Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Cats, books, love and eco-feminism.


I've been thinking a lot during the past few months about animals. How much they mean to me, and to us all. I grew up with one parent whose often very small flats were packed to the rafters with greyhounds and whippets, which accounts for the fact that most of my life I have been a dog person. Last year, my flat took in a cat that I immediately dismissed as 'rude' and 'snobby' (cat like) because she didn't leap into my arms immediately or respond to my meowing. However, tentatively, Lacey warmed to me and I to her. She was my first love of the cat world, and I became reliant on her companionship - I adopted her when our flat broke up and she moved house with me, and it became a source of pride to look after her well and see that she was happy, buy her the best kitty biscuits and make sure her fur was brushed. I felt like a grown up, and was glad to have a dependent. She was empirically and objectively the best cat to ever live, and when she was hit by a car the day before Christmas last year, her death really devastated me. I'm still heartbroken and I don't think I will ever be able to love another cat. I spend a lot of time looking at our pictures together, and watching the one video I have of her licking my eyelids.

This post is dedicated to her, and to all animals domestic and wild. At about the same time that Lacey entered my life, I had my job interview at Parnell Library and while I was there I borrowed a book which caught my eye, and which started something of a breadcrumb trail of fiction and non fiction, which fit very well with my romance with Lacey. That book was A New Zealand Book of Beasts, which is a wonderfully absorbing overview of the myriad roles of animals in the lives of New Zealanders. Covering animals in farming and agriculture, domestication and companionship, and representation in literature, art, and mythology, I found this book to be a very rewarding and compelling lesson in our cultural history. There are thrilling facts about the relationship of ancient Maori to our bird-life which blew my little mind, some adorable anecdotes, a look at the work of such beloved names as Janet Frame and Witi Ihimaera, and most importantly the ethical aspects of human-animal relations offer significant insights to some of the political characteristics of New Zealanders as a people. I would recommend this to vegans and vegetarians, agriculturalists and art historians alike, and it is a book that has had a lasting impact on my imagination and critical bearings.

Second in line in my breadcrumb trail of books about animals was The Postmodern Animal by Steve Baker, a treasure I found shelving in the basement not too long after finishing A New Zealand Book of Beasts, drawn in by the very appealing of a shark with a crudely executed painting clamped between its jaws (very cute). A more specifically art-focused collection of essays, Baker explores the animal via the lens of Postmodern theories of identification and creativity in a variety of mediums, including performance art, sculpture, and fiction writing. For fans of Derrida, performance art, body politics and so forth - another effectual and enjoyable collection of essays.

Thirdly, as I was growing weary of the academic and conceptual, I turned to the work of Megan Mayhew Bergman on a recommendation from a library patron. Not only was it like a soothing balm to my brain after my non fiction binge, to my delight (I do love serendipity) it tied in with everything I had been reading and thinking about, and perhaps because it is Mayhew's craft, everything I had been feeling. Birds of a Lesser Paradise is a collection of short stories which focuses on the inner lives of a handful of women, each with reference to their relationship with the animal world. A woman compelled to visit the once loathed pet parrot of her now dead mother. A woman affianced to the landscape and wildlife of the swamp but divided by her father's deteriorating health and dreams of capturing an endangered species. A recovering alcoholic who searches for redemption volunteering in an animal shelter. Mayhew traverses companionship, independence, motherhood, identification and subjugation in a way that is deft, simple, yet rarefied and almost spiritual. Birds of a Lesser Paradise reveals, as do A Book of New Zealand Beasts and The Postmodern Animal, the complex and profound relationships we have with animals, and the interweaving strands of political, historical and cultural relevance that make them up but often go unnoticed. Beneath the subtle prose lies encouragement of radical ecological and feminist theories, and I was not surprised to learn that Mayhew is married to a veterinarian and lives on a small farm in Vermont (a dream existence if I were ever to picture one). I was also not surprised to discover that her latest collection of short stories published January of this year, Almost Famous Women is just as exquisite to read. A glimpse into the private lives of extraordinary women who were nonetheless only a footnote in the lives of larger personalities, it is just as touching and attentive as Birds of a Lesser Paradise.

So! Go forth, read, and give some extra attention to your animal friends. And here is Lacey, R.I.P



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