Margaret Thompson Adrift on the Ark, Brindle & Glass Publishing, ISBN 978-1-897142-41-7, 2009
I love animal stories, although I’ve read mostly contemporary tales like Old Yeller and Lassie, and have gravitated toward those written from the animal’s point of view, like R.D. Lawrence’s White Puma and Sid Marty’s Black Bear of Whiskey Creek.
I’d never read any bestiaries, which is how Thompson categorizes her book. I looked up the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary: “a medieval moralizing treatise on beasts.”
Moralizing is what a priest in a pulpit does and it normally makes me uncomfortable. But Thompson’s moralizing is short and sweet. She states:
… a passionate awareness of nature [that] is a comfort, a reminder — in all the wreckage of human relations — of harmony and stability, the way things ought to be ….. In the beginning, the old story tells us, the lion lay down with the lamb …. The image is a reminder of how far we humans have strayed from the ideal. Unless peaceful co-existence, harmony and moderation become our reality, we shall never see Eden again.
As she admits, this is faith. Scientific evidence shows that Eden never existed. What Thompson finds of Eden is in her suburb of Victoria or, when she was a girl, in the pathways along the Thames River in England that are home to swans and ducks. Green spaces and country lanes that have been cut off from the rest of the world are paradise, because nature has been almost totally subjugated there, capable only of minor infiltrations. And even these are controlled before they become uncomfortable for humans.
As an adult living in Central BC, Thompson faces the fact that nature is “red in tooth and claw” and that we have come too far from our animal roots to be able to cope with it. Thompson demonstrates this in a story about beavers building a dam that causes a flood on her property and the sump pump to growl in her basement. She chops and cuts and saws at the dam. Futile. Conservation officers are called in. Thompson says, “I could no longer pride myself on an acceptance of all living creatures; in the face of inconvenience and a threat to the value of my property I manifested exactly the draconian reaction I deplore in others.”
The killing of the beavers changed her life. All her rationalizing for the removal of the animals left her “tainted, contaminated by special pleading.” She says that in her own view, she dwindled as a human being.
Consequently there are few illusions here regarding an actual balance with nature. Any balance, in her mind, has to be on human terms. In connection with animal stories in general, this was revealed when Teddy Roosevelt and some naturalists took on Ernest Thompson Seton, Jack London and Charles G D Roberts. The argument of the writers, that animals to various degrees feel and think like humans and should therefore come under the 11th commandment “do unto others,” was hard to defend. Harder still to act upon, which is the whole idea.
But Thompson doesn’t give up, and this is what I admire about her. In most of her stories she struggles to deal with animal expats living in her neighborhood. She muds up her car so a male peacock will stop attacking its own image. She fights to protect her cat’s brood of youngsters from the predations of a “ginger tom, hunger on four legs, prowling as relentless and cold as a shark.” As with the beavers, it’s hopeless. “The cat twined about my legs ….. I knew she expected me to help.”
Here Roosevelt would have jumped in kicking, pointing out that Thompson’s actions prolong the cat’s agony and that Thompson is misinterpreting the cat’s response to her presence. Yet Roosevelt himself was, as Thompson notes in her chapter “Arctophilia” (on bears), admired for his insistence on “humane” killing of any animals wounded in the hunt, and he may even have been the creator of the teddy bear: “there are two stories: servants console Roosevelt on a trophy-less day with a stuffed bear they have made [or Roosevelt] refuses to kill a small bear his guides manage to capture….”
Thompson seems to grasp some elemental facts that Roosevelt and his admirers missed. One fact is that we begin as children to relate to animals as if they were human. The second fact is that, as pet lovers know, mammals at least are close to humans, experiencing feelings of anxiety, loneliness, love and loyalty. This is what first attracted me to animal stories and what motivated me to spend my entire adult life with one dog after another.
The third fact is that Roosevelt’s idea about wild animals being in the way of progress (like Thompson’s beavers) may be dangerous. The evolutionary superiority of humans over all life is not a certainty. We’re still involved in a serious war with viruses, bacteria and insects to claim top spot. We might not represent “progress.”
Thompson touches on this in her chapter, “Phobia.” Human beings have a visceral fear of insects that goes a long ways back and cannot be overcome by reason. They attack our food and we respond with pesticides that may do irreparable damage to our supply of all food. We develop resistant species of plants and bacteria that create more complex threats.
A final fact is that we often discover that we have uses for life forms previously considered irrelevant to us and so dispensable. Occasionally they are discovered to be allies in our battle with insects, viruses and bacteria.
In short, some kind of armistice seems called for. Overall, Thompson is correct, although her attempts to state the terms of that armistice may not be practicable. Total victory, as Roosevelt saw it, may be suicide.
In the Bible, Noah, “adrift on the ark” as Thompson’s title has it, is responsible for every beast and fowl “to keep the seed alive upon the face of all the earth.” It isn’t recorded how Noah was supposed to have done this, but Thompson shows us some possibilities. Sometimes it doesn’t go well but she has her orders. Sometimes she actually finds a great way of carrying those orders out.
1047 words: May 1, 2010