Where the Wild Things Are
In my daily life, Walnut is omnipresent. He shadows me all over the house. When I sit, he gallops up into my lap. When I go to bed, he stretches out his long warm body against my body or he tucks himself under my chin like a soft violin. Walnut is so relentlessly present that sometimes, paradoxically, he disappears. If I am stressed or tired, I can go a whole day without noticing him. I will pet him idly; I will yell at him absent-mindedly for barking at the mailman; I will nuzzle him with my foot. But I will not really see him. He will ask for my attention, but I will have no attention to give. Humans are notorious for this: for our ability to become blind to our surroundings — even a fluffy little jewel of a mammal like Walnut.
John Berger, the brilliant British artist-critic, could have been writing about all this when he lamented, 45 years ago, modern humanity’s impoverished relationship to animals. “In the last two centuries,” he wrote, “animals have gradually disappeared. Today we live without them.”
On its face, this claim is ridiculous. Animals are everywhere in modern life. More of us own pets than at any other time in human history. We can drive to zoos, cat cafes, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries. We can lie in bed and share viral TikToks of buffaloes grunting, puppies howling, parrots taunting hungry cats. We can watch live feeds on our tiny phones of eagles incubating eggs or drone footage of polar bears hunting seals on 50-foot IMAX screens.
But Berger would argue that these things are all just symptoms of our lost intimacy with animals. None of them represent meaningful old-fashioned contact. Since the primordial beginnings of our species, he writes, animals have been integral to human life: “Animals constituted the first circle of what surrounded man. Perhaps that already suggests too great a distance. They were with man at the center of his world.” Animals were not only predators and prey — they were myths, symbols, companions, peers, teachers, guides. The patterns of their movement defined the edges of the human world. Their shapes defined the stars. They made human life possible. A few ostrich eggs could sustain hunter-gatherers for days — first as food, then as water carriers that enabled them to cross vast, parched distances.
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We all know what happened next: capitalism, industrialization, urbanization, the internal combustion engine, suburban sprawl, fast food, chicken nuggets, factory farms. Animals — our sharp, loud, restless, dangerous, inconvenient planetary roommates — were pushed to the margins.
For Berger, this was a profound loss, not only for the subjugated animals but also for the humans who did the subjugating. “The animal has secrets which, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man,” he writes. “With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.” Our lost closeness with animals ushered in a sharp existential pain — a state of beastly alienation.
Modern humans can try to rationalize that loss in infinite ways. (Is it such a bad thing that most of us no longer have to worry about wolf packs stealing our leftover caribou meat?) We can concoct all kinds of synthetic replacements: ant farms, sea monkeys, pet rocks, chia pets, Tamagotchis. (Growing up, I fell in love with a battery-powered robot owl named Hootbot.) We can sit at home with our pets in our laps, clicking on animal videos, laughing and crying and forwarding them to our friends. But none of these will fill the creaturely hole at the center of human life. They’re not even close to the same shape. We will continue to feel that loss, to yearn for those “parallel lives,” for the ancient strangeness of animal familiarity.
If necessary, we will search the world for it. And so, sometimes, we head out on an animal voyage. We take ourselves off to a place that is still wild, or where wildness has been carefully curated or simulated or reintroduced. We can visit squirrel monkeys, for instance, at an abandoned penal colony in French Guiana. We can watch strange hairy horses galloping around near Icelandic volcanoes. We can climb up into the lush tree canopies of Ghana to stare at the rosy bee-eaters. Wherever we go, our goal will be roughly the same: to put our own animal bodies near the bodies of the creatures we have pushed away. To effect an existential reunion.
If that sounds mystical — well, it is. It’s hard to put into words exactly what we are looking for when we go out to meet a distant animal. The need, probably, goes deeper than language. On some level, I think we are looking to orient ourselves, to locate ourselves on an accurate map of the universe. Not using the coordinates we’ve been handed by human culture: the self-flattering, narcissistic, anthropocentric fantasies of a world made for us, in our image. Something in us yearns for accuracy, even if it comes at the price of a demotion. It is liberating to be decentered. And animals, always, are happy to perform this service.
An animal voyage is special because it requires us to make many journeys all at once. To really connect with another creature, you have to cross multiple kinds of distance: physical, spiritual, temporal. You have to leave our daily sense of clock time and reach into something like evolutionary time. You have to stare across vast chasms of consciousness. Look into the eye of a bison, a marlin, a parrot, an iguana. What is the gulf between your mind and theirs? That space can’t be measured in miles or light years or any other unit we can name. It will probably never be definitively crossed. What kind of bridge would ever even begin to work? And so an animal voyage is, on some level, always destined to fail. This, too, is part of its appeal.
My favorite record of an animal voyage is a book that’s fluent in failure. Peter Matthiessen’s nonfiction masterpiece, “The Snow Leopard,” chronicles a truly extreme animal quest. In 1973, Matthiessen spent two months trekking into the Himalayas with his biologist friend George Schaller. They were hoping to glimpse one of the world’s most impressive and elusive animals, a powerful cat so rare that Schaller knew of only one Westerner aside from himself who had seen one in the past quarter-century. According to Matthiessen, the snow leopard is a “near-mythic beast” that has the power to watch its watchers while remaining nearly invisible. “One can stare straight at it from yards away,” he writes, “and fail to see it.”
Matthiessen’s journey is brutal, dangerous and disorienting — emotionally and physically exhausting. He hikes along perilous ledges; his guides suffer bouts of snow blindness. Matthiessen weathers freezing temperatures in a tent so small he can’t even sit up. All along, he has much more on his mind than wildlife. Early in the book, we learn that Matthiessen’s wife has recently died of cancer and that he has left his young son at home to make this pilgrimage. He later told an interviewer that he drafted the book by hand, on the trek itself, day by day, as “a Zen practice of close observation.” (Matthiessen and his wife were both serious students of Buddhism.) This gives the writing a strange, elevated, living quality that few books ever approach.
Matthiessen was a devoted environmentalist, prone to raging at human excesses, and his voyage begins in a fallen world — a region already devastated by overpopulation and pollution, where animals that used to be common (elephants, tigers, rhinos, cheetahs) have all been driven away. “We have outsmarted ourselves like greedy monkeys, and now we are full of dread,” he writes. He climbs higher and higher, away from civilization, toward an ancient Tibetan sacred site known as Crystal Mountain. Along the way, he sits and meditates; he stops at Buddhist shrines; he is overwhelmed by feelings. As the altitude rises, Matthiessen’s style burns itself down to stark poetry: “There is no wisp of cloud — clear, clear, clear, clear.” He begins to merge with the landscape (“I grow into these mountains like a moss”) and to detach from linear time: “Simultaneously, I am myself, the child I was, the old man I will be.” He has visions, hallucinatory epiphanies. “Sometimes when I meditate,” he writes, “the big rocks dance.”
On his voyage, Matthiessen encounters all kinds of animals: yaks, goats, lizards, frogs, roosters, horses. He sees a lone red panda and many clusters of blue sheep and even a pack of wolves. In a tiny village, he is attacked by a dog. He beats it off with a stick.
To return home from an animal voyage is to become, yourself, a new animal living in your old habitat.
But where is the snow leopard? Nowhere and everywhere. Up near Crystal Mountain, as time stretches toward eternity, Matthiessen sees tantalizing traces of the great creature: scat, scratch marks. The blue sheep huddle nervously, suggesting the presence of an apex predator. Matthiessen speaks with a lama who claims to see snow leopards frequently. He finds snow leopard paw prints “fresh as petals on the trail.” He strains his attention so hard that it inflects everything around him: “It is wonderful how the presence of this creature draws the whole landscape to a point, from the glint of light on the old horns of a sheep to the ring of a pebble on the frozen ground.” Toward the end of his trip, Matthiessen finds that “a leopard has made its scrape right in my boot print, as if in sign that I am not to leave.”
And yet he has to leave. Down below, his life waits for him. The great perfect shock of “The Snow Leopard” — and look away if you have to, because here comes a spoiler — is that Matthiessen never actually sees a snow leopard. The animal in the book’s title, the whole reason for the journey, refuses to put itself on display. This failure becomes a powerful lesson in loss, a chance to meditate on the tangled nature of visibility and invisibility. “If the snow leopard should manifest itself, then I am ready to see the snow leopard,” Matthiessen writes. “If not, then somehow (and I don’t understand this instinct, even now) I am not ready to perceive it, in the same way that I am not ready to resolve my koan; and in the not-seeing, I am content. I think I must be disappointed, having come so far, and yet I do not feel that way. I am disappointed, and also, I am not disappointed. That the snow leopard is, that it is here, that its frosty eyes watch us from the mountain — that is enough.”
Even Schaller, the hardened scientist, summons a bit of poetry. “You know something?” he says to Matthiessen. “We’ve seen so much, maybe it’s better if there are some things that we don’t see.”
Today, nearly 50 years later, if you are so inclined, you can go see a snow leopard at the zoo. According to the Snow Leopard Conservancy, approximately 600 of them live at accredited zoos worldwide. Biologically, it is the same animal that Matthiessen was seeking. And yet it’s hard to imagine a more different kind of encounter. Or one that Matthiessen, with his cynical tendencies, might have been less interested in. (“I long to see the snow leopard,” he wrote, “yet to glimpse it by camera flash, at night, crouched on a bait, is not to see it.”) John Berger, too, was dismissive of zoos. They were, for him, the apex of our alienation. (“You are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal; and all the concentration you can muster will never be enough to centralize it.”) Zoo animals, Berger wrote, represented “the living monument to their own disappearance.” And it’s true that there is something uncanny about seeing a snow leopard sprawled behind glass, in an artificial habitat, in full view of families pushing strollers. But in a world where mass extinction is advancing exponentially, where the snow leopard’s natural habitat is being thawed and polluted — in a world like that, where else are these animals supposed to survive? And how else are we supposed to see them? Or should we simply surrender ourselves, forever, to the fate of nonseeing?
I have loved animals since I was a child. My first word was “bird.” I ate dog food out of solidarity with my first pet. I wanted to grow up to be a veterinarian or a zoologist. (Writing derailed me.) As an adult, I have been lucky to be able to take animal voyages all over the world. I have swum with manatees in Florida and sat on an Icelandic cliffside among thousands of puffins. I have watched the famous tree-climbing goats of Morocco — have seen them perched, absurdly, 20 feet above the ground, in the branches, like huge hairy white fruit. I once got to spend a whole week with the last two northern white rhinos on earth.
The best trips, like Peter Matthiessen’s search for the snow leopard, find a way to make themselves permanent. A northern white rhinoceros will not come home with you. But your awe at the rhinoceros, your amazement and respect and appreciation — that is portable. You can apply it to your goldfish, to your children, to the chipmunk that lives under the stairs, to the citizens around you. To return home from an animal voyage is to become, yourself, a new animal living in your old habitat. It is to find yourself voyaging in your own home, waking up to the other creatures that were there all along, inching them from the margins back toward the center of your life, where they belong. It is to remind yourself that being with an animal — any kind of animal, anywhere at all — is its own kind of voyage.
When I come home from a trip, Walnut gets very excited. He prances and hops and barks and sniffs me at the door. And the consciousnesses of all the wild creatures I’ve seen — the puffins, rhinos, manatees, ferrets, the weird hairy wet horses — come to life for me inside of my domestic dog. He is, suddenly, one of these unfamiliar animals. I can pet him with my full attention, with a full union of our two attentions. He is new to me and I am new to him. We are new again together.
Even when he is horrible. The most annoying thing Walnut does, even worse than barking at the mailman, is the ritual of his “evening drink.” Every night, when I am settled in bed, when I am on the brink of sleep, Walnut will suddenly get very thirsty. If I go to bed at 10:30, Walnut will get thirsty at 11. If I go to bed at midnight, he’ll wake me up at 1. I’ve found that the only way I cannot be mad about this is to treat this ritual as its own special kind of voyage — to try to experience it as if for the first time. If I am open to it, my upstairs hallway contains an astonishing amount of life.
The evening drink goes something like this: First, Walnut will stand on the edge of the bed, in a muscular, stout little stance, and he will wave his big ridiculous fan tail in my face, creating enough of a breeze that I can’t ignore it. I will roll over and try to go back to sleep, but he won’t let me: He’ll stamp his hairy front paws and wag harder, then add expressive noises from his snout — half-whine, half-breath, hardly audible except to me. And so I give up. I sit up and pivot and plant my feet on the floor — I am hardly even awake yet — and I make a little basket of my arms, like a running back preparing to take a handoff, and Walnut pops his body right into that pocket, entrusting the long length of his vulnerable spine (a hazard of the dachshund breed) to the stretch of my right arm, and then he hangs his furry front legs over my left. From this point on we function as a unit, a fusion of man and dog. As I lift my weight from the bed Walnut does a little hop, just to help me with gravity, and we set off down the narrow hall. We are Odysseus on the wine-dark sea. (Walnut is Odysseus; I am the ship.)
All of evolution, all of the births and deaths since caveman times, since wolf times, that produced my ancestors and his — all the firelight and sneak attacks and tenderly offered scraps of meat, the cages and houses, the secret stretchy coils of German DNA — it has all come, finally, to this: a fully grown exhausted human man, a tiny panting goofy harmless dog, walking down the hall together. Even in the dark, Walnut will tilt his snout up at me, throw me a deep happy look from his big black eyes — I can feel this happening even when I can’t see it — and he will snuffle the air until I say nice words to him (OK you fuzzy stinker, let’s go get your evening drink), and then, always, I will lower my face and he will lick my nose, and his breath is so bad, his fetid snout-wind, it smells like a scoop of the primordial soup. It is not good in any way. And yet I love it.
Walnut and I move down the hall together, step by bipedal step, one two three four, tired man and thirsty friend, and together we pass the wildlife of the hallway — a moth, a spider on the ceiling, both of which my children will yell at me later to move outside, and of course each of these creatures could be its own voyage, its own portal to millions of years of history, but we can’t stop to study them now; we are passing my son’s room. We can hear him murmuring words to his friends in a voice that sounds disturbingly like my own voice, deep sound waves rumbling over deep mammalian cords — and now we are passing my daughter’s room, my sweet nearly grown-up girl, who was so tiny when we brought Walnut home, as a golden puppy, but now she is moving off to college. In her room she has a hamster she calls Acorn, another consciousness, another portal to millions of years, to ancient ancestors in China, nighttime scampering over deserts.
But we move on. Behind us, in the hallway, comes a sudden galumphing. It is yet another animal: our other dog, Pistachio, he is getting up to see what’s happening; he was sleeping, too, but now he is following us. Pistachio is the opposite of Walnut, a huge mutt we adopted from a shelter, a gangly scraggly garbage muppet, his body welded together out of old mops and sandpaper, with legs like stilts and an enormous block head and a tail so long that when he whips it in joy, constantly, he beats himself in the face. Pistachio unfolds himself from his sleepy curl, stands, trots, huffs and stares after us with big human eyes. Walnut ignores him, because with every step he is sniffing the dark air ahead of us, like a car probing a night road with headlights, and he knows we are approaching his water dish now, he knows I am about to bend my body in half to set his four paws simultaneously down on the floor, he knows that he will slap the cool water with his tongue for 15 seconds before I pick him up again and we journey back down the hall. And I find myself wondering, although of course it doesn’t matter, if Walnut was even thirsty, or if we are just playing out a mutual script. Or maybe, and who could blame him, he just felt like taking a trip.
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