, knowing that goods often came hand-to-hand overland rather than by sea, and similarities between separated cultures may be ‘processual’ (arising independently out of circumstances) rather than the results of diffusion. But often the evidence astounds – like the coins of Augustus still in currency in twentieth century Colombo.

In The Discovery of Mankind (2008), the author chronicled medieval Atlantic encounters with hitherto unguessed-at non-Europeans. The Boundless Sea similarly stresses contacts over ‘discoveries’, and relativizes aggrandizing European narratives, from Strabo via Camões and Hakluyt to Cook. The author is more interested in merchants than captains, believes insufficient attention has been paid to non-Western navigations, and urges us not to overlook slaves, or women (such contingencies seem unlikely). To the author, people are generally outward-looking, predisposed to travel, and against restrictive practices; he supports Brexit as a liberal enterprise.

Readers might reasonably anticipate dull determinism, or boundless angst, but these shallows are avoided by shrewd sensitivity, and the sheer majesty of his subject. He sees inevitable – and desirable – cross-fertilisation where others see only one-way exploitation. Denunciations of European actions during the ‘Age of Discovery’ (really an Age of Revelation) are tempered by awareness that anyone can behave appallingly. Africans and Arabs were agents for Western slavers, and criticisms of New World Catholicism are viewed against Aztec human sacrifice. In 1567, a friendly Tuvualan offered Spanish captain Álvaro de Mendaña the shoulder and arm of a child to eat (the hand was still attached). Mendaña’s horror is counterpointed by a gentle hint that Inquisitorial immolations were equally unpalatable.

Unlike frigid Fernand Braudel, Abulafia ascribes world-shaping importance to religion. It was not just European geopolitics, or Castilian cupidity, but personal idealism that impelled Columbus to weigh anchor that August morning:

It was the Lord who put into my mind (I could feel His hand upon me) the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies.

Religions travelled along with goods, invisible cargoes bringing mixed blessings to previously ‘ignorant’ islands. St Elmo’s Fire crackled auspiciously around mastheads, proof of various deities’ approval. Romans brought their household gods when seeking islands whose sands were literally silver – Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Taoists swapped blows and scriptures – Christians searched for sacred sites, or souls to be ‘saved’ from themselves. Enslavement, to some Churchmen, was better for the enslaved than never knowing about Christ. Others opposed slavery, and yet others waxed sentimental; Thomas More’s Utopia was coloured by naïve accounts of new-found Edenic ‘innocents’.

The Pacific is Abulafia’s ‘Oldest Ocean’ because Lapitans were traversing vast distances between scattered atolls when others preferred inshore shallows. Lapitans (we think inevitably of Swift’s Laputa) and their Polynesian successors performed brilliant computations without compasses, through knowledge of water colour, phosphorescence, clouds, smells, birds, fish, floating debris, angles of sun and moon, positions of the stars – their ancestors, they believed, watching over their tiny boats, which stayed still while the world wheeled. Captain Cook’s ally Tupaia tried to reconcile Polynesian and European navigational notions, but ultimately he knew where islands were ‘because they had always been there’. Tupaia hadn’t heard of New Zealand or Hawai’i, yet these had already been settled, although thousands of miles from other islands and, in the case of Hawai’i, under different stars.

Sumerian sea links to the Indus Valley essentially inaugurated global trade, but even to them the Indian Ocean remained elementally alien – ‘abyss’ derives from the Sumerian abzu. Even frequent ports of call were simultaneously markets and magical realms. When Egyptians essayed the ‘Great Green’ in quest of the fabulous ‘Land of Punt’, they expected to meet spirits on the way. The author brims with information on Asia’s aquatic achievements – Mongol naval might, the ‘empire’ of Śri Vijaya, how Shintō prohibitions delayed Japan’s development, and why Ming emperors stopped funding Zheng He’s armadas, which might else have turned the Indian Ocean Chinese.

Atlantic histories often scant the pre-1492 period, but The Boundless Sea offers depth, zooming from ninth century steering to mirage-humped horizons. Even icebound ‘Ultima Thule’ thawed into the world economy – Iceland offered sulphur and walrus ivory, Greenland falcons went to Sicily, a headdress from a Norse Greenlander’s grave copied 15th century Burgundian fashion, Basque boats brought Newfoundland herrings, the Russians sent ermines for crowns, obsessives hunted the ‘North-West Passage’ to Cathay. The Hanseatic League famously stitched together the Atlantic littorals, but fewer remember the Vitalienbrüder pirates who preyed on their iconic cogs. The English and Dutch East India Companies are still talked of – but there was also a Danish one, and a Swedish. Hugo Grotius’ 1609 Mare Liberum is the classic exposition of the doctrine of the freedom of the seas – but it was written to further Dutch (and Protestant) interests.

With steam, seas started shrinking – and science has had the unintended effect of stripping away enchantment. Blandly impersonal bulk shipping, and leisure cruisers overpowering Venice, are symbols of a subtle danger to add to climate change, overfishing, and pollution. The sea will always spring surprises, but we plainly need to reimagine our coasts. The Boundless Sea reminds us brilliantly of once brand-new landfalls – times when endless oceans glittered with primordial possibilities.

This review first appeared in the Irish Times on 26th October 2019, and is reproduced with permission

Gloucestershire’s genius loci

Down in the Valley: A Writer’s Landscape, Laurie Lee, Penguin, 2019

Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie (1959) is a classic of English rural writing, lauded for its evocation of Gloucestershire’s Slad Valley in the early 20th century, and the last days of an intensely-experienced, millennium-old way of life. This slender but well-conceived volume revisits some of these scenes and themes, and adds new ones, through interviews conducted with Mr Lee in 1994, three years before his death.

We find ourselves again at the village pond with its swimming children and coots, and the corpse of poor suicidal Miss Flynn – exploring old ways across the hilltops, made impassable by ‘fallen trees and rocks, and abandoned cavaliers, cannon, armour’ – carousing in the Woolpack – superstitiously shunning slumped cottages, and sinister gibbets. We also encounter more of the valley’s eccentric inhabitants and some of Mr Lee’s closely-observed and unpretentious poetry: ‘

And the partridge draws back his string / and shoots like a buzzing arrow / over grained and mahogany fields.

The author embraced modernity even as he regretted its ravages. He relished James Joyce, jazz, travel, and even war, volunteering to fight Franco – but he was always aware of the brooding presences underlying daily life. Beneath Slad’s slopes lay deep sleepers, from the Stone Age to people he’d known in his youth. Behind the spinking blackbirds, stridulating grasshoppers and strains of Elgar, he heard timeless stories told in West Country dialect or the tones of the King James Bible. He read great books in the greenwood, and when he drank summer’s cider with the blooming Rosie, felt rooted in an English Arcadia, at one with the ancients.

This is a charming tribute to a genial and gifted author who blended darkness with light, and realism with romance, to superb effect, in the service of a special place – and all of England.

The review first appeared in the 22nd January 2020 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission