Muir Among the Animals (collected writings 1874-1916)

My Edition:muir
Title: Muir Among the Animals: The Wildlife Writings of John Muir
Author: John Muir. Lisa Mighetto, ed.
Publisher: Sierra Club Books
Device: Hardcover book
Year: 1986
Pages: 196

Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.[i]

John Muir (1838-1914), the naturalist, is well known as an advocate for the preservation and celebration of natural places through his life and exploration of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and other wild regions of the American West. He was a co-founder of the Sierra Club and his writings were influential in the development of the National Park Service.

Born in Scotland, Muir’s preacher father moved the family to a Wisconsin farm when he was 11. Muir and the Animals is a collection of his writings about his relationship to the farm animals and family pets of his childhood and the untamed wild ones he encountered as he traversed the trails of the Sierras. A singular feature of Muir’s muir1writing is its opposition to his father’s stern Christian faith and the manner in which it perceives the natural world, where creation is for man’s use and control regardless of the consequences.

In Muir’s world animals have a certain anthropomorphic quality about them whether predator or prey, wild or domestic. No animal is too small-ants and bees, or too large-bears and wolves to escape his thoughts. Nor does he shy away from attacking man’s insatiable appetite for meanness and destruction of animal or habitat for what man believes God gave to us to use.

This star, our own good earth, made many a successful journey around the heavens ere man was made, and whole kingdoms of creatures enjoyed existence and returned to dust ere man appeared to claim them. [ii]

Muir thinks of animals as ‘fellow citizens,’and calls them’insect people’ and ‘feathered people’ “with rights that we are bound to respect.”[iii] Animals have a worth apart from what man wants to use them for. He hoped for a “recognition of the rights of animals and their kinship to ourselves.”[iv] He noted the interconnectedness of all living things at a time when the slaughter and massacre of so-called pests, like the coyote, caused a plague of hares; pointing out that ranchers killed coyotes for poaching their sheep, but in turn eliminated the natural predator of rabbits, whose unchecked proliferation damaged fields of crops.[v]

The book is divided into chapters delineating types of animals: Herbivores, Birds, Domestic Animals, Insects and Predators. Edited by Lisa Mighetto, she has collected material from his various books, magazine articles and unpublished works spanning the years 1874-1916.

As someone who hikes and spends time in Nature, I should be more familiar with Muir’s writings, especially having spent a summer in the Owen’s Valley, but he has escaped me until now. I have only read snippets of his work and various quotes, but being this is the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service it’s time I read more.

I have known many dogs, but to none do I owe so much as to Stickeen. At first the least promising and least known of my dog-friends, he suddenly became the best known for them all. Our storm-battle for life brought him to light, and through him as through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals. [vi]

Here are several descriptions of John Muir’s encounters and observations of his “horizontal brothers.”

When the Gold Rush of the 1840s ended, tourists from the Midwest and the East began exploring the ‘wilds’ of California. Yosemite and the Sierras were on many an itinerary. Muir spent several years working in Yosemite Valley and when he heard people decry the absence of wildlife he counseled: “…if such would go singly, without haste or noise, away from the region of trails and pack-trains, they would speedily learn that these mountain mansions are not without inhabitant, many of whom, confiding and gentle, would be glad to make their acquaintance.”[vii]

In the section on birds, Muir hoped to gain them sympathy, because they were often slaughtered to extinction. His piece on one town’s massacre of the passenger pigeon is particularly poignant and the killing of robins for Sunday dinner “with shameful enthusiasm,”[viii] vividly told. But in this happier account, he writes about his encounter with mountain quail, speaking of them like a crowd of humans from another country:

Once when I was seated at the foot of a tree on the headwaters of the Merced, sketching, I heard a flock up the valley behind me….Soon one came within three or four feet of me…Presently along came another and another….At last one of them caught my eye, gazed in silent wonder for a moment, then uttered a particular cry, which was followed by a lot of hurried muttered notes that sounded like speech. The others, of course, saw me as soon as the alarm was sounded, and joined the wonder talk, gazing and chattering, astonished but not frightened. Then all with one accord ran back with the news to the rest of the flock “What is it? Oh, you never saw the like. Not a deer, or a wolf, or a bear; come see, come see! [ix]

As a child, the Muir family had a dog named Watch and although he couldn’t read books “we soon learned he could read faces, was a good judge of character, always knew what was going on and what we were about to do.”[x] Unfortunately, Watch had an appetite for chickens from the surrounding farms and for these acts of stealing was condemned to death. After the execution, Muir’s father examined his stomach contents and found numerous chickens. This made Muir muse on the fact though humans eat the same dish without penalty, “our fellow mortals “who eat what we eat….” are doomed for it, instead. Muir takes comfort that the “vast multitudes of creatures, great and small and infinite in number, lived and had a good time in God’s love before man was created.”[xi]

On the advantages of growing up on a farm Muir writes:

is the gaining a real knowledge of animals as fellow-mortals, learning to respect them and love them, and even to win some of their love. Thus godlike sympathy grows and thrives and spreads far beyond the teachings of churches and schools, where too often the mean, blinding, loveless doctrine is taught that animals have neither mind nor soul, have no rights that we are bound to respect, and were made only for man, to be petted, spoiled, slaughtered, or enslaved.[xii]

On the grasshopper, who is a “jolly fellow”:

I was much interested with the hearty enjoyment of the one that danced and sang for me on the Dome this afternoon. He seemed brimful of glad, hilarious energy…A fine sermon the little fellow danced for me…a likely place to look for sermons…A large and imposing pulpit for so small a preacher…Even the bear did not express for me the mountain’s wild health, and strength and happiness so tellingly as did this comical little copper…To him every day is a holiday…[xiii]

How many mouths Nature has to fill, how many neighbors we have, how little we know about them, and how seldom we get in each other’s way! Then to think of the infinite numbers of smaller fellow mortals, invisibly small, compared with which the smallest ants are mastodons.[xiv]

And finally, this plea:

The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge. From the dust of the earth, from the common elementary fund, the Creator has made Homo sapiens. From the same material He has made every other creature, however noxious and insignificant to us. They are earth-born companions and our fellow mortals….Plants are credited with but dim and uncertain sensation, and minerals with positively none at all. But why may not even a mineral arrangement of matter be endowed with a sensation of a kind that we in our blind exclusive perfection can have no manner of communication with?

But, glad to leave these ecclesiastical fires and blunders, I joyfully return to the immortal truth and immortal beauty of Nature.[xv]

Me, too!

southfortuna

________

[i] p. xi.
[ii] p. 192.
[iii] p. xxv.
[iv] p. xii.
[v] p. vvx.
[vi] p. 82. for an account this perilous experience see here.
[vii] p. 11-12.
[viii]
p. 68.
[ix] p. 54-55.
[x] p. 97.
[xi] p. 99.
[xii] p. 105.
[xiii] p. 111-113.
[xiv] p. 117.
[xv] p. 194.

 

The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells (1896)

My Edition:Moreau
Title: The Island of Dr. Moreau
Author: H.G. Wells
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services LLC, Kindle Edition
Device: Kindle Fire
Year: 1896
Pages: 114
For a plot summary

These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes. To that, to the study of the plasticity of living forms, my life has been devoted.[i]

There are so many ways to approach this novel: as a horror story, an adventure story, a scientific experiment gone bad. But it is definitely a novel about morality and the biblical idea of man’s dominion, or some would say, responsibility, over animals. And does that extend to our medical interference with their nature: we have the techniques, but do we have the right?

The story is told by Edward Prendick, who is lost at sea and discovered by a passing ship. He is taken under the wing of a passenger named Montgomery who with his strange assistant is taking an odd assortment of animals to an undisclosed location. Prendick’s situation as extra baggage on the ship gets him in hot water with the captain and after a harrowing struggle not to be thrown overboard he winds up in Montgomery’s party and disembarks with them on an island.

The island is off the charts and secluded for reasons made clear right away. It turns out it is a laboratory run by infamous vivisector, Dr. Moreau who was run out of London for doing what he is doing here: conducting torturous experiments on animals by changing their physical body as well as their minds into half men, half beasts and keeping some animals alive for weeks as he cuts and modifies and grafts parts of them from one to another. He justifies his work as science, for the greater good to humans that the established scientific profession is too afraid to consider. From Prendick’s days as a biology student, the name ‘Moreau’ brings back the memory of the scandal that caused him to be hounded out of London.

It dawned upon me to what end the puma and the other animals…were destined; and a curious faint odour, the halitus of something familiar… suddenly came forward into the forefront of my thoughts. It was the antiseptic odour of the dissecting room. I heard the puma growling through the wall, and one of the dogs yelped as though it had been struck.[ii]

After an uneasy sleep, Prendick’s first morning on the island is disturbed by a sharp, hoarse cry of animal pain coming from the locked door of the laboratory. Its depth and volume sounded like the puma. Throughout the morning as he eats his breakfast then tries to read the sounds of screaming and agony coming from the laboratory continue in intensity,

as if all the pain in the world had found a voice. It is when suffering finds a voice and sets our nerves quivering that this pity comes troubling us.[iii]

He is terrified and the puma’s cries force him from his room.

The emotional appeal of those yells grew upon me steadily, grew at last to such an exquisite expression of suffering that I could stand it…no longer.[iv]

A short distance from the laboratory enclosure he has his first meeting with what he believes is an inhabitant of the island, but cannot figure out what it is. He initially thinks it a man, but does not understand why it is walking on all fours and is the color of copper with black hair and of a ‘grotesque ugliness.’ He comes upon an open space.

Before me, squatting together upon the fungoid ruins of a huge fallen tree and still unaware of my approach, were three grotesque human figures. One was evidently a female; the other two were men. They were naked save for swathings of scarlet cloth about the middle; and their skins were of a dull pinkish-drab colour, such as I had seen in no savages before. They had fat, heavy, chinless faces, retreating foreheads, and a scant bristly hair upon their heads. I never saw such bestial looking creatures.[v]

[One] seemed to me to be reciting some complicated gibberish…and spreading his hands he rose to his feet….I noticed then the abnormal shortness of the legs, and their lank, clumsy feet…The three creatures engaged in this mysterious rite were human in shape, and yet human beings with the strangest air about them of some familiar animal—some now irresistible suggestion of a hog, a swinish taint, the unmistakable mark of the beast.[vi]

Prendick confronts Dr. Moreau about all he has seen. Moreau justifies what he is doing as benefiting science and mankind.

You forget all that a skilled vivisector can do with living things. For my own part, I’m puzzled why the things I have done here have not been done before. Small efforts, of course, have been made, amputation, tongue-cutting, excision….You have heard, perhaps of a common surgical operation resorted to in cases where the nose has been destroyed; a flap of skin is cut from the forehead, turned down on the nose, and heals in the new position. This is a kind of grafting in a new position part of an animal upon itself. Grafting of freshly obtained material from another animal is also possible,–the grafting of teeth, of skin and bone is done…[vii]

But the possibility of vivisection does not stop at a mere physical metamorphosis. A pig may be educated. The mental structure is even less determinate than the bodily. In our growing science of hypnotism we find the promise of a possibility of superseding old inherent instincts by new suggestion, grafting upon or replacing the inherited fixed ideas. Very much of what we call moral education, is such an artificial modification and perversion of instinct.

To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter.[viii]

However, Moreau IS troubled by his inability to keep these creatures from falling back into their animal state after he has physically and mentally trained them up to a certain level of ‘intelligence.’ They have rudimentary speech and behavior. But they are more like children, who have learned to live their life through fear (of Moreau and his House of Pain). They are given a set of Laws* recited by the Sayer of the Law, which they repeat back with the refrain: Are we not Men? But alas they aren’t. To Moreau’s frustration, no matter how much or how many times he makes adaptations that allow for a certain level of higher function, his creations always revert to their ‘bestial ways.’

My Thoughts

*I* am troubled by a scientist gone rogue whose perversion of his profession has out-weighed his moral conscience. Moreau’s only concern is his experiments, his ‘creations’ and how this will garner him attention from contemporaries who think he is only a madman. He doesn’t care that the price for this infliction of pain and torture is on sentient beings, who cannot give consent or protect themselves against this infringement on their life and liberty. In Wells’s day vivisection was approved by the British medical establishment if it was used to benefit human diseases and conditions.

In the 21st century, we also accept that medical science has the right to experiment in order to help heal and cure diseases in humans. But as regards to using animals in this way, it is tempered with the moral injunction against causing them harm and pain. In fact, many researchers and scientists, sensitive to animal suffering or who have moral objections against their use in science, have spoken against using animals in experiments. Computer models with data gathered from the past is sufficient, they say, and that ultimately, a procedure or medication has to be tested on humans anyway, who CAN give consent.

I have spent this week contemplating many of the ideas of this book. On a personal note, I was a little taken aback when Moreau mentioned working on skin grafts and skin flaps. Both are well-respected procedures that have been in use, for example, for skin cancer procedures in which the initial operation has removed a lot of skin with the cancer leaving a hole that must be closed. I benefited from a skin graft procedure on my face for basal cell skin cancer. I was grateful that such a procedure was possible. But I will forever look at it differently, wondering if some poor animal had to suffer for it.

Ack. I read to be entertained, but I also read to learn. Now I just have to figure out if this particular learned thing was worth it!

********************

* Here is the infamous Law Moreau taught to one of his more astute creatures in order to control behavior and to point out the hierarchy (some say to point out Moreau’s divinity) on the Island. All are to repeat each line after he says it. When Prendick stumbles upon them, the first thing they say is he has to know the Law.

 

It is a man. He must learn the Law. Say the words:

 Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

 Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

 Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

 Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

His is the House of Pain.

His is the Hand that makes.

His is the Hand that wounds.

His is the Hand that Heals.

His is the lightning flash.

His is the deep, salt sea.

His are the stars in the sky.

Eat roots and herbs; it is His will.

Some want to follow things that move, to watch and slink and wait and spring; to kill and bite, bite deep and rich, sucking the blood. It is bad. ‘Not to chase other men; that is the Law. Are we not Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to eat Flesh or Fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men?[iv]

[i] p. 59.
[ii] p.28.
[iii] p. 31.
[iv] p. 30.
[v] p. 34.
[vi] p. 34.
[vii] p. 59.
[viii] p. 63.
[ix] p. 49-51.