The following is a conversation between Gavin Van Horn and Dave Aftandilian, the co-editors of the newly released City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness. Gavin and Dave recently sat down to reflect upon the Center for Humans and Nature’s City Creatures project, as well as the larger story of how animals connect us to place and peoples; animal agency and the numinous; their own essays in the City Creatures book; and what might come next for both of them.—Ed.
Dave Aftandilian (DA): Gavin, I know that City Creatures was one of the first projects you wanted to take on when you came on board with the Center for Humans and Nature. So what made you want to start with that?
Gavin Van Horn (GVH): A part of my job for the Center—when I think about creating a project and developing something—is that I always start with a question: What are the accessible entry points for people to understand themselves as in relationship with the natural world? So rather than start with a heady ethical concept, I think about the ways in which people can begin to conceive of themselves differently, of humanness differently, as connected to other forms of life.
I value non-human animals in my own life, and the way they’ve helped me expand my own sense of self, my own sense of local places, and my understanding of the planet generally. So when I think about the gateways for experiencing relationships with the natural world, it was a bit of a no-brainer to begin with all the life that surrounds us in urban areas.
Fortuitously in some ways, there’s been more and more energy going into this topic, from books to blogs to scientific research, so it really seemed to be the right moment for this kind of project as well. Why discuss animals apart from the city when we’re in the midst of so many other forms of life? The project was also a way for me to explore the city with fresh eyes. I came from an academic background where I studied and taught about wildlife, and so after I transitioned to a large urban area it made sense for me to bring that lens here, to Chicago.
GVH: Dave, I met you at the American Academy of Religion conference, but you come from a little bit different background than me, from the field of anthropology. Could you maybe talk a little bit about not only the lens you bring as an anthropologist but also what drives your interest in studying nonhuman animals and teaching students about human-animal relationships?
DA: That’s a great question. I guess I’ll give you a personal and an academic answer to that question, because kind of like for you, for me, they’re tied together. When I was growing up, I always felt more comfortable with other animals than I did with humans. Some of the animals I felt connected with were companion animals that we had in the house—dogs, cats, and the other animals that I might bring inside for a little while. But part of the connection was just from animals I saw outside. I grew up in Florida, so some of those animals were ones you might see in any suburban areas in the United States, but some of them were water animals. I always felt closer to these other animals, companion and wild; they made me feel more comfortable. And just like you, as I’ve grown, animals have always been a way for me to get to know a new place and to feel connected to it.
I believe the same thing can happen for our students. So whenever I teach any of my courses on religion and ecology, one of which is “Animals, Religion, and Culture,” I have a series of what I call “meditation” assignments. These basically get the students outdoors and engaging with a place, and using senses other than just their eyes. One of the things I always ask them to look for and think about are other animals, and what it would be like to experience that place through those animals’ senses. The students love these assignments. They’re only graded in so far as whether the students gave the assignments a full effort, kind of blew them off, or didn’t do them. Their written mediation responses are private between them and me, so they provide a chance to really explore and stretch out a little bit.
GVH: I think that’s really neat. I can see why students would be excited. I think there’s something to that. We have these kinds of experiences and are encouraged to have them as children, to play as other animals, and that’s considered a healthy part of childhood development. But then we’re told at a certain point in life—at least most of us are—to “grow up”; that’s not a thing that adults are supposed to do, at least not in conventional circles. So you’re basically giving your students a chance to revisit childhood but as young adults, and you’re giving them an opportunity that many of us would like to have, or would do naturally, if it wasn’t so often scoffed at.
DA: I could head in about fifty directions after that comment. I just want to stress briefly that this idea of how crucial animals are to the development of children, and to connecting them to other beings and to the outdoors—we didn’t make that up. Gene Myers has studied this and written about it in his book The Significance of Children and Other Animals, and David Becker has written in our book City Creatures about conservation psychology and the Hamill Family Play Zoo at Brookfield Zoo. Brookfield was one of the founders of that field.
But let me talk a bit now about religious conceptions of animals. If we go back and look at the earliest indications we have of “religion”—of humans opening themselves to something beyond this present world—if you look at the drawings on the cave walls of the Upper Paleolithic, 30,000 years ago: What do we mainly draw when we think about the spiritual? We draw animals; they are our first and most powerful connection outside of ourselves, whether it be to an otherworld or to this world, and to particular places like Chicago, which is what City Creatures is about.
Another powerful affirmation is that with Native peoples around the world, including the ones I have studied from North America—indigenous peoples, Native peoples, First Nations, however they refer to themselves—they have always taught that animals are beings, not just things. In Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s terminology, Natives see other animals as “Thous” with whom we humans can have an “I and Thou” relationship, not just an “I-It” relationship. And so it’s important for me—and I’m not sure this is so much teaching something to students as it is, as you just discussed, helping them remember something they may have forgotten—to point out that animals are beings on their own, they are agents; they do have their own emotions and thoughts and arguably even a sense of spirituality. Elephants have been documented mourning their dead, and chimpanzees do a special dance in the presence of a powerful rainstorm or at a waterfall or before a slow-moving brush fire that they do nowhere else. And it’s hard to understand such a dance as anything other than an expression of awe and wonder. So it’s even possible that animals have a spiritual sense. Certainly they have a moral sense. Marc Bekoff and many others have documented that very powerfully, and not just in primates, but in dogs and coyotes.
GVH: That’s something that we shouldn’t be surprised to find, either—given that our social behaviors evolved in particular contexts—that we are connected to other animals in this way. One of the things that makes me happy is when I’ve seen you stop someone who suggests that humans are “uniquely unique,” as David Abram has put it, that we are somehow more special than other animals. So many of the definitions of being human—and you are probably more aware of this than most because of your anthropological background—are founded on claims about what separates us from other species. But one by one those supposed human uniquenesses, whether it’s language or tool use or something else, have been shown to be permeable categories and that other animals share these behaviors and capabilities as well. Not exactly in the same way, of course, but in ways that are nevertheless affirming of our continuities with other species.
DA: I think that’s absolutely right. Every boundary that we have drawn between ourselves and other animals has eventually been called into question—and the “we” here would be Western sciences in particular, which have had a particular intellectual trajectory, since Native peoples have not gone this direction and have not tried as much to separate themselves from other animals.
Even if you look at Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, and the idea that humans alone are created in God’s image, fine, but what does that really mean? And then we can look at Genesis 1.28, where we are given “dominion” over every other being in the world. Well, does that mean that we can do whatever we want with them, or that we have a unique responsibility to care for them? That latter interpretation is the way theologian Andrew Linzey has read it, that we are the servant species; we alone can take care of every other being on the planet in God’s stead, and that’s our job here, as human beings. At least that’s Linzey’s reading of the meaning of that passage in Genesis.
I mention this partly because one of the subjects I teach is animals and religion, but also because you asked what connects with students, and part of it is just that innate connection to other animals as our fellow travelers in the adventure of life. That grabs them. But also, many of my students are Christian. I teach at a school called Texas Christian University, and even though we’re not a religious school—we like to say it’s a small “c”—many of our students are Christian, and one of the things we really struggle with in religious studies is: How do we deal with the fact that our students are young women and men who are developing their personal spirituality as well as their intellectual prowess in college? Often we just ignore it, and we assume that’s something they will go off and do on their own outside of class, and we just don’t go there. But I think it’s important to give students a chance to explore their spirituality through relationships with other animals. Earlier you mentioned that word “relationship” as key to the City Creatures project. To me, it also ought to be key to the way we teach about human-nature interactions, and if we ask people to care about nature, they have to be connected to it; and to be connected to nature, they have to understand they have a relationship with nature, and that it’s a two-way relationship, and so spiritual understanding is one way to get there. So that’s another thing that I think is important.
DA: Let me get back to the City Creatures project. We both talked about relationships. One of the things I think is unique about the City Creatures book that’s different from a lot of other edited volumes are the relationships that were developed among the contributors. I wonder if you could tell us a bit about that process.
GVH: Sure. This is one of the joys of my job. One of the things that our founder Strachan Donnelley used to do was gather people together to have intellectual and philosophical discussions, which were sometimes literally round table discussions. So one of the things my job affords me the opportunity to do is not only to choose a project that I think is worth studying and writing about, but it allows me to involve other people in that project and it gives me the resources to do that. I think our initial in-person meeting in the Indiana Dunes was only 15-20 people who we thought would make wonderful contributions. Of course, the project has since become much larger. But we knew we could let it snowball and fill the gaps and eventually have something really special. There’s been a pebble-in-the-pond effect. For example, we only had a couple of artists involved initially, but once we started making further contacts with the help of Lisa Roberts, who became our assistant art editor, it soon became apparent that the art in the book was just as important a form of storytelling as the written narratives.
DA: I think that’s absolutely right. One of the things we talk about in the introduction to the book is that we wanted to use various kinds of storytelling to reach people in a different way. That’s one thing that I am particularly excited about for this project. Art is a means to provoke, and poetry, too. Poetry, for me, gets at the numinous, the mysterious, that deep connection we share with animals that we almost can’t put into words. It’s been exciting to have a poetry editor, Jim Ballowe, involved as well. All of this has helped us show there are many ways to express and reflect upon our relationships with animals.
GVH: I like what you said about poetry. That was one of the pleasant surprises of putting the book together. The ways of discussing animals are as varied as the animals themselves, as varied as the human experience. Poetry allows a certain space, a kind of breathing room. Sometimes when we have too many words to use, we can constrict the meanings that are there. Poetry invites the reader into a deeper experience.
DA: I really think of poetry as a kind of contemplative practice.
GVH: One of the things that I remember you repeatedly saying throughout this process, not only to me, but also as encouragement to other authors, is that animals have agency, and that there is a distinction between real and symbolic animals in the ways that they figure into narratives. So I wonder if you could say a few words about that and why you feel this deserves emphasis.
DA: I mentioned earlier that Western science has a tendency to break things apart into their constituent pieces, and then analyze each of them in isolation. Furthermore, it tends to render living beings into data points, into a kind of object that occupies a scientific space, rather than a living being who shares an actual space with us. It’s much easier to abuse someone when you don’t view them as a “person”; when you don’t view them as equal to yourself. I’m sure readers can think of many examples in human history (including recent U.S. history) of this very process. And animals occupy that same space. If we viewed all animals as thinking, feeling beings with whom we share a person-to-person relationship, which is how Native peoples see them, as having subjectivity and agency, I don’t think there’s any way we could do what we do to animals in industrial agriculture. We wouldn’t confine a laying hen to a small “battery cage” where no hen can even open her wings without every other hen in that cage suffering. We just wouldn’t do it, there’s no way. So if we care about the welfare of other animals, and about making space for them amongst us, even in our cities, then it really helps to think of them not as things but as persons, as beings, as Thous rather than Its in relationship with us.
I realize I’m sort of hammering on science here and I don’t want science to bear all the blame.
GVH: And we should also say for the record that we have many scientists who wrote essays for the City Creatures book.
DA: That’s right, absolutely. It’s a question of how you do things. There are many scientists that do not fall into that overly reductionist category that I just mentioned, and, in fact, scientists in the field of cognitive ethology, which literally means the science of animal thinking, they’re some of the ones who have busted apart some of the so-called separations between humans and other animals that we have been discussing.
But I do want to say too that the ways we depict animals in our artworks and in our stories and in our religions—these also affect the ways we view real animals. If you think about the Judeo-Christian tradition, on the one hand, in Genesis, all of the other animals are companions for Adam. God makes them with the hope that Adam won’t be so lonely, and Adam gets to name them all. And then on the other hand there’s that pesky snake that sneaks into the Garden and tricks Eve and is all bad.
There’s a reason, then, why many people who view themselves as Jewish or Christian often have kind of a dim view of snakes. That distaste for snakes, which started with the symbolic snake in the Garden of Eden, then turns out to have serious consequences for the lives of real snakes, like the Massassauga rattlesnake that Stephan Swanson writes about in our City Creatures book. Massassaugas are critically endangered, and they became endangered partly because people see them through this negative symbolic lens.
So when the Animals and Religion Group that I used to co-chair in the American Academy of Religion puts together panels of professors who are going to be speaking about their particular topic at the conference, we always ask them to consider the impacts of what they’re studying for real animals. You can study donkeys as symbols in the Old Testament, for example, but we always want presenters to think about how those symbolic uses affect perceptions of donkeys in the real world. This helps keep our focus where it ought to be: on real animals.
DA: I have another question for you. City Creatures is bigger than just the book; for example, there’s the very active blog on the Center for Humans and Nature website. What does the blog do that the book can’t?
GVH: I was excited about the possible experimentation that a blog provides. Very quickly it became apparent that the blog could reach a large audience, and an audience that a book might not reach. Another factor was that we knew we would have to wait a long time for the book to come out, but with the blog there’s an immediacy to it that a book can’t capture: current animal news, hot topics—there’s a timing to a blog that makes it an attractive way to talk about recent encounters in an urban context. There are some people who keep personal blog sites about urban animals, and there is The Nature of Cities blog, but there was a niche for the City Creatures blog that I think worked well for putting these stories out into the world. It’s been a really beautiful way to connect to and meet writers, poets, artists, and photographers from around the world. For the book, we wanted to focus on a sense of place and so the larger Chicago region was our place, but blog pieces can come from any city, Mumbai, Berlin, Los Angeles, or wherever.
DA: It’s too abstract to focus on human-nature relationships everywhere; this is why we focused on Chicago in City Creatures. You mention that the blog reaches a lot farther than that. What do you think the book has to offer people from other cities or suburbs?
GVH: From the beginning, we knew we wanted to ground this book in a place, but we also know that urban areas around the world often share similar species—urban adapters, squirrels, rabbits, and now even mesocarnivores like coyotes—so we knew there would also be shared experiences in other cities that would make our Chicagoland book relevant to other places. Moreover, people are going to recognize their own experiences with other animals in our authors’ essays, because there are parallel experiences in all urban areas, no matter what country you live in. Would you add anything to that?
DA: Well, I think we’re, in a sense, inviting people and offering them a method of getting to know their city—whatever that city is—in a very different way by focusing on the other animals with whom they share it. Those animals are going to open them to experiences in the city that they never would have had before. I think of Andrew Yang, a contributor to our book, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and goes on urban insect expeditions with his students. Obviously you can do that in any city. I realize that maybe some people are going to be creeped out by that, you know “creepy-crawlies,” but there’s a lot of beautiful insects, too, some of which are featured in photographs in the book.
GVH: Or once you learn what insects are doing, the essential ecological roles they play as pollinators, the way they churn the soil—all the different functions they have can take you beyond aesthetic appeal to another level of apperception.
DA: It can also be a way to think about the cultures of other people whom we live with in the city. There’s a large Mexican-American population in Chicago. But we may not realize that many of them identify with monarch butterflies, who make that migratory journey between the U.S. and Mexico every year. One of our artists in the book, Hector Duarte, very consciously pairs the migrant experience of those butterflies with the migrant experience of Mexican-Americans living in Chicago.
GVH: Speaking of forms of migration, although it was against their will, your essay in City Creatures is about monk parakeets in Hyde Park, who have become naturalized there. Could you maybe say a little bit about this essay, and why you wanted to write it?
DA: Kind of like you, I had never lived in a big city before I came to Chicago. I came to Chicago for grad school, and in fact, before that, I was at Cornell for my undergraduate years. As folks may know, Cornell is in upstate New York, in the middle of nowhere—it’s in the Finger Lakes, which are beautiful, have great hiking, some good wineries if you’re inclined in that direction. But you know, very isolated. So basically, at Cornell I would hike, and I would study.
So I got to Chicago and I had never lived in a big city. I felt totally like a fish out of water. Plus there was also the climate. I got used to snow at Cornell; I grew up in Florida, so I hadn’t even seen snow as a kid. But the wind in Chicago in the winter is just brutal; some people call it “The Hawk.” So the winters in particular for me, I was living in Hyde Park and going to school at the University of Chicago, they were just tough. It’s gray for weeks on end. Plus, Hyde Park back when I was living there—it’s been getting better now, but at that time if you were coming back late from the library or from a friend’s apartment there was a certain amount of fear walking through the neighborhood. So I just was having a lot of trouble connecting to that place and feeling part of it. And of course as a grad student you’re also trying to find your way in the academic world, so there’s also a sense of, Where is my place, intellectually?, as well. So all of this was going on in my head.
I remember one winter day I was trudging from one place to another with my head down, and all of a sudden I heard these raucous squawks. And I was just like, what the heck, you know? So I look up, and I see this flash of green. And I think, OK, I must have made that up. But no, in fact, there were more, because it was a flock of bright green birds. As you said earlier, they were monk parakeets. These are birds that were imported for the pet trade in the 1960s and 1970s, and they had been taken from the wild in South America. This is no longer legal, and all of the monk parakeets that are sold today have been raised in captivity. But at the time, these were wild animals, and so, you know, who knows where the monk parakeets in Hyde Park first came from—maybe there were some students who had them and graduated and let them loose; there’s a story that maybe a shipment got dropped somehow at O’Hare and the birds just got out of their packing crates. But they naturalized to the Chicago region.
One of the things I like about their story is that the parakeets would not make it through the winter in Chicago without backyard bird feeders. So there’s this sense that in a way we do create a welcoming habitat for certain species of animals in the city, in a certain way. Normally we think about all the habitat we destroy, and yes, on balance, we probably destroy much more habitat than we create. But still, for the Hyde Park parakeets, people were a pretty good thing; we set up backyard bird feeders for them, so the parakeets could make it through the winter.
And they started to have babies, so there’s actually a fairly large population of monk parakeets in Hyde Park. Their range has actually been shifting a little bit out of Hyde Park in recent years, as I explain in my essay. But still, there are plenty of monk parakeets in Hyde Park.
I am not the only one who feels out of place in Chicago. You mentioned migration earlier, and any immigrant to a city can identify with a bird like the monk parakeet. And the birds are not like zebra mussels that make their way into our waterways and just make themselves at home. We forcibly kidnapped these monk parakeets from their homes and brought them to the city. There are people who complain about them: they’re noisy, and if you happen to live near one of their nests there’s a whole bunch of droppings. If you’re the power company, like ComEd or whoever, the parakeets build their nests up on top of power poles, and the nests sometimes catch on fire from the electricity running through them, so the power companies are not too keen on that.
But they’re outcasts, they’re outsiders. And Harold Washington—maybe he was the only African American mayor Chicago has ever had; certainly he was the first—he identified with the monk parakeets. He lived in Hyde Park, near what has become named Washington Park in his honor, that was right outside his apartment window, and the parakeets lived there, that was one of their original nesting sites. He was even a little superstitious about them; as long as the parakeets were OK, he thought he was going to be OK.
I like the parakeets, too, because there are monk parakeets throughout the United States. There’s a large colony in Brooklyn, and if you think about Brooklynites and Hyde Parkers, there are some similarities there. So these birds have been kind of fortunate in their choice of locales.
Anyway, I just love the monk parakeets. I love their story. We often have a particular view of invasive species, and even that word “invasive” carries a connotation that they are evil, bad things that are outcompeting other birds. Well monk parakeets don’t do that; they build their own nests, they don’t steal nests or nesting sites from other birds. One of the people that I write about has theorized that maybe they are filling a niche that was left vacant by our destruction of the Carolina parakeet.
GVH: That’s really interesting. That’s a perfect example of the way in which you came to identify with these birds, and they made the city a more comfortable place for you, made you feel more at home, and eased your transition. At the same time, here you’ve just told me all these facts about monk parakeets that you’ve learned, not only about the birds themselves but about the way they fit into the larger urban environment. So I think you just did a wonderful job of showing the ways that other species can be portals for us to understand the city as a lifeworld.
DA: While we’re on the topic of our own essays, we close out the volume with your essay. I particularly like it because it starts getting us thinking about some policy decisions related to other animals and how we could provide habitat for them if we chose to do so. You write about wolves and buffalo, and those two animals have been connected for a long time, both significant animals for Native peoples of the plains and elsewhere. So, I want to ask about wolves because I know your dissertation research was about attitudes toward the reintroduction of Mexican wolves in the Southwest. So, why wolves, and why study human-wolf interactions, and what are some of the policy implications of thinking about wolves and buffalo and making a place for them in Chicagoland?
GVH: Wow. There’s a lot there. Well, first of all, I was drawn to wolves because I was in a religion and nature program and we studied peoples’ values, ethics, and beliefs and what shapes those values. So, the more controversial a species, the more clear those lines of value. Whether people think a species is part of their community or not, for example, tells us a lot about what people think and oftentimes informs how they treat the land. Wolves in the Southwest were recently reintroduced (in 1998) and are tremendously controversial because wolves often serve as surrogates for other political and value fault lines.
The second reason: wolves are fascinating because they occupy liminal space in many people’s minds. What I mean is that a person can have an extreme hatred of wolves and yet have three pet dogs, and dogs of course are domesticated version of wolves—very different behaviorally because of that domestication, but nevertheless. So there’s this very interesting line between the wild and the domestic, and the way that wolves violate a sense of what belongs where, and what is within our control and what is not within our control.
The last reason they are interesting is that large carnivores—like bears, like wolves, like mountain lions—challenge us in a way that other animals don’t. What I mean by that is that you don’t have to have a particular opinion on a blue jay—you might like them, you might not, but they don’t pose any threat. A lot of animals don’t challenge us to change our behaviors. But if we’re going to exist in the same landscape with wolves, and mountain lions, and bears, we have to think about how to adapt to their presence. To me, that’s an exciting thing because, going back to our conversation about other animals, you can’t ignore the agency of wolves. You can try to snuff that agency out or you learn how to live with it, and that requires something of us. And that’s interesting to me on an ethical, spiritual, and religious level—how we adapt and change our stories, and if that’s possible, so that other animals can co-exist with us.
DA: What are some of the policies we could adopt if we wanted to co-exist with apex predators like wolves?
GVH: Well, the first thing I should say is that although there are wolves in certain parts of the world that exist around or near cities, wolves are not going to be happy in cities. So this is really a challenge that requires us to look at the city as connected to the larger landscape.
So, to use one simple example, in terms of policy, you have to talk about infrastructure and the way that the automobile has been ascendant in the United States for the last one hundred years. Our landscapes are a spider web of pavement, and there are vehicles moving very quickly across that pavement, which makes them death-traps for many species, not just large carnivores. But large carnivores like wolves or, for that matter, large herbivores like bison, need a lot of space, need a lot of habitat to find their food, to disperse, to migrate. To do that, they must have the ability to get across roads or over or under them. Assuming cars aren’t going away anytime soon—although, who knows, fingers crossed—then if we’re thinking about and through the eyes of other species, as you talked about earlier in the context of your students, then we need to think about how we construct our landscapes in a way that is amenable to other animals’ movements and to their survival, ultimately.
There is a scientist, Michael Rosenzweig, who has written a book on what he calls reconciliation ecology, which is exactly what I’m speaking about here: thinking about our cities and landscapes as habitat for other species, and then creating, either on pre-existing infrastructure, or if something new must be built, then creating with the needs of other species in mind. I see that as a very hopeful concept to pursue.
DA: I do, too. This is another way this book reaches out to other urban areas. Depending on where you are in the U.S., you’re going to have these same questions. For instance, in south Florida, there are Florida panthers and roads. And to use another animal as an example, gopher tortoises: How do you get them under a road safely? There’s a large field of urban wildlife management and ecology that’s been growing, and there are ways we can do it; it’s been tried and there’s been some success.
GVH: On a much smaller scale, too. One of the sections of our book is called “Backyard Diversity” and now there are backyard wildlife habitat certifications that people can get by planting certain native plants that attract bees and butterflies, certain native species of birds as well as birds that are migrating through the city. So it depends what scale you are talking about, but there are things that are very much within the power of any of us to do to change and to think about the spaces in which we live as space for others as well.
GVH: Okay, a question for you. You’ve mentioned religion and animals—in part because of where you teach and what you study—a few times today. What else might you want to say about the ethical and spiritual importance of animals in the city?
DA: It never ends. One thing is, when you’re in the city, it’s very easy to get a sense of isolation; isolation from nature or from the spiritual. I mean, if you’re out hiking among the redwoods in California, it’s kind of hard not to think about the spiritual. It’s like when you’re in one of the great houses of worship somewhere in the world, it doesn’t matter where or what religion it is, you have this sense of space and the numinous, the kind of unseen glow that suffuses such areas. It’s a little harder to get that when you’re walking to work in the city or suburbs; and if you’re driving, it might be even harder.
But animals can take us out of ourselves, and can alert us to the presence of other beings, and things even beyond beings. So when I walk to campus from my house in Fort Worth, I’m always watching and listening for other animals. For example, there’s this pack of crows—they’re a mob, and they literally are a mob, I think—and they just kind of hang out in the neighborhood. Sometimes they show up and sometimes they don’t for a while; they clearly have their own agenda. But when they appear, all of a sudden I’m not focusing on trudging to work, thinking about whatever I have to teach that day. Instead I’m drawn out of myself to think about others, and you can put a capital on that Other if you like. So I think that animals can do that for all of us.
We have a really great essay in the book by Lea Schweitz about an opossum that opens the eyes of this theology teacher and her son to the spiritual that may not always be pretty. But fear is another aspect of spirituality, and I think we kind of ignore it at our own peril. We often want to focus on these positive emotions, and humans are driven partly by love and happiness and so forth. But we’re partly driven also by what we fear. And if we think about that, if we probe that just a little bit: Why is it frightening to see an opossum at night? Well, they look kind of ghostly; they’ve got that weird tail and they’re just unexpected; and they’ve got that white little face, you know. And if you think about it, it’s partly that they’re different that makes us fear them. If you think about contemporary events, people of different faiths may be frightening to us at first, simply because of their difference. But when you get to know them as a person, all of a sudden you start to see a lot more connections than you do differences. I feel that animals can help us start that kind of interfaith dialogue, even if we don’t think that they necessarily have any spirituality themselves, though I’ve argued that they might.
GVH: That’s really interesting. I’d never thought of it in quite that way before.
DA: The other thing, too, is that regardless of whether you are a person of faith or not, you have an ethical system that guides your actions. Partly it was whatever your parents taught you when you were growing up. Maybe you learned part of it in school, and part of it from the people you’ve met over the course of your life. But animals challenge our ethics. If we make decisions when we’re thinking just about today, there’s obvious problems with that in the human world, and that’s why members of the Iroquois confederacy have tried to think seven generations into the future. Those future humans were seen as part of their community. Well, who is part of our community in the city? Is it just humans? Or does it include other animals as well? And if we then make decisions about how we build things, which is what you were just talking about, keeping other animals in mind as part of our community, then that really changes who we see as part of our community and worthy of care. Animals alert us to all of that stuff.
GVH: They do. I very much appreciate what you’re saying about urban areas bringing us into contact with a diversity of people in a way that could potentially break down some of our own biases and prejudices with other species as well. This is not entirely a new phenomenon, but more people live in cities today than ever before, and so if directed in the right way that could serve as a way to break through some of our own anthropocentrism.
DA: Yes. Absolutely. I had one other question here. I guess it has to do with where do we go from here. This project has gotten me re-inspired in terms of researching and teaching about animals and it’s led me in new directions. One of the things you have done for a while is keep a nature journal. I know that as you’ve worked on the City Creatures project, you’ve written non-fiction nature essays and have been getting those published. I’m curious about what role this journaling played in the first place and where it might take you after City Creatures.
GVH: I would like to pull together some of these pieces and shape it into a book of essays, which will be focused on urban rewildings. Provisionally the title is The Channel Coyotes and Other Urban Rewildings. So, I’m looking forward to pulling that together as a book about my own personal explorations of learning what a city is and what it can be through the lives of other animals. You asked about journaling and that’s always been important to me, how ideas often begin: as a small seed, or one line even, or a quick poem jotted down, or just an observation of a bird I haven’t seen before, or a blooming plant that is completely unknown to me that causes me to go back and look it up and find out why it’s there and how it got there. But it’s especially important as a writing tool, I think, to carry something around that you can jot down a thought or idea on.
One other thing that I want to mention is a way the City Creatures project as a whole could expand even further. We are currently discussing the idea at the Center of doing something online for mapping people’s encounters with urban wildlife. Not just that they had the encounter but a kind of “storymap” from around and beyond the city that would give some really interesting points of reference for visualizing all the spaces that people are having these experiences of urban wildlife. It would really be a larger public project. We’ll see if that comes about.
GVH: What about you, Dave, what other projects do you have in the works?
DA: I’ve got a number of things. We’ve started a contemplative studies initiative here at TCU. You know, I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to fit into that but I’ve been using those contemplative meditations in class that I described earlier. I’m working right now on a paper about the very powerful ways to connect to nature and other animals when you close your eyes and listen. Basically a pedagogical technique that other people can take and run with in their own classes.
Another project I’m working on is kind of along similar lines: looking at the ways animals can help people connect to place. I have a small research grant from TCU to start a project on the spirituality of animal rescue. One thing we often don’t realize is that when you care about animals so deeply that you spend every waking moment putting their care above your own, which is what animal rescuers do whether they’re working with cats or dogs or birds or other wildlife, these are people who have a tremendously large heart for other beings, and among the rescuers that I’ve spoken to, spirituality plays a very large part in that process—the feeling of spiritual connection to other animals, the spiritual responsibility to care for them, even thinking about what happens to animals after death (Do they have a soul? Do they go to heaven? Will we ever see them again?). I think there’s a lot to this. This is going to be an ethnographic project. I’ll be talking to folks about their rescue work, what inspires them, and how it’s changed their thinking about religion, if it has.
GVH: Exciting stuff. You know, we often think of a book as a kind of end point, but, really, it might just be the beginning for many other things.
GVH: We should probably end with a howl?