Animal Tendency: Or, Why Zootopia is Miraculous

Is Judy Hopps a woman?

Well, duh, no. She is a rabbit. She has a Sylvaligic tail and an expressively Lagomorphic nose and when she’s frustrated she drums one foot against the ground Thumper-style.

No but really: is Judy Hopps a woman? I mean: is she just a metaphor for womanhood or is she actually a woman? Is there the idea of womanhood, even, in the world of Zootopia? It’s a bit fucked-up, having to figure all this out, but it’s all very tangled.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

So basically what I’m going to argue is that Zootopia is a kind of crazy intellectual + artistic triumph[1] of the kind that you wouldn’t really expect to come from Disney.[2] Zootopia is a Great Bit Of Art. Like up there with the Appassionata & Las Meninas – that kind of a GBOA.

Actually there’s one particular thing about Zootopia is which makes me think it’s a GBOA, and that’s that it’s by far and away the most eloquent, moving, rich, warmly imagined, and ferociously intelligent argument for liberalism[3] I’m ever come across.

Well. Since I’ve committed myself to the claim that Zootopia is a GBOA, I’ll have to mention the many other things that Zootopia does perfectly or near-:[4]  the animation is gorgeous,[5] the world construction faultless,[6] the score bright and finely delineated,[7] the humour consistently on-point,[8] the characters well-defined and incredibly sympathetic,[9] plus the plot takes some vertiginous lurches that all make sense and the film runs roughshod over genre boundaries with improbable swagger.[10]

But let’s talk about Zootopia and liberalism.

Context: we don’t live in a good time for liberalism. It’s not surprising. Liberalism is lame.[11] In its political guise it constantly looks like it’s underpinned by a basic intellectual cowardice and/or incoherence.  We don’t know what’s right but it’s definitely right for to let people discuss what is right + We don’t know what forms of life are good but it’s definitely good to let people pursue which forms of life they think to be good. Liberalism is political philosophy for People Who’d Much Rather Skip The Vote On This One, Sorry.[12]  Which is why political liberalism’s commitment to pluralism on the basis of all human beings being free and equal[13] is so easily attacked the moment something real, tangible, urgent – like fear or terrorism or illegal immigration or whatever – pops up. Liberalism runs against the grain of our animal tendency. Also does not help that freedom and equality are, at first blush, wildly contradictory and counterintuitive[14] premises to adopt, but there you go.

And if political liberalism looks like weak pansy-ass nonsense social liberalism looks to the non-liberal dangerously totalitarian, having answered the old chestnut re What We Should Do About the Non-Liberals In Liberal Society? with a solid ah, fuck ’em. And it’s spun out a weirdly alienating discourse using words like “decolonise”, “trigger”, and “space space”, which words are applied so flexibly and indiscriminately that they’re now drained of real argumentative force. Liberalism in its social guise seems to have lost its ability to be happy about anything, even an imagined vision of its ideal future.

So it’s against this backdrop that Zootopia makes its case for one of the (not-so-many) things which political and social liberalism agree on: we should be good to people who are different from us. And it does this, incredibly, by performing an argument for liberalism[15] whose texture is consistent with the outcome it advocates.

Maybe you don’t quite get what that last sentence meant. Never mind.

Let’s talk about Judy Hopps, the rabbit.

Do you notice that she’s a woman? I mean, sure, the film makes a lot out of the fact that Judy’s a rabbit, but what about the fact that she’s also a woman?

Let’s tease this out. There are some facts about Judy that are not directly drawn from aspects of womanhood, and better interpreted as facts about rabbit-hood. The fact that she’s seen as a token bunny in the Z.P.D., or the fact that she resents being called Carrots. The bit where she tells Clawhauser that it’s OK for bunnies to call other bunnies cute, but not for other species to do so. Those things are interesting commentaries on affirmative action, casual slurs, and the delicate mechanics of word reclamation,[16] but are not really parallels to womanhood in specific.

Then there those things Judy is told that directly mirror things which are said to women in this world. Judy is told (among other things) that she “throws like a bunny”, and is asked if “all bunnies drive badly.”[17] These are stereotypes in our world about women. If you can’t throw well, you throw like a girl, and if someone takes a long time to park it’s gotta be a woman – which makes it really tempting to believe that rabbit-hood is an analogy for womanhood, and so of course Judy is not actually a woman. She doesn’t need to be, for Zootopia to get its point across. Rabbit-hood covers all the (analogical) terrain of womanhood.

Except nope. Nope nope nope. It’s part of the genius of Zootopia that – almost without you noticing – it construes Judy as Woman in the world of the film. By which I mean – as a woman, in Zootopia, she is discriminated against. She is given a little (pink) spray canister of fox repellent to protect her from foxes.[18] Can this be explained by bunny-protection-logic, as opposed to woman-protection-logic? Sure. But we’re starting to slip away from pure rabbit-ness here. And sometimes Zootopia is quite explicit: her father calls her (once during MuzzleTime, and once after she returns to Bunnyburrow in shame) Jude the Dude, which is a pretty explicit way of saying that Judy has transgressed lines of both rabbit-hood and womanhood by becoming a cop. And it also seems kind of significant that so many animals refer to Judy as meter-maid with such dismissiveness. And that she’s put off by the aggrieved masculinity she encounters from the rest of the (male) Z.P.D. police officers in the bullpen. Rabbit-hood is not an analogy to womanhood, it’s the product of a different kind of discrimination that happens to intersect with womanhood.

Here’s another idea: if rabbit-ness is (even a partial) substitute for womanhood, then why is Judy Hopps female? One possibility: because it is easier for us, as an audience, to accept and therefore believe an oppressed character who is female.

This is Part One of how Zootopia makes the case for liberal pluralism so well: it’s subtle. It takes an idea from academic intersectional theory, recognises what is clean and compelling about it (we are defined by more than one feature about us – we are an intersection of traits, as it were), and twines that so delicately into the analogy it is drawing that the idea remains both discrete and just beneath conscious awareness. Judy is oppressed: both as rabbit, and as female.

And this is all so playful: Zootopia gives you an obvious analogy (rabbit=woman), and then turns around and reminds you that Zootopia is its own world, with a real existence totally independent of analogy, but the proof of that independent existence turns out to be an idea which anchors so much of our social experience. The rabbit-metaphor really says something like this: no oppression is a metaphor for another kind of oppression. Which is true, probably, and complex, and somehow expressed in a film nominally meant for kids. (It’s important that Judy’s constructed as female in the film, by the way, precisely because she’s whip-smart & brave & determined & compassionate, a not-at-all-half-baked S.F.C., and you can’t have her be a role model for girls unless she’s actually female.)

Anyway: you see it all through the film, this commitment to the complexity of oppression. You are first introduced to Judy Hopps as victim (of a fox  + the general expectation that she cannot be who she wants to be). Then she encounters Nick Wilde the fox when he’s being refused service in an ice-cream shop, in a scene so replete with segregationist-era subtext that you expect the sign the elephant references to read: WE SERVE WHITES ONLY. So fox=victim, fine. Then it turns out that Judy, because essentially kind and good, has herself become the victim of that fox’s machinations, but not before she calls Nick “an articulate fella”.[19] And then later on it turns out that Judy is also (because naive) the oppressor: her disastrous press conference sparks calls for the mandatory quarantine of predator species[20] and initiates the sort of microaggressions against predators which almost any racial minority will find eerily familiar.

Here’s another bit of complexity: there’s a moment when Chief Bogo (initially introduced as something of a bigot) disdainfully tells Judy, when she insists that a black panther has “gone savage”, that “maybe to you rabbits every predator looks savage”. Which sounds unutterably mean, until you realise that actually that’s quite an accurate description of the views which Judy’s parents hold (there’s a scene near the beginning of the movie which outlines beautifully a racist-parent & embarrassed-kid dynamic going on between them). Which in turns suggests that Bogo’s is racist/speciesist precisely because he stereotypes rabbits as racist/speciesist. The real-world equivalent of this would be assuming that, say, every Southern Republican is racist. Now this is trivially true, but the actual emotional weight of this wrongness is almost impossible to feel – except that Zootopia makes you feel it.

Part Two of Zootopia’s genius is this: it’s racist.

By which I mean: a racist could watch the film and walk out with all of their views affirmed. I mean, the film does rely on stereotypes about animals for a lot of its humour. Sloths are slow, rabbits breed fast. It’s no defence to point out that many animals don’t fit their stereotypes in the film; it’s precisely because of the stereotype that the relevant jokes are funny: Mr. Big, lord of the criminal underground, is a tiny arctic shrew, and Clawhauser the cheetah is terrifically unfit.[21]

But this is how the real world works. Racists and non- look at roughly[22] the same set of facts and derive radically different conclusions. Remember how I said above that Zootopia is an argument for liberalism whose texture is consistent with the outcome it advocates? Well, here’s one thing: as an argument, it does not compel.[23] The film offers a refutation of intolerant social liberalism by inviting the audience to participate in stereotypes, to revel in them even. You are clever, the film says, but you’re probably not wise.

And it’s the possibility of racist interpretations (because Zootopia relies on stereotypes) that also lets Zootopia offer a refutation of political liberalism – at least, as it’s often understood today. If political liberalism is committed to the factual claim that all people are actually equal then it is horrifically weak. Will it have space for those who are less mentally or physically able, for those who need our aid, for those who decide not to contribute to our social project?  Zootopia says: why give a fuck if people are actually unequal? Work from the moral premise, not the factual one. Hence: Clawhauser and Flash, let alone Judy and Nick, are fully realised characters that we like, independent of whether or not they conform to stereotypes about their species. Zootopia offers as a remedy to worries about whether or not stereotypes are true or not a robust empathy: what matters is that these other people are fully alive, not that they are alive in certain ways.

Zootopia underscores this point pretty effectively, I think. So Judy (who’s more or less a perfect analogue of the university-educated, uber-socially-aware twenty-something) is revealed by Nick to be naïve in her refusal to accept any stereotypes at all, as when Nick teasingly asks her when she realizes that all the workers in the D.M.V. are sloths: “Are you saying that because he’s a sloth he can’t be fast?” And then think of the moment when Nick is confronting Judy after her press conference: think of the blind fury and sense of betrayal with which he repeats (snarls, more like) after Judy, “Primitive, savage, instincts? A biological component?” Judy is naïve, Zootopia says, because she both refuses to accept that some stereotypes can be true (sloths are slow), and because she applies some stereotypes where they shouldn’t be (foxes are dangerous). She says to Nick: you’re not that kind of predator, and you’re not like the others. But Nick knows already he has been absorbed into that other, and recognises what’s wrong in saying, you’re my friend, and not like the other [black people]. 

Another last problem with the Zootopia-as-racist idea is that Zootopia does suggest that stereotypes are self-fulfilling. Nick is sly and untrustworthy because his attempt to be something other than his stereotype was rebuffed, and he recoils into the stereotype (as he admits) for protection and stability. This is the least sexy (because least subversive) of all the responses to the Zootopia-as-racist accusation, but might just be the most important: it is probably the case that our essentialist generalizations are consequences of functions of the way people are brought up, of the cultures we imbibe, of the different pressures of living we are subject to.

It’s crucial to all the stuff above working that Zootopia’s world is gorgeously imagined, that the details are so exquisitely rendered, that the characters are so expressive, and that their forms of life so closely mirror our own, down to the smartphones and iPads and all the absurdly exuberant puns about Bearberry + Zuber + Fur Fighters. It’s a world that is fully alive. The argument being performed is an optimistic one, and therefore a persuasive one: this is what pluralism looks like, Zootopia says, and it looks like a good world. It draws out an intuition that is hard to articulate well about how we value difference in the people close to us: think of how you value your friends because they are not who you are.

Of course it’s possible to see in Zootopia an endorsement of essentialism, since it concedes that in the distant past predator & prey used to fear each other, and it even insists on applying the terms predator and prey to its present. But it’s kind of silly to expect a metaphor not to break down. If a metaphor didn’t break down at any point it wouldn’t be a metaphor, it’d just be this world. The point is that a good metaphor breaks down interestingly. And this metaphor does just that: Bellwether exploits precisely the predator-prey binary to stir up speciesist animus in Zootopia,[24] so that the film eventually offers a critique of its own language. Plus it’s probably true that we’re all racist by default. Any creature[25] not preprogrammed with a basic aversion[26] to living things which look different from it probably didn’t get to travel too far down the evolutionary tree. Liberal pluralism might well be right, but it sure as heck isn’t natural, just as Zootopia, eminently and gloriously, isn’t natural.

There’s another potential problem with Zootopia, and that’s the idea that in its eagerness to point out the complexity of the idea of oppression it buys into the cheap trope peddled by Avenue Q – that oppression is function not of systems and architectures but of individuals: Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist. But racism, the argument goes, is prejudice plus power. A film can’t discuss The Other if everyone in the film is The Other. The central message of Shakira’s Try Everything, the public callsign of the film’s marketing campaign, is really a placatory lie: you cannot succeed if you just try, because the world might be arrayed against you.

So is Zootopia some neoliberal shitshow – all individual, no system?

Well, no. For a start, Zootopia is pretty aware of problematic social structures: there’s a reason that it’s the lemmings that work in the banks.[27] And there are structures of oppressive power that the film introduces and does not resolve. Take the office of the Zootopia Mayor. Is it entirely a coincidence that it’s occupied by a lion? Or that Lionheart treats the Assistant Mayor, Bellweather, like crap, having put her in her position purely to get the sheep vote? Isn’t it disturbing that at the end of the film the pandering asshole Lionheart looks like he’s well on the way back to power, despite having placed predators in need of medical treatment under custody to further his political ends, and that Bellweather, who has suffered so much under Lionheart, remains imprisoned? Well, OK, maybe. I find it hard not to detect in Zootopia the suggestion that certain types of animals have an advantage when it comes to political office. It’s definitely true that Zootopia is well aware of the dangers of identity politics, however, and that’s why even if it does not go out of its way to talk about structural racism I’m not particularly bothered; Zootopia’s discussion of structural racism happens on the analogical level.[28] The point is that in this world, many structures of oppression are buttressed by appeals (from politicians like Lionheart & Bellweather) to our prejudices, our animal tendency. This is kind of obvious, but there could not be a more important time for Zootopia to be released.[29] Liberal pluralism is a good thing, Zootopia says, look at it.[30] It’s seriously moral without being condescending, and there’s little criticism that you can throw at it that it doesn’t immediately and joyfully subvert. It’s a GBOA,[31] all right. And – bless it – it’s out to save us all.

 

[1] I should clarify: everything I’m writing here is based purely on my memory of what I saw in the cinema, since it’s obviously impossible to buy Zootopia as of the time of writing. I’ve probably misremembered some things, but there shouldn’t be anything major.

[2] Indie-ish filmmakers have produced animated masterpieces (Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox), as have Japanese animators (Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children), but I don’t think a true capital-G Great animated film has emerged from the main current of Western animation until Zootopia. Plus a lot of Disney’s stuff is pretty dismal: both Frozen and Inside Out are either mediocre or terrible, depending on my mood.

[3] Well, a specific bit of it.

[4] GBOAs aren’t just good at one thing or another, after all.

[5] If you think about it, it’s kind of obvious that film is just the greatest art form out there, at least in the (vaguely defined) sense that the Best Possible Film must be greater than the Best Possible (e.g.) Novel/Symphony/Photograph/Painting. I mean, the BPF has got to contain everything good about the best possible Novel/Symphony/Photograph/Painting. The BPF has got certain words in a certain order – so that’s the Novel covered; it’s got a score – that’s the Symphony; it’s got a camera placed at a certain angles capturing certain objects designed in a certain way [what colour?  shape? texture?] and positioned in a certain way – and that covers [lots of stuff]. And then there’s lots of things specific to the filmic medium, like camera movement and kinetic mise-en-scène and obviously the coordination of all the previously mentioned things into a single experience. Which is why a film isn’t really a kind of over-there art but more a re-experienced world. I mention all of this not to say that most films are great, because they aren’t: more opportunities for artistic exploration also equals more opportunities for artistic failure, and for a film to succeed on all the dozen+ levels it inevitably operates on is more or less a miracle. I mention this to highlight that the animated film really ought to be the pinnacle of the medium because of the sheer control it offers. You can engage in wholesale world-creation without getting bogged down by lousy real-world constraints like physics or having a certain set of actors you can choose from or needing to render useless whole chunks of Manhattan to film a car chase or whatever. You can decide, quite literally, how many hairs you want to have on a character’s head. The only real limitations the animated medium have now are purely technical, and mostly stem from the fact (1) rendering (texturing and lighting, mostly) is really computationally intensive, and (2) the human brain is stupidly good at face-recognition, and so any tiny anomaly in a non-stylised CGI face is picked up and blown into monstrous proportions by our temporal lobe – which means that, for now, we still need real actors and can’t do everything on a computer. It’ll be an awesome day when all actors are replaced by CGI models, though: no more bad acting.

[6] If your heart didn’t quicken at least a little during that bit in the end of the first act where Judy takes the Zootopia Express and the virtual camera does these long arcing swoops over the different precincts then you’re not human. Actually this seems to be one of the things which animated films are quite good at: sequences which elicit pure joy. HTTYD was dense with those flight scenes, Wall.E had the bit with the fire extinguisher, The Lion King has that opening, and so on.

[7] It’s a proper score: Nick and Judy have their own themes, as do some of the more emotionally resonant sort-of-recurring motifs. None of this Zimmerian rubbish where a score is written before the film’s done and all you get is aural mush (if you see the word minimalist, run) and abused church organs. Some bits of Zootopia’s score are also quite interesting: Nick’s theme is a surprisingly Latinate, woody thing in the G Aeolian, and another theme (heard only glancingly until the credits) features lots of passing Neapolitan harmony and borrowed IV chords from the parallel minor – which is quite typical for big action blockbusters, actually, but not animated films. (There’s a twist in that the borrowed IV chord resolves upward, into the major IV, which works better than you’d think, and is nicely in keeping with the film’s upbeat tone.)

[8] There’s an extended parody of Marlon Brando that’s coruscatingly brilliant, and a bunch of sleeker-than-usual pop-cultural references (it’s the execution that prevents Zootopia from descending into the vapid cocked-eyebrow faddishness of The Lego Movie, which is enjoyable but not great), but a lot of the humour is also quite subtle. E.g.: at one point Nick tells Judy that the way to deal with questions at press conferences is to respond by asking your own question and then answering it; after that you start to notice that some of the more high-profile denizens of Zootopia consistently answer questions this way. (As in when the Mayor goes: “Did I imprison those animals? Yes, yes I did.”) And riiight at the very end of the movie, Judy says to Nick (platonically!): “Do I love you? Yes. Yes I do.”

[9] In part due to some bold-ish decisions by Howard/Moore/Bush. The scene where a young Nick is muzzled when an initiation to the Junior Ranger Scouts takes a very bad turn is one of pure Murnauesque horror, all darkness and Expressivist shadow. There’s a moment when the [beaver?] play-interrogating Nick suddenly asks Nick, right after he’s repeated the oath (about promising to be good, and kind, and brave etc.): “Even though you’re a fox?” You’d expect, given that Nick likes his friends in the Junior Rangers, to laugh, maybe nervously, and say of course, maybe add on, what’s going on, guys? But the face staring into the flashlight is stunned, shocked, speechless: and then the muzzle comes on. And this is how you realize that Nick, as a child, does not yet understand what it means to be despised – how does not know how to react to the fact of discrimination because at that moment it’s something totally alien to him.

[10] Wikipedia, with the stoic unselfawareness that makes it so endearing, describes the film as a “computer-animated action buddy comedy-drama neo-noir adventure film”.

[11] And this is a judgment completely separate from the issue of whether or not liberalism is correct.

[12] Rawls explicitly premises most of ToJ on ethical philistinism, which he disguises by insisting that there’s a difference between the right and the good and that he only wants to talk about the former.

[13] I’m adopting the Rawlsian axiomatization here, since it’s the most influential.

[14] Because, as a matter of fact, people are obviously not equal in most respects, and they are obviously unfree in many respects.

[15] Covering, inter alia, essentialism, affirmative action, childhood bullying, racial segregation, racial profiling, word reclamation, microaggression, sexism, workplace harassment, police brutality, and the politics (+ media) of identity (+ fear).

[16] It’s OK for a black person to call another black person nigger, but not for a white person to do so.

[17] Although many of these quips, especially those towards the end of the film, are spoken by Nick with genuine affection and irony. This is quite typical for a film that strenuously resists easy characterization of anything, even a word as simple as “Carrots”.

[18] The parallels with pepper spray and sexual predators are obvious, and chilling. But in this case it’s not so much a parallel, really, as much as an intermixture.

[19] This joke came from the mother of one of the (white) writers for Zootopia, who often applied the word to nonwhite people she admired.

[20] Actually the way the film deals with press-induced panics is quite elegant. After a heartwrenching scene where Nick confronts Judy over what she said (itself an amazing study in animated facial expression and the struggle between Nick’s tribal (fox) identity and the fact that Judy had only acted in goodwill), the press crowds around. “Were you just threatened by that fox?” they ask? “No,” Judy says, frantic. “He was[is?] my friend!” “Can we not trust our friends now?” the media scrum cries. “Are we safe?” The scene is fucking William Golding-levels of depressing and accurate, that’s what it is.

[21] Think of how crazily offensive a joke whose punchline was “a smart black man” would be. Now how about “fast sloth”? You get the point.

[22] Of course there’s a lot of divergence in the specifics, what with the political siloization of different media outlets, but it’s also true that a lot of disagreement re (e.g.) illegal immigrants don’t really stem from a different understanding of the facts: they stem from a different understanding of where our obligations to non-citizens come from.

[23] In this way the film succeeds where Animal Farm fails, in that Orwell, while presumably writing about the dangers about brainwashing, himself ends up creating work which is aimed at precisely that: creating a world so devoid of moral complexity that it subverts your ability to think for yourself by burying actual thought under a outraged moral smugness: think of how unbelievably stupid Orwell must make the farm animals for the allegory to work, or how much time you spend inchoately thinking goshNapoleon’s such a bastard.

[24] Think of Trump on Mexican rapists and Hillary on “superpredators”.

[25] Not living on an isolated island without large predators, I should clarify.

[26] And note that this aversion just needs to almost immeasurably slight when it comes to atomized interactions for it to have extremely large society-wide effects.

[27] Lemming Brothers. You’re welcome.

[28] Also probably true that if Zootopia got more explicit than it already is it would significantly undermine its persuasive power vis-à-vis those people who most need to be persuaded of the benefits of liberal pluralism.

[29] Not entirely a coincidence; the plot of Zootopia was drastically revised in the last 17 months of production. Originally, Nick Wilde was the protagonist, and Zootopia was some kind of dystopian hell where all predators were fitted with collars to shock them into submission should any of their predatory instincts emerge. It’s stunning to think how something as amazing as Zootopia nearly succumbed to the banality that infects every dystopian film being made nowadays.

[30] The idea that the film is an extended fuck-you to Trump & Co. is lent a lot of weight by the fact that, in the film’s credits, Gazelle cheers her adoring crowd on in Spanish. Plus Bellwether’s rant really might as well serve as the executive summary of the Trump playbook.

[31]Afterword: two slightly odd issues which Zootopia (inevitably, but probably unintentionally) raises.

First: remember how I said earlier that to premise liberal pluralism on the factual equality of all people is dangerous, and we should not care that some stereotypes might be true? You might find that outrageous. In which case: what about animals? They are not the equals of humans, in many ways. In many ways they are weak and stupid. In many ways they don’t contribute to your society. Still kind of seems to me that they deserve our moral caring (at least, if they know they exist, and if they can suffer.) In which case one question we must confront is this: how do we deal, morally, with real predator-prey relationships? Hah.

Second: Furries. I mean, somehow, weirdly, despite all our concern re not despising people for who they are, it’s kind of OK to mock them, isn’t it? The number of misconceptions people still hold about them is pretty incredible. If you read the comments underneath the trailers for Zootopia you’ll see some quite disparaging stuff being said about furries. I just thought this should be mentioned, as the irony of people watching Zootopia, a film about accepting difference, complaining about or mocking furries is rather painful.

 

In Such a Life

The air was made for them. The stooping peregrines were the only things in the world that could take that great shining gap and chase it into life. They could lean against it and tilt it. The moment, a billion years of change, of evolution and movement, all pressed into this: from a numinous line above the horizon it rolls effortlessly, and simply stops. Silence. There is nothing more to it. There is no magic or story. It raises itself slightly and the wings fold over that brown back and it slips forward, casually, without any hint of control. The origami of itself. It drops – but that is a lie, it does not drop, you never see it drop, for its untrespassed arc becomes the reference, and the gorge becomes a delirious blur spun into incomprehension by the fall of this bird, there, twisting even in the very rush of it, its mind making crankings and adjustments that cannot be believed, more fundamental and violent than a track flung out in a cloud chamber, dropping to something that has been singled out in the blue air below and will never know what has hit it, will never see its death and the sharp glory of its going. In such a life, in such a life lived in this way there is no regression, there is no slouching to the mean. Would that we could move too in vessels that in their movement would remake the world to fit them, and tremble the world until it shimmered and exploded with ecstasy.

kind of getting away: 15

It’s getting colder now. Around me trees dying into new life. Snow has appeared over the last week. I come across footprints over and over again. There are strangely moving, an extension of the thing that made them, but left unsupported, defenceless. They broaden with time and thin out.

The past day I have done nothing but rest. The sun is not yet gone. But it is close. As far as I remember the sun has been invisible the last few days, its whole being smeared out into greyness, greyness and rain for me here infinities below. My route is greased by wind.  It is a strange feeling. The basic lockstep of even that great star somehow thinning out into a scrawl of light spread out over acres of time. I cannot remember right now exactly when the sun was not obscured by cloud or rain. I don’t even feel it getting that cold anymore.

I am sitting in the mouth of my tent. The wind’s blue hands stuttering welcome. In the dark near and far creatures stop and continue. Their notice of me ends here.

There are Brown Hearn flying over the ridge now. Fluting the air with the dim vapour of their flight, as if the air needed elaboration. They don’t have a colour in this light but that does not make them out of place. Winter is almost here. Everything bleeding promissory colour. Everything remade. I don’t know much about Hearn but now it seems enough now for me to just watch. I’m at Ridge H-64. This is a place made without thought for cartographers. The horizon is always stiff and wrinkled with rain. Here coordinates vanish. There is something shocking, therefore, about seeing something inhabit the sky like this, so violently. They don’t alter space but reveal it. There is no leftover flying. Nothing collects in their wake. I will go to sleep and one of them will glides a lateral fathom, tailless afterthought in blue air dreams, back to its home, having given no thought to its actions.

Yesterday was my rest day. I was thinking of the EWFT and so went to the Teal, the only big river I will be encountering on this excursion.  Went down through the trees and it was there. Shocking and disdainful breadth. I splashed around in the shallows for a while, watched the Broach move in the water. Three days ago the temperature abruptly rose; the small streams everywhere seemed suddenly unstopped and the Teal filled like a heart. In any case I went down into the water. The Broach stayed away but then they came near my feet, asking. Quick and like silt. I had to learn how to see the slim bodies, things wedged dimensionless against the water.  Arrows saying west of here, west of here. Weeds held in wet slit mouths. Far enough into the sea rivers lose their names.  The ocean waiting to sting its thirst alive and hence accept everything offered riverwise. I moved once and the Broach flashed away. Things pre-empting the concept of weather.

How do they resolve the water, the flash of teeth?

I put my head in the water; it was cold. The Broach disappeared again, pulled the wet sky around their bodies and were gone. But I imagined. The sound of the locked double heart furrowed through kilometres of water.

When I came out the water the thing that I think had been following me was on the bank, looming over me. It happened in the past; it happens now. Fear detonates inside me. It is looking straight at me. It seems massive, something not part of this space, like something sketched in. A spadelike head larger than my chest. On the four feet talons. Cuspid aviiform, recites my head in response to that implied violence, a chant like a ward. I call for Helper but in my head there is silence. The thing comes closer, a single movement without assertion or timidity. Eyes like a haze of Magellanic water. They are large and I see myself in them. I do not look scared. I seem to it to be a reimagining of its vision, a dream cycled over and over again through the same process, a lock gate stuck half open, a changed thing not aware of the changing. It knows my name and providence. Then it does something that I cannot imagine; it cocks its head and pushes its head forward slightly, as if the snout is tasting the air. I think how different I am, body an animal apart. Its body is black, nearly unreflective. I think how dark my body is this moment, how unlike other living things, how light only comes in through the sudden wound.

It opens a vast black canopy above itself and the air beats down on me. Behind me water fragments over stone. Then leaps and it is in the air. I am bewildered that something this large is capable of vertical takeoff, of rising against its own weight, until I tell myself this is not my world. I might never have loved violent under this sky and woken up crawled on by stars. Everything must be alien and beloved. I turn to look at that dark spot as its goes high, higher, enters a strange world of facticity.

That was all yesterday. Helper does not know. My tent shivers a little now, a small thoughtful movement. The sun manages to throw a last light on the mountain for the first time in a long time so that the glaciers burn. This world is strange once again. If I stood and told the day, open, meaning it, what would happen? Is there a use in coercing an answer from the long mute flats of existence, of this sure-footed being-here-ness? Well, no. Let days come. Open.

Kind of getting away: 14

It’s been good the last few days. I’m tired but things are going well. Lots of tagging, sampling. Yesterday we came across the Bochstiannanas, and it was so windy that most of the water was going up, white spray plumed and very cold. The B. is not quite iced over yet but in a few weeks it will be.

I’m coming to the edge of the Bowl now and the trees here are thinning out. Warm colours in the long blue light. It is a good place to be. This is the outside: neither structured by geometry nor struck by any kind of grief, nor made poor by want of expression, nor exuberant for its own sake. None of that. But the colours. On and on. Nothing for with an apology can be made, things textured in themselves over and over again. There are little lakes everywhere around that are bigger than they appear. The water continues through the surrounding grass and when it is very still throws back the sky at me. But most of the time it just wets my feet and makes a gentle sound when I go through it. That sound. Something more felt than heard, a communication, something that deepens the world, by which I mean all of it, all of it just from this burble, this lilt that comes up from my feet when I move. Sometimes I just stop, not because I have planned a rest or anything like that. Petrified by being. But I stand there and listen to something for a while. I have discovered the Trove is a part of this, can be invited in: Tableaux Suite 33, no.2, in C, or TS 32 no.10 in B minor. They’ve given the composers names now: this one is called Taiga[1].Nothing to hold, but something that feels like flight, like being in the air, oceans of holy feeling opening up.

One slightly – I suppose – strange thing happened, and that was two days ago when I sort of stumbled into a Harpiege with my Cover down. It was feeding but the moment I moved it heard me and turned to stare. Its eyes[2] were all pupil and it looked straight at me, or maybe it looked down at me. It couldn’t have been particularly large but I seem to remember it looking down. It’s a look only animals can master, something that is utterly unaware but also all-encompassing, all understanding and no thought. Everyone knows it: a pulse of luminous blackness. It made that circular movement of the head that is part of its FoFR. And then as I was taking a step back it made a tiny retching noise and opened its mouth and spat venom all over me, a spatter that went down my face and front. It must have been terrified; I was nearly completely covered in black. I felt and resisted a stupid urge to call Helper. The venom is harmless. I am not, after all, of this world.

Checked the log today. Some interesting developments. The tertiary fold  of the polypeptide chain in the Tk-haemoglobin of Fleckeri spp. resembles that of the Eastern White Fallwhale Tk-(D)myoglobin complex. Genetic conservation? Probably. Plus strange diversity found in the basic structure of tryposin inhibitors[3].

Oh well. I’m out of this area now.

I am outside for many reasons. The biggest thing, however, is Dyhaus. While living there I decided to hike the Eastern Wind Flank Trail. Don’t know even today why I decided to do it or why I chose the EWFT. The EWFT is long, very long, 2600km. Maybe that’s why I did it. It goes all the way from the Dyhaus/Enalt border to South Throuper. It might have just been me wanting to take some serious time out, trying to see what of the natural world there was on Ditarod. No. No. The main thing eventually was that I kept being told how beautiful EWFT was. Giant Park was on the trail, and Fincher Pass, and Cascade Park, and Monument Range. 63 mountain passes. A stretch where you have to walk 281km before you see a road.

The EWFT monument at the beginning of the trail was a plain thing; a vertical stone column stating the date of the trail’s completion and its length. Hikers’ hands had worn the edges on the bottom of the column smooth. I put my name in the trail register and I read what thousands before me had written. Impossible to be cynical at that moment. There were many people wishing everyone else luck. And then the usual: The only impossible journey is one you never begin; Kate & Rog –stupid way to do a honeymoon but HERE WE ARE!; A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; CONQUER NATURE – CONQUER YOURSELF. It went on. It was in, a strange way, moving. I think I was afraid and a bit puzzled at myself. The trail register helped. It said: you are one among many.

People do the EWFT because they love hiking or because they want to leave something behind. There are traditions: Hikers get a trail name. It is a token of membership. You are on the trail for a long time; at least a month, for most people attempting a thru-hike. It is a way of dilating what happens here. I write here but of course what I mean is there. It is a way of sieving out the normal life from the life on the trail. There is a code for what you ask people about, what you ought to automatically help out with: EBliSus. Equipment, Blisters, Sustenance. You don’t ask people which trail they are planning to take; you let them tell you. You don’t ask them why they are doing what they are doing. People will talk; sure. Let them choose to do so. But you help each other out with food. You respond if someone needs equipment repaired. And you lend each other plasters. Actually, you’d really better fucking pass those plasters around. Blister really is a totem for the physical trials of the hike. Blister includes sprain, fracture, and bad graze.

It was a primitive part of a primitive world. It was good. The trick to living this sort of life was, I found out, to put in slightly more effort into almost everything than I would think reasonable. I had done hikes before but nothing this big. But the rhythm came eventually. I’d hike for several days and then head to a town to pick up the food boxes I’d mailed ahead. I stocked up in convenience stores where I could.  The early bit of the trail was winding, taking us over the crests of the Snakes. Rocks and big cool forests.

I became Poley to trekkers. I had a habit of using my trekking poles to stabilise my tent. I had a small superlight was not too stable and I thought it was a good idea. About a week in I met Boiler. I was in my tent and she came over to apologise about the noise.

“What noise?” I asked.

“Fantastic,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”

We liked each other almost immediately. She was taking her gap year; we talked about astronomy and where to find food places along the trail. She passed me antifungals from her bounce box when she got it. We went over Gamble Pass together and headed on the West Branch after that to hit the good old Runoff.

“We should fish or something,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

We both stank, as everyone else did. I mostly wanted to splash about.

“Do you know how to fish?” I asked. It was a stupid question because the important question was whether or not we had any fishing equipment, and I knew the answer to that was no.

“No,” Boiler said.

We took off our pants went down into the Runoff’s shallows, bracketed in that space by the ridges all around. We waited until we saw the gunmetal flash come past and then we plunged our hands in and tried to grab them. They were fast. I could feel them moving around my feet. At the end of the evening we had caught seven. The barbecue was delicious.

I eventually figured out why Boiler was Boiler. She didn’t use the standard-issue water safety pills. She boiled her water. I’m not sure why: she had WSPs in her bag. But we all need rituals. Here is water; here is what I shall do. The alcohol stove, the little holding container. A flame that hisses out suddenly in the evening. Light snagged against the trees, casting about only for people. Sparks ghosting out, brief companions to minor stars.

Friendship on the EWFT was not simple but it was straightforward. In the day, when we were crossing the desert plain of the Carazon in the flush of the spring flowering, we’d often get separated or walk with other groups we found; we’d get three, four, kilometres apart, sometimes, but at night we usually found by some unarranged magnetism where the other was camping. Or we’d see each other the next night. Once, I don’t remember exactly when, we stopped at a road crossing and Boiler waited for me whiIe and I went off and fell asleep in a hollow under a big Brescia Fir for a couple of hours. When I came running back I expected her to be gone but she was there, looking like perhaps she was starting to get worried.

“I thought you’d be gone,” I said, not knowing what to feel. We often ducked out for brief rests from the sun but I had been gone very long.

She hefted her pack, looking bemused. “It’s okay,” she said. “The place is nice. I talked to a couple of speeders.”

“I fell asleep. There was a spot that looked just irresistible.” I grinned and she grinned too.

We took the Six Point Route across Carazon. We went up and down the stony dunes, sometimes following the crests. As we did we listened to the apocalyptic alt-rock Boiler liked and eventually she convinced me to sing to it: Because eh-eh-eh you know the world eh-eh-eh cannot catch you aah, aah, o-AAH— We played impromptu football with plastic bottles on the flats with other trekkers taking a day off. In any case I got tired after the Carazon, and after we descended Ripas Gorge together I said I wanted to take a rest day or two at a trail angel lodge. I had my stinking clothes off and had my feet in a creek.

“If you want to go on,” I said, “You should go on.”

And she left.

It is like that on the EWFT: friendships become memories fast. Nothing to be spoilt by time and overexposure. It was the early sections of the trail and people at this stage wanted to get as much distance out of daylight as possible. Maybe she had a tight schedule. I don’t ask. But there was nothing bad about what happened.

It was at the midpoint of the EWFT, after Lake Niyare and approaching the Dippers, when we had come to the basalt fields of Mishila, that I met Bread. He explained the name. He’d gotten a bad nosebleed early on.

“I had nothing to stop it,” he said. “Except bread.”

“I see,” I said.

“I never knew how good bread smelt,” he said. “Not the freshly-baked sort of smell, but like the actual doughy smell you get when it’s right up there in your nostrils.”

Bread wasn’t quite like everyone else. He was small and skinny and pretty young. He looked too fresh to the entire thing. His frazzled little beard grew out rather than down. His MexTexes looked a little new. My Merrells were tattered and filthy and looked considerably more comfortable.

I never asked him why he was doing the EWFT. Beside his pack’s shoulder strap there was a scar where there had been a chemo[4] port. He kept fingering a spot under his hipbelt. Sometimes he did it absentmindedly.

He didn’t want to go fast. That was good for me; I had time. We chatted for long times about lots of crap. He was a bit of a daydreamer. He talked a lot about wanting to make the Big Three. I indulged him. After a while I stopped indulging him and the conversations took on a life of their own; he actually wanted to do it.

When we were leaving Mishila the trail started to rise. We had done 20km of the climb when he stopped on the lava flats and waved his arms and yelled from up ahead, “Look at this!”

I looked around.

“Isn’t it fucking amazing?” he said.

Around us the taut rocks flexed, frozen and perfect. I was very tired but I looked around.

“It’s like a river!” he said. “Must have been amazing when this was all lava. Like standing on the surface of the sun.” He sat down, let himself collapse, with his legs in front of him, looked out at the sun. He squinted or winced. He sighed. We ate granola with a stick of butter in it. Trekkers eat lots of butter. We took off our shoes. We felt some blisters that looked threatening. He started crying. I didn’t say anything. “I fucking love granola,” he said. He poured some into his mouth and wiped his lips.  He swigged water hard from his bottle. I hugged him briefly. “I’ll be okay,” he said. He looked very determined.

Bread kept taking selfies. At first I was a bit embarrassed by this. It turned out I was more embarrassed at being embarrassed, however, and we really got into it. Standing nearly at the peak of Tall Dipper, crags falling away around us into unbreathed blueness; clinging to the guide ropes in the middle of Hilper Fall, eyes barely open in the spray and the thundering noise; pointing at lewd signs outside towns; us dwarfed against the Tempuis of Catherdral Park.

When Bread and I stopped in a town for a food box he would try to find some place to develop the photos and mail them to someone. He wrote letters too. He had his writing stuff in a Ziploc and in the evenings if he was not shattered he wrote a little. He always kept his Gillie hat with all its rings of sweat on when he wrote. Hikers have rituals.

“Does it sound stupid,” he asked, “to say I feel like I can do everything? Does it sound, like, arrogant or something?” We were in a Youth Lodge and between the clothes and the shoes and the sweaty burnt bodies the place reeked. We stopped smelling it after a while and he had started writing.

“Nope,” I said. “Sounds perfectly good.”

“The problem about hiking,” he said, “is that after a while it’s very hard to make it sound different. I mean all the places you’ve been.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think it’s something you must do.”

“The thing is its shit. It’s so wearying. But that makes it great. Doesn’t it?” People were bedding down so he said this in an intense whisper.

I laughed. It was true.
We had a strange cold spell right after that. Snow, even. There were danger signs going up but Bread decided to go on and I decided it was probably okay. Sometimes after a day of walking our hands got too cold for us to do anything properly in the evenings. We clipped our tent canopies using our teeth. It was pathetic and it was noble, and it was shared. We had hysterical and near-silent laughing fits in the tents.

Two months in or so I got up one morning to find that he could not move. His eyes were alert and glassy.

“Box in left compartment,” he said, very softly. He tried to turn and an involuntary sound came out of his mouth. “Fuck,” he cursed. “Fuck, fuck.” I rummaged around in his pack. The box was there, near the top. I opened it. Small compassionate rows of pills, muted colours. Inert. Incredible that so much could ride on this. An autoinjector.

“Needle,” he said. “Right hip.”

He insisted on moving on the moment he could walk.  He wrote a little more, over the next week, I think, or maybe I started giving it more significance. We bought jellybeans and gorged on them. I tried to notice when he took his pills. I saw him take them in the mornings, but only occasionally. We made one or two detours to scenics, which before we hadn’t really done. We looked irrepressibly happy in the photos we took. Negotiating terms. When the trail widened for two to walk abreast we did so.

After White Meadows he started to slow down. He had an easy way with the trail but now he struggled more than he usually did. He would stop and bend over and breathe for a while. He took his hat off and used it to wipe sweat off his face. On Temple Rise for every seven or eight steps he took he slipped a little and would curse.

That night he said, “It’s really frustrating sometimes, hm?”

We had just treated ourselves to baked beans.

“I get so frustrated sometimes,” he said. “If I don’t finish this it’s all going to be my fault.”

“We’re going pretty well,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Half the people who start out finish,” I said. “We’re only two weeks away.” After all those weeks, all the mountains and the ridges, the long desert plains, I felt a thrill.

He laughed. “We’re fucking boss,” he said. We were near Brotherswater. If we were very quiet we could hear the water. We had talked about how we were going to fish in Brotherswater. I told him about what Boiler and I had done in Runoff. He had said that we could probably only do that in running water. I told him that mountain lakes were worth visiting anyway. He said of course we’d have to go.

“We’re fucking boss,” I said.

“Wait for the Big Three,” he said.

“I’ll read the news,” I said.

Before he finally went to sleep he said, “I’m feeling so lazy now. Late morning?”

I said that I might walk to my next pickup and come back.

“I won’t wake you,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said, and then later, in his tent, I heard him say, “This has been unbelievable.” He didn’t say it so loud that I thought he was talking to me and so I said nothing.

The next morning his trail runners were in the camp and he was gone. I remember seeing them, grey things with laces undone, outside his tent. I don’t know what happened. You cannot walk far without shoes. You cannot walk at all, in fact. But I never found him. In the morning he must have gotten up, looked up at the dawn, and decided that this would be the end of it.

The Marshal came to ask me questions and I answered all of them. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I kept thinking about that last night. In the end I decided that he had not done anything wrong at all. I never asked about a corpse or Bread’s name. It had been perfect, what he did. He knew when beauty and struggle became too much to bear and how to put it away, put it out. Too much to bear.

I imagine myself standing there, the tent not far away, while the trees rise and arch around me, and I am looking at myself from above, rising and rising until the trees are pointillist specks tethered to a great tide of rock, and I am a point, turning about and seeing only trees, finding nothing, and I see now where Bread is, how big the spaces he occupies, how pelagic the urges he carried, how unfoundable. I’ve always wanted to go outside since then.

[1] There is nothing cold or particularly Arctic about the stuff that has been attributed to Taiga. I’ve no idea why the people on Stize opted for this. But TS33/2+32/10 fits perfectly with that name.

[2] Its two primary eyes. The secondaries on the top of the head were invisible.

[3] Bichirality responsible again? Possibly.

[4] I think we got them to stop it and use GpTH eventually, but that was after I left. It’s what they do to you if you get cancer: they pump you full of cytotoxins that destroy basically everything in your body, but destroy the cancer a bit more effectively than everything else because of how fast it divides.

Kind of getting away: 13

Day two and I think of my close my life is – all the ways in which it could have been – can be – perfect.

Dusk comes and takes up the places between the trees. Mild and serum light settling down. The kind of light that brings colour to the sky but exhausts its purpose there and so can only turn everything else into silhouette. Really it is unspeakable. I imagine how my face looks now, a blue totem in a blue hour.

It is good to be out, here, in the tent. There is sincerity in the idea of shelter. Just shelter, not the idea of a home. Something far more basic, far more inherent, something far more in this sense like a silhouette. A space in which to put up a little light, to coax forth a little warmth and tender it for nothing. Feel its smallness. Shelter is the basic condition, I think. I mean, just – what does it say? It says: everything is out there, and I am in here, I am apart. Look at this tent, this little yellow thing. What is it really? What can it offer? So much a function of its shape and how it is seen rather than what it really is. Why should I have any affection for it at all?

But I am happy. I think of the evening. I think of the tent and the migration report I have to write. I think of the coming gestures of the night. I think of Helper’s patience.

That is important, actually. The thing is that when I am around other people I find that they have modes, vibrations, certain harmonics of being, certain methods of calling up from inside themselves some unfounded coherence.  So often with people you need modes. I remember friends who are always cynical, so afraid of the idea of sincerity because that would mean nailing themselves down and letting the light touch them and no fucking thanks. They drag me that way. We speak and our words are rushing sibilances, sly and shining extraterrestrial missiles that glance off everything but trade in nothing. Sometimes with a friend I am forced to be a conspirator standing against the world: look at all the idiots around us, look at their irreversible cobalt eyes, rancid lips glued shut with sperm. Sometimes I need to enter a tottering skit, a looping pathology of gastric funniness, ha-ha, ha-ha, parasite living off amphetamines that are not in me. This is why Helper is important. The good thing about Helper is that it does not need any acting. There is no panic like a glassy undertow. I don’t have a mode. I don’t need a mode and it’s just such a relief.

Just before I left I went out onto the Wash again. To prepare myself for this? Well, not really. I stood there in the mud and left myself be held by the thought that all the water has been here for millions of years. This vast flat expanse and its slow shallow pulse a pattern completely unrequired of time and completely ignorant of it. A grey heart gurgling from wimples of sand, going on just like that, without shame. All of this is all of a piece. But something had changed. Something was different this time. I held some mud in my hand and it was just mud. Could not be squeezed dry. Could not be made still. It dribbled all the way down my arm. The weather was very cold and the mud was cold too. This is the only way mud can be: on a plain, under a hanging sky, holding under it the curve of the world. Not offering it protection, not eating at it, not hiding it, just holding it, touching it at every point, without anything more.

I was standing there for I don’t know how long, trying to pinpoint it, when I heard Helper coming over. Helper makes no noise when it moves, but it’s figured out that it’s general social niceness to do something unintrusive to let a deaf little human know you’re coming. So there’s this soft whirring sound.

“I’ve got your Allweather,” it said, offering it.

“Thanks,” I said. It was very cold and I was shivering.

“We can go tomorrow if you’d rather that,” Helper said.

“No,” I said. “I’ll get one last shower and then we’ll go.”

“I’ll get your stuff.”

“Uh, don’t worry about it. It’s better if I pack anyway.”

I headed back to the house. I’d only gone about a kilometre out and so it didn’t take long. When I got there I looked back and Helper was still there on the Wash, one kind of grey set against another, looking out, or maybe looking at where I had stood, that small sandy dimple and the curls of mud the only blemish on that expanse.

Marginalia

[ … Alopias vulpinus Petrochelidon pyrrhonota Consider evil. Consider the way it springs up premisewise. Consider the voice that comes from the bones and the air, the skin panelled about the faces, white faces with masks and no holes to let the air through, no breath, no word, no heat, no sight, everything crowded out by the burning intensity of life. The thing about evil. The thing. It is patient, it is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast. It has no wrath or force. It is true. It cannot lie. It endures. It hopes against all things. It is flat and deep as water and as necessary. It seeks no hurt. It is complete. It does not stir except by virtue of its being the case, and it goes with or without saying, indeed despite it, that what is the case is outside its cause, a world strung out like flesh. Evil is not arrayed against the good, it is not arrayed against anything. The good will come, it comes. It is monstrous in is apathy, it points at destinations with mammoth intent, it is a paraclete that breeds no sound but its waking gibber, its morning and evening torments made worshippable only by renunciation, it acknowledges no fact, it sweeps up all experience before it to bring it finally thundering through the walls of this world like a ruthless word bent in bringing all of creation down its own beguttered gullet, down its own bespoke blackness. But evil carries Caspiomyzon wagneri Zonotrichia leucophrys Bitis atropos Morelia viridis Catharus ustulatus Trimeresurus monticola Gyps fulvus Rhodostethia rosea Aplysina archeri Nycticorax nycticorax Phodilus assimilis Pluvialis dominica Hysterophora maculosana Causus rhombeatus Gastrophysa viridula Archilochus colubris Arthrospira platensis Calypte anna Empis livida Anochetus rufus Acanthognathus teledectus Cathartes burrovianus Haloferax volcanii Anas acuta Melanerpes erythrocephalus Hexanchus griseus Elanoides forficatus Ancylis badiana Pandion haliaetus cristatus Polemaetus bellicosus Parkesia noveboracensis Carebara capreola Pyrococcus abyssi Halorhabdus tiamatea Tipula oleracea Lumbricus terrestris Thelotornis kirtlandii Synthliboramphus hypoleucus Chondestes grammacus Cirrothauma cirrothauma Acanthis flammea Proterospongia choanojuncta Plegadis chihi Gallinula galeata no such burden, it brings no airs. It is intimate. It is quiet. It hides and looks out under the great shadow at fulminations blind and holy and it cowers and hopes. When all is said and done it will emerge. It will call for you. It will take your hand. It will lead you. It has no need for loneliness. It has no need to ignore anything. It will take the fact even if it finds only one fact shining in the waste and it will hold it, hold it out against a newly electric earth. All this can be gathered and known but only by great thought. Centroscymnus coelolepis Methanococcus deltae Machaerhamphus alcinus Numenius phaeopus Cygnus olor Echinorhinus brucus Centroselachus crepidater Ictinia plumbea Cepphus Columba Clangula hyemalis Notechis scutatus Methanobrevibacter curvatus Etmopterus pycnolepis Centrophorus moluccensis Eisniella tetraedra Arianta arbustorum Buteogallus schistaceus Chen caerulescens Selasphorus rufus Seiurus aurocapilla Bucephala albeola Hydroprogne caspia Cepphus grille Strix albitarsis Coccothraustes vespertinus Hemachatus haemachatus Pipilo maculates Coragyps atratus Charadrius hiaticula Harpalus rufipes Somateria mollissima Sialia currucoides Pheucticus melanocephalus Phyllorhiza punctata Leucophaeus atricilla Oenanthe oenanthe Streptopelia decaocto Aquila audax Methanococcoides methylutens Aphodius rufipes Falco vespertinus Nanoarchaeum equitans Sympetrum striolatum Anthus rubescens Turdus migratorius Bombycilla cedrorum Echis carinatus Geotrupes stercorarius Haliaeetus pelagicus Squatina armata Geothlypis tolmiei Mnemiopsis leidyi Dytiscus marginalis Actitis macularius Chaetura pelagic Ignicoccus pacificus Fulmarus glacialis Gallinago delicate Crotalus enyo enyo Phratora vulgatissima Dolichonyx oryzivorus Coturnicops noveboracensis Accipiter castanilius Atractaspis congica Nasuia deltocephalinicola Icteria virens Palomena prasina Glyphis gangeticus Toxostoma rufum Brachymyrmex melensis Which beings know this? We do not know this. For us there is too much noise. But animals know this. With their minds they have no choice but to contemplate the universe. Their thoughts cannot be bent anywhere, they are not ordained or made sacred by any meaning. They have run themselves over and over again through the generations in ages unstoppable and in their running have come to this. Animals know this.  And they having nothing to write with on and so hold this entire, a whole unshakeable ponderance of it, in their heads. They have no laments for us, Micrurus frontalis Centroscyllium granulatum Philaenus spumarius Chroicocephalus ridibundus Riparia riparia Aeronautes saxatalis Icterus galbula Caenorhabditis elegans Chaetura vauxi Gavia stellata Salpinctes obsoletus Sphyrapicus varius Melanitta perspicillata Spizaetus ornatus Limnodromus scolopaceus Caprimulgus vociferous Strix aluco Milvus migrans Chlidonias niger Morphnus guianensis Methanobacterium formicum Ptilopsis granti Spizella arborea Chlamydoselachus anguineus Asphaltoglaux cecileae nothing to match our songs, they have no grief left in them for our insufficiently opposable thumbs. We do not dare speak of what they have achieved. Nothing has changed since they began. Natrix natrix Tyto tenebricosa Lanius ludovicianus Notorynchus cepedianus Chordeiles minor Megachasma pelagios Stercorarius skua Aeshna grandis Sturnella neglecta Calopteryx splendens Plexaurella nutans Cistothorus palustris Camponotus adami Rhizoprionodon porosus Ornimegalonxy oteroi Syritta pipiens Tachycineta bicolour Chiloscyllium indicum Haematopus palliates Sterna hirundo Egretta caerulea Calvia quattuordecimguttata Butorides virescens Acropyga keira Brachyramphus marmoratus Spinus pinus Carpilius convexus Zenaida macroura Nitrosopumilus maritimus Araneus diadematus Scolopax minor Orthonama vittata Nitrosopumilus maritimus Melospiza lincolnii Limosa haemastica Larus hyperboreus Anser albifrons Polydrusus sericeus Acidilobus saccharovorans Stephanoaetus coronatus Hirundo rustica Dispholidus typhus Bothrops nasutus Camponotus caffer Cerorhinca monocerata Idaea dimidiate Elanus caeruleus Parascyllium collare Calcarius pictus Scymnodalatias oligodon Calamospiza melanocorys Luscinia svecica Buteo buteo Eremophila alpestris Motacilla tschutschensis Euprotomicroides zantedeschia Pseudoginglymostoma brevicaudatum Grallistrix auceps Cardinalis cardinalis Aythya affinis Heteroscymnoides marleyi Baeolophus bicolour Hepialus humuli Hydrophis gracilis Apristurus ampliceps Elaps lacteus Pelamis platurus Contopus virens Picoides dorsalis Pagophila eburnean Myadestes townsendi Thryothorus ludovicianus Ardea alba Agelas clathrodes Adetomyrma clarivida Heterodontus galeatus Rallus elegans Vireo flavifrons Paracentrotus lividus Stellula calliope Ammodramus savannarum Carcharhinus acronotus Gallerucella lineola Lepteithis gigas Bungarus candidus Carcharias Taurus Rhincodon typus Pseudocerastes persicus Junco hyemalis Epiactis prolifera Carabus nemoralis Helmitheros vermivorum Haliastur sphenurus I have learnt all of this from them and this is a debt I cannot unhinge and leave off. I have sought consecration from things with no bones. I have slept on a bed of birds, feeling their uninspected bodies wince softly and come forth, coverts going pale like stiffening breath. I have let insects interpret my interior, a fire of legs and wisdom, eyes invisible and brilliant, bodies cracking. I have held reptiles for warmth. None of this was part of a ritual, none of this real. But Thermosphaera aggregans Regulus calendula Tubifex tubifex Rostrhamus sociabilis Tropidechis carinatus Dalatias licha Dryocopus pileatus Leptidea sinapsis Botaurus lentiginosus Isurus paucus Dolichonabis limbatus Vermivora cyanoptera Puffinus puffinus Heptranchias perlo Pterostichus niger Aphriza virgata Colias croceus Leptodon cayanensis Alopias pelagicus Sistrurus ravus Naja melanoleuca Aipysurus laevis Bartramia longicauda Cephaloscyllium pictum Poecile atricapillus Aspidites melanocephalus Uria aalge Periphylla periphylla Enhydrina schistose Hylocichla mustelina Pristiophorus cirratus Polioptila caerulea Cenarchaeum symbiosum Chelictinia riocourii Gypohierax angolensis Calidris acuminate Agkistrodon contortrix laticinctus Chondrohierax uncinatus Sagittarius serpentarius Protonotaria citrea Calonectris diomedea Anthrophila fabriciana Aeropyrum pernix Atta tardigrada I was told this finally by one which devoted its entire being to permit only a body, one that put its head to the ground because it had nothing to hold or walk with. It came through the grass up to me. Right there in the centre of my sight, in the centre of the scene. An unfalsifiable river green as creation itself. And yet the snake knew how to hold on its face a smile that while only barely there edged aside the rest of the world, a kindness unwarranted. Its eyes were dark and luminous and in them all the light of the world was contracted into a fleck, the universe eagled on its own afterbirth. A voice like ecdysis itself. All lustre and caring. It came up to me Haemadipsa zeylanica Oxynotus centrina Euplectella curvistellata Platynus dorsal Harpagus bidentatus Phalaropus fulicariusSitta pygmaea Tringa melanoleuca Vulcanisaeta moutnovskia Plectrophenax nivalis Staphylothermus marinus Laticauda colubrine Trichoplax adhaerens Trypanosoma brucei Helicolestes hamatus Nymphula nymphaeata Thermococcus hydrothermalis Ophion luteus Empidonax alnorum  Picrophilus torridus Aphaenogaster maculifrons Troglodytes hiemalis Ginglymostoma cirratum Contopus cooperi Python reticulates Antaresia maculosa Zygaena lonicera latomarginata Stercorarius maccormicki Vipera ursinii Sulfolobus acidocaldarius Fratercula arctica Cynthia cardui Podiceps auritus Deania hystricosa Silpha atrata Larus canus Coccyzus erythropthalmus Oreothlypis peregrine Halorubrum salsolis Phoebastria immutabilis Acanthophis Pyrrhus Riftia pachyptila Heterocentrotus mamillatus Pyrodictium abyssi Tyrannus tyrannus Cerastes cerastes Oceanites oceanicus Isistius plutodus Carpodacus cassinii Methanofollis liminatans Nemateleotris magnifica Eristalis pertinax Ixobrychus exilis Agonopterix conterminella Ixoreus naevius Eucrossorhinus dasypogon Aenictus raptor Pooecetes gramineus and behind its head the reticulate body sketched out a language in the grass. My body was a violation of the dust. It spoke and its eyes were vast with kindness, a caring with no cognate. Ravish me, I said, show me the whole story laid out. I could feel its skin against mine and its patterns held out from the living surface like maps for the reading. Loxia leucoptera Colaptes auratus Euglena sanguine Amphioctopus marginatus…]

to speak even of such things

What sustained him. To speak even of such things. Coming out of the trench, covered in dust, on E–, the look of sudden familiarity. Light coming over the broken place. Wind coming like a prophet through the grass, like a prophet bringing rain. How many unaccountable accidents of history to make just this, here. What sustained him. It was a love that he knew like the memory of holiness, that made one hold the hands of the other even when only one of them would ever know or remember. Overwhelming. How to make yourself invulnerable then ultimately vulnerable to another. Water moving one way or another, not speaking of the places from which it was borrowed or will return. A circle of warmth on the bleating plain. One pool.  On A–, the inescapable mountains rising. Staggering how beautiful. Against the complete blackness something rising like a perfect white cut-out, a live space without feature. So many things standing against the word, so many things designed against it. Under language and out of grasp. Basic needs. Nothing for which any apology can be made. Overwhelming.