Category Archives: Animals

Posts that focus on animals and religion

Monster Mash

American MonstersIn one of those ironies of personal history, I never met Linda Godfrey although we lived not far from one another and shared a great many common interests. I’m not sure she would return the sentiment, but while I lived at Nashotah House many odd things happened. Academics can be pretty deep in denial about what they experience, and although I never saw any man-wolves, as I stood outside one night to photograph a comet I felt terribly exposed and in not a little danger. This was on a rural seminary campus. Nashotah was still wooded then, before evangelical shaving of the landscape, and certainly among the most gothic of seminaries I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile Linda Godfrey was researching, just a few miles down the road, weird animal sightings on Bray Road. I began a correspondence with her after we left Wisconsin and I have read all of her books. Local history has always fascinated me, and although I was an accidental Wisconsonite, I nevertheless enjoyed learning about the strangeness of the state I formerly called home.

Godfrey’s latest book, American Monsters: A History of Monster Lore, Legends, and Sightings in America, throws a wider net. We are all in here with the monsters. Blending, as the subtitle suggests, lore and legends with eyewitness accounts, American Monsters can leave the reader a little disoriented, in a good way. We’ve been taught to discount anything that doesn’t match the everyday—what boss wants a worker with a higher vision?—and pretend that such things don’t exist. Weird creatures don’t donate their bodies to science readily, and we are left wondering if something is really peering at us from these October woods. Inside you’ll find stories of flying, swimming, and running monsters. We are safe nowhere. Either from the scientifically undocumented or from those that are purely imaginary. I stand outside in the dark in a smallish town waiting for a bus. What was that sound behind me?

Monsters are only now beginning to gain academic respectability. When I was in graduate school the topic felt so puerile that no respectable Ph.D. candidate would dare suggest such a dissertation to a button-down committee. Now they are beginning to roll off the presses. As part of the religious imagination, monsters are not so easily dismissed. We can assign them to the dark caverns of fantasy and under-stimulated imagination, but they will burst out in their own time and, like gods, demand our devotion. I have no idea whether these cryptids creep, flap, or swish around in our world. People see them all the same. And believing may be seeing. I’m glad for Godfrey’s success at pointing out that our rational world is full of monsters. Hers is a perfect book for days of effacing light and lengthening shadows, all across the country.

See Serpent

GreatNewEnglandSeaSerpentSeeing, it is said, is believing. I have a feeling that this truism may have become effaced somewhat in this age of deft photo manipulation and apps that are marketed to insert ghosts and UFOs into any picture. Nevertheless, anyone who has seen anything genuinely puzzling knows that it creates a lasting impression. A world without mystery, although a capitalist’s dream, is a nightmare for everyone else. So it was, now that October is here, I settled down with J. P. O’Neill’s The Great New England Sea Serpent. I found O’Neill’s book in a used bookstore a few weekends ago (appropriately water-damaged), and since I have a fascination with the ocean and monsters, this seemed like it would appeal to both of my avocations. It did indeed. O’Neill isn’t a sensationalist writer, but rather she is a normal person with normal jobs who has an interest in strange animals. Beginning in 1751 and up to three-quarters through the twentieth century, people had been spotting a classical sea serpent along the New England coast, and occasionally on ocean voyages across the Atlantic. Of course, we’re told, sea serpents don’t exist.

The Great New England Sea Serpent is a compendium of sightings from many reliable witnesses over the centuries. Of course, to many it is impossible. To me this appears to be the same kind of arrogance we apply to the universe—if we haven’t catalogued it by now, it doesn’t exist—to suggest there are no monsters of the deep. As any oceanographer will tell you, we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about our own oceans. If you turn your globe (or app) just right, there are views of our planet where virtually no land is visible. We are a watery planet. Even with current technology, the deep ocean is difficult, and very expensive, to explore. Who knows what might be lurking there right off the bow? O’Neill’s account is full of old salts and snarky journalists, but at the core of it all is a humility in the face of the largeness of the sea. What do we really know?

Of course, there is a fear of literalism. The Bible (and other ancient texts) take sea monsters for granted. Leviathan is a dangerous beast and, no matter what the pundits say, is no crocodile. And yet, for the past several decades the reports of the New England beast have dried up. Where has our beloved sea serpent gone? I have to wonder with both our polluting our oceans and our increasingly efficient (and massive) ships, if we haven’t simply forgotten that ancient maps used to leave space for dragons. Our great ships, guided by GPS, and our oceans running a temperature, are sure signs that greed has surpassed wonder. Have we, in our self-centeredness, slain the last of our dragons? O’Neill, please understand, does not call them dragons. Hers is a sober and straightforward account. But when October comes I just can’t help but hope there are still some monsters out there, deep under the waves.

Disco Duck

From the Roman Empire, Holy or otherwise, to the British Empire upon which the sun once never set, human endeavors are inevitably temporary. We like to think we’re making lasting contributions. Not so long ago Phil Robertson could make claims on vast amounts of media attention for his homiletical, gun-toting brand of family values. Despite not being a television watcher, even I was drawn into the drama as Happy! Happy! Happy! became a bestseller. Perhaps because my pursuit of religion has never earned me three such exclamation points, I read the book to find the secret of success. It is a combination of unquestioning belief and a willingness to blow the heads off of ducks in flight. Not that I would know about such things. The Dynasty made its way into Time magazine and other media outlets as the most interesting thing reality television, which is anything but, could throw at us.

Then Phil made a statement that set many viewers off. Mistaking intolerance for true religion—rather a constant in the algebra of faith—Robertson expressed his views on homosexuality and the ratings began to slip. Last year as I walked into a department store, I found Duck Dynasty bobble-head dolls and even fake Dynasty beards for those with no gumption to grow their own. Golf balls and beer glasses and all sorts of merchandise. Yes, you could partake of the good life without even cocking or pumping your shotgun. Other members of the family wrote books. (I have friends who produce quality literature who can’t find publishers.) We love the self-made genius of a simple guy and his make-believe world. Happy. Happy. Happy.

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It has been some time since I’ve seen Duck Dynasty mentioned in the media. I wandered into the same department store this year to find stacks of Dynasty merchandise drastically reduced. You could buy Phil Robertson’s memoirs for even less than Amazon prices. In bulk, if you desired. My historically inclined mind turned to the great empires of antiquity. Did Alexander, I wonder, really know what he wanted? What about when you finally reach the ocean? What is off on the other side? Once you’re out of sight of land, you’ve lost your control back home. Next thing you know, Diadochi have fractured everything. The gods of empire, it seems, don’t have it all together after all. Happy? Happy? Happy?

Our Pigeons, Ourselves

You don’t have to be in New York City long to begin to see yourself as an expert on pigeons. The ubiquitous avians are ruthlessly castigated as “flying rats” and “filthy birds,” primarily because they like people food and poop everywhere. I have it on the authority of Gomi and Stinchecum that everybody poops. From what I’ve seen walking through the city early on the morning after a holiday, not everyone is discriminate about where—and I’m not talking only about the pigeons. Still, I can’t help thinking that pigeons are unfairly maligned. They are pretty birds, when examined individually. They have iridescent throat feathers and a pleasing, portly gait—almost jaunty. They manage well, despite hardships. Often I see one hobbling about missing a foot or otherwise physically challenged, and yet ebullient in their pullastrine way.

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Yesterday as the NJ Transit behemoth in which I was riding rounded the helix into the Port Authority Bus Terminal, I saw two depressed pigeons. Unlike the jolly bobbing and pecking they usually seem to enjoy, this pair was simply standing. On the ground before them was a dead pigeon. Now I don’t know the backstory here, but the two standing around didn’t look like murderers to me. It seemed that they’d come upon a fallen comrade and were, in their own way, offering respects. In the ongoing debate separating ourselves from other animals, I often wonder if we have by-passed many of the basics. I do know that many animals find dead of their own species distressing. This is well documented. Why not pigeons?

Pigeons—related to doves, which, according to some religious traditions have sacred qualities, eh, Mary?—are seldom classed as the brightest of birds. I’ve written about the intelligence of corvids before, but pigeons have uniquely adapted themselves to our polluting ways. I grew up in a small town where pigeons weren’t especially abundant. They gather in large numbers where many people congregate and drop their litter. And, based on my recent experience, contemplate the mysteries of death. Peregrine falcons lurk overhead, doling out death at over 200 miles an hour. All the pigeons want to do, it seems to me, is to get a free lunch in an uncertain world where those whose presence has conjured them despise them. Unlike their sacred cousins, they are, like us, utterly pedestrian. Maybe they too appreciate the simple value of life.

Once and Future Ape

Battle_for_the_planet_of_the_apesThe original pentalogy of the Planet of the Apes franchise began a slow decline with Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Producing a movie per year from 1970 to 1973, the series died with Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Given that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has been compared with this original final installment, it seemed time to reacquaint myself with it. The early seventies, as I recall them, were tense times. Social unrest both at home and abroad, coupled with a maddeningly increasing nuclear arsenal, seemed a recipe for disaster. Indeed, the world does end with the second installment of the pentalogy, a scenario set up in the final episode as the Alpha-Omega bomb, guarded by mutants, is declared worthy of reverence. Only through the magic of time travel do Cornelius and Zera travel back to the paranoid 1970s to start the whole series over again. The Battle for the Planet of the Apes, apart from its preachiness, does overflow with religious language and rhetoric. Indeed, it begins with a reading of Scripture from the Lawgiver. Pentalogy or Pentateuch?

Caesar is said to be the savior of apes and, like in the current Dawn, the sympathies of the viewer are with the apes. Gorillas, the frat boys of the ape universe, do indeed cause troubles, with Aldo becoming a kind of Cain who slays a fellow ape, Cornelius. (They even got the initials correct, if reversed.) Religion, and prejudice, it seems, have brought this fictional world to a crux, caught in an endless loop of new futures. As Virgil says, there are an infinite number of lanes on this highway. Presumably, traveling back in time opens up all kinds of possibilities.

Despite the number of reused shots in the film—the first ten minutes or so are simply a recapping of the previous two films—and the unfortunate pacing (how could a climax of two angry apes climbing a tree have possibly dragged on for so long?), the movie does have a message. Race tensions, high at the time, are overtly and covertly addressed. Disarmament is praised. The only future that seems not to exist is for one more movie. Interest moved on to science fiction’s apotheosis in Star Wars just four years later. Once again we would find ourselves in a world of black and white, with simple choices. There was no ambiguity among the Jedi. Still, for all that preaching, equality never did reach its goal. So even with its faults (didn’t we see that same tree-house bombed four times?) it is worth dusting off the Battle for the Planet of the Apes once in a while and pondering better possible futures.

Secular Sacred

IMG_1472On a family walk in the woods, along came a spider. Actually, the spider had already been there quite a while, given the amount of work that its web represented. Few sing the virtues of spider brains, but there is a captivating symmetry here, an aesthetic that nature endows on the work of one of its most feared yet skillful creatures. As I ponder this web, I can’t help but to consider the word sacred. Oh, I don’t suppose the spider is worshipping an eight-legged, arachnid deity, but there is something more than simply utilitarian about its creation. And I wonder why the sacred is so often shuffled off to the realm only of the religious. Increasingly scientists and philosophers are using the word sacred for a trope when superlatives fail. They don’t mean a guy with a beard on a throne in the sky, but rather those things that give us pause in a busy life to stop and think that something more is going on than just the electro-chemical storm in our heads.

At the risk of offending some, the sacred need not be tied to the gods at all. It is, rather, a sense of reverence toward the amazing world in which we find ourselves. Yes, this web can be measured with precision. Its arachnid host captured and studied. We can count the number of insects it catches as a measure of its efficiency. All this and we still won’t have encapsulated the web in its entirety. The sacred is like that. I don’t know why it is that I find some places special. Why it is I linger outside where my childhood homes once stood, or on the hill where stood the hospital in which I entered the world. Although I’m not divine, these places are sacred. So I pull the car to the side of the road and stare at that lot where our house once stood. It was a web. Fragile and necessary. And it was on the edge of the woods.

A walk in the woods is a form of rebirth. Some of my earliest memories are wandering among the trees. I was, like many children, terrified of spiders. No doubt there were thousands of them here. And yet I cannot keep away. Perhaps it is because nearly every day of the week I trundle to Manhattan and there is nothing around me that doesn’t bear the scars of artificiality. I don’t recall the last time I saw a spider in New York City, apart from a man in a blue-and-red costume pretending to be one. I’m sure they’re here. I’m sure they spin their webs and there are those who marvel at how complex and beautiful they are. The unexpected spider will always frighten me, I suppose. That doesn’t mean, however, when I come upon a web, that I haven’t met the secular sacred once more. Especially if it’s on a stroll in the woods.

Fish Fridays

There’s an old myth among Protestants that on Fridays Catholics eat fish because fish are sinless animals. As far as I’ve been able to determine, this is pure fabrication on the part of curious outsiders. Still, it has grown a mythology of its own. Some say that the non-pecuniary piscines are that way because they, naturally, survived the flood. I’ve often wondered how that impacted the fresh-water varieties of fish, or if they evolved after the fact. In any case, the story, it seems, has grown with the telling. Fish on Fridays has nothing to do with the fish and everything to do with the people. And so does standing in line.

DSCN4792The New England Aquarium is, ironically, one of the big draws on a rainy day in Boston. I’ve stood in longer lines before, but after a late night of truncated fireworks and waiting an hour for a T train home after being thoroughly soaked, it is a test of endurance to stand for over an hour-and-a-half in rain encouraged by Hurricane Arthur. To see fish. To find sinlessness. The ocean, it always seems to me, is one of the places where human greed has not yet been fully realized (not that we haven’t tried) but in which we’ve dipped our polluting fingers time and again. Still, fish are fascinating. Watching them make lazy circles around the 200,000-gallon giant ocean tank, the many ways that creatures have evolved to swim enchants me like a kid. Of course, the real draw, for many, is the penguins. Psychologists have explored the human fascination with anthropomorphized animals. Penguins in their “formal attire,” clumsily totter about on two legs and occasionally display very human behavior. At feeding time some are polite, waiting their turn, while others are aggressive and pushy. If someone is too greedy, the bird next in line will push him or her off the rock into the water, where the offender has to come back to the group, having lost his or her place. Where does sin enter this picture?

Seeing fish on Friday has me wondering why we declare some animal behavior sinful and other animal behavior saintly. Wandering the four stories of this aquarium crowded with others seeking to avoid the rain is often like looking into a mirror. Do these animals realize they are trapped? Although the sea lions and seals seem happy and enthusiastic, and the penguins just bored, it is difficult to read the face of a fish. So after a long day standing, my family heads back into the rain, hoping to make it to some restaurant before this rain beats our weary umbrellas into utter submission. There’s almost no traffic today, but one driver speeds through the puddles down the great coastal highway 1, completely soaking those waiting to cross to drier climes. The wall of water coming at us would’ve made Cecil B. DeMille envious. It’s a holiday and I can’t figure what the hurry is as my second and last pair of shoes grows waterlogged from this selfish gesture only to get through the light. I’m pretty certain I’ve discovered where sin is, however, and it is definitely just outside the aquarium.