Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The World According to Martha


Reading Russell McLendon's recent piece about the anniversary of the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, made me think about animal histories. I had been thinking about the way humans consider their past--issues of inheritance, family ties, legacies that are passed down through generations, and how those are both good and bad for people. How there are things our ancestors did that we're still on the hook for; things our ancestors suffered that still ripple out into our own lives. The way that people born to a place feel connected to it and will defend it, and how animals are (at least in theory) separated from that kind of thinking.

People have whole stories of how they belong in a place and how it belongs to them, a version of history that adds up to an explanation of how we came to be where we are, and often a story of why we control what we do.

When you visit the Alhambra in Granada, for example, or the cathedral in Seville, you're walking through spaces that have been Christian and Muslim and Christian and Muslim for centuries, based on the battles for control that went on there. The bell tower in the Seville cathedral, La Giralda, used to be a minaret. So much of the architecture is like that, a sort of structural palimpsest on which one thing was written and then written over and then written over again, but pieces of the original thing still show through.

While I was at the Alhambra years ago, I noticed not just the architecture, but the swallows who were flying in and out of one of the main courtyards, swooping for bugs, occasionally dipping into one of the fountains. It made me think about their ancestors: Had this swallow's family lived here for long? Did this line of birds go back centuries, so that their great-great-great-great grandfathers might have witnessed the fights between religious devotees, each trying to claim the land for their own vision?

And if animals were inclined to record their history in the same way we keep track of ours--the wars, the treaties, the grudges that are held and echo for centuries--what might they have to say about the primates who left the animal kingdom and became something else?

(I should note that I'm actually a dog lover, but that the parasitical nature of our favorite slobbering companions has always made me wonder how other animals perceive them--whether they're considered the Benedict Arnolds of the wild kingdom. And also that the thing I liked best about the process of writing this poem was discovering that a group of apes is called a "shrewdness"--probably the best herd term ever.)


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This draft went extinct.

3 comments:

TC said...

This is extremely engaging, far more insight than twaddle.

Unfortunately we are left to tell the animal histories for the animals, who cannot speak; and because it's "our world", not theirs, too many of these stories turn out to be tragedies.

M. C. Allan said...

Hi TC -- thank you for the comment; really appreciate it. Your blog about the buffalo is heartbreaking.

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