reviewed by Chelsey Clammer
Alison Hawthorne Deming, “Zoologies: On Animals And The Human Spirit”
2015, 272 pages, softcover, $18.00
There is more to Alison Hawthorne Deming’s “Zoologies” than describing the ways that we, as a species, have destroyed animals and most other living things. It is about loss and grief, yes, but it is also about art and the contemporary imagination. “Zoologies” is an awakening, and perhaps even an exploration, of spirituality. Ultimately, though, Deming’s collection of linked essays discovers our conception of what is “wild” in regards to animals, humans, and animal–human interactions.
With accolades such as receiving the Bayer Award in Science Writing from Creative Nonfiction, having her work anthologized in renowned publications such as the “Best American Science and Nature Writing,” and having authored books with titles such as “Science and Other Poems” and “The Monarchs,” Alison Hawthorne Deming is an established voice in the realm of nature writing—both in poetry and prose. “Zoologies” decidedly stands as a testament to Deming’s unrelenting innovative thinking and writing in the genre.
When people hear about animals in danger of extinction or other instances in which the wild is threatened, regardless of if it is our fault or not, some ask, “What does that have to do with me?” Or they might question, “What does it matter if a species disappears?” Or perhaps, “I don’t even have pets, so what the hell do animals have to do with my life?” One of the most impressive moments in Deming’s collection is when she takes on this rhythm of questioning by discussing the dactyl. She explores:
Dactyl means finger. Dactyl means a unit of measure in a line of poetry. Dactyl is music. Dactyl is a bird claw. Dactyl is a group of ten small phallic males associated with the Great Mother in ancient myth. … The ancients say that the dactyls taught human mathematics and the alphabet. They say that when the Mother of the Gods gave birth, she went to a sacred cave on Mount Ida. She squatted down in labor and dug her ten fingers into the earth. The dactyl is the Earth Mother’s grip on life. A finger has three segments, the first segment being the longest. The dactyl in poetry has three syllables, the first one being the strongest. The dactyl is the basic foot in Greek and Latin epic poetry, usually composed in lines of six feet. … [W]hich came first, the finger or the foot, the bird or the poem? (36)
By providing us the many meanings of term “dactyl,” Deming makes her point that we cannot think of ourselves as separate from other species. We are all a part of wildness.
Deming pushes beyond the simple logistics of how nature and humans coexist, though. In “Zoologies,” she ventures into the areas of art and spirituality and poses questions as to how our values and philosophies as a society are built into our relationship with the wild.
Many people are creeped out by bugs, and our impulse is usually to kill them in whatever way we can. Deming questions this impulse and asks us what it is we should do with the fact that these “pests” create beautifully artistic geometrical designs. When she sees a flower cone made by ants, Deming is prompted to take an acute look at what we call “art” and the different ways in which perhaps art is not a sophisticated human invention, but a byproduct of life. In her poetic and meditative prose, she wonders,
[W]hy is it that the arrangement of the petals is so symmetrical, the sculptural appeal so tactile, the pattern of cone building repeated with such precise craft? How do chemicals tell the mindless ant to create form, symmetry, pattern, beauty? Do human beings misapprehend art as a goal or product, when it too is an artifact of a process that meets a biological need? (47)
Here, and in many other essays in “Zoologies,” Deming profoundly questions what type of animal we are—how we have created what holds beauty and meaning in our lives through our inherent biology and nature. In her poetic, yet clear and passionate, narrative voice, that she is known for, Deming uncovers the type of animal we are: “tool-making, art-making, symbol-making, and intensely social, engaged in a mutually reinforcing set of activities that make us speed-learners and obsessive connectors with one another” (216). We are creators, writers, and makers. In whatever form our creativity takes, our thoughts and experiences pour out of us as if something being held captive has been let loose. We compose and design, creating a type of lasting connection. How is it that we can feel that connection to something beyond ourselves when we create? Doesn’t that flow, that sense of connection, feel, well, wild?
Consider the ant’s natural byproduct of gorgeous geometrical designs. Could literature and art be a type of byproduct of being human?
“Zoologies” shows what happens when we unleash ourselves, specifically our ability to tap into that sense of wild stored up in us. In each essay, Deming lets her curiosities and passions slip out as she makes these connections between art, spirituality, and all living things. How wild is it that we all breathe the same air? That we are all on this same planet and that, essentially, our lives do not exist independently of each other?
We need the animals. We need the dactyl. We need the wild to burrow into us and inform our actions. That is how connection happens, when we release ourselves to each other—when we go wild.
Chelsey Clammer is the author of “BodyHome” and has been published in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, and Black Warrior Review among others. She is the Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown and Founding Editor of www.insideoutediting.com. Her second essay collection, “There Is Nothing Else to See Here,” is forthcoming from The Lit Pub.