by Pam Chamberlain
(a slightly edited version of this essay appears in Prairie Fire 33.3)
In Sharon Butala’s bestselling and award-winning The Perfection of the Morning: An Apprenticeship in Nature, the narrator moves from the city of Saskatoon1 to a ranch on the southern Saskatchewan plains where she immerses herself in nature in an attempt to understand it and herself. She is fascinated by the land, the plants, the sky, and, especially, the animals that she encounters in the farmyard and on her daily walks across the prairie. She begins to suspect that animals have much to offer her in terms of knowledge and spirituality, but her attempts to cultivate relationships with them are continually thwarted. While by the end of the book she has made progress in understanding animals, they remain for her the most puzzling, mysterious, and troublesome aspect of the rural landscape. This paper will examine several aspects of Butala’s representation of animals in The Perfection of the Morning: the attraction the narrator feels toward animals; her attempts to build relationships with them through looking and listening; the barriers to those attempts, namely fear and the inability to communicate with animals or know animal minds; and the possibility of spiritual growth and self-awareness through animals. I will also address some of the text’s more problematic statements regarding animals, and I will argue that they reflect inconsistencies, confusions, and contradictions common in Western thinking about animals.
Animals play a key role in attracting the narrator to the ranch on the south-Saskatchewan plains. During her first visit, her interest in the Butala ranch is piqued as she watches Peter (her future husband) and his neighbours working with the cattle. She is captivated by the “privilege of actually seeing the real work of the ranch” and by observing how “comfortable those men . . . seemed, how at ease they were in their work, and how unassuming and casual in their skill with the animals. . . . They laughed, cracked jokes, [and] kidded each other while they worked in the corral or on horseback, roped, or cut out cattle” (4–5). The narrator suspects that if she had not been witness to the scene, she might “never have come back” to the ranch (4). However, she glimpses some qualities in these men, brought out by their work with animals, that intrigue her and make her want to see more. Shortly after she returns south, she witnesses an even more significant scene involving animals. While out for a walk, she comes upon this:
On the far side of the hill in that slough-bottom, twenty or so cows stood grazing or lay with their calves beside them peacefully chewing their cuds. In their midst, Peter’s saddle horse, reins dragging, browsed lazily too. And far off at the edge of the cluster of cattle, a couple of antelope stood, noses down in the grass . . . as if they were all members of the same contented tribe. . . . In the midst of his animals, . . . Peter lay sound asleep. (27)
The narrator sneaks away, knowing “something was happening here that was beyond [her] experience and [her] understanding, but that meant something – something significant” (27), and the scene continues to “move” and “trouble” her for months and years (43). She suspects it is a “message that once deciphered would be the key to understanding [her] new world which in turn would provide the foundation [she] was missing” (43). All together, her first glimpses of animals suggest to her the possibility of knowledge, self-awareness, and peace. They provoke her curiosity and her desire to know animals better.
However, fear prevents the narrator from forming close relationships with animals. Despite a childhood spent in the north Saskatchewan bush in the 1940s, she reports, “I had no experience of animals that felt personal to me, and no very great feeling for them” (151). She recalls, “All my childhood memories [of animals] were of gloom and menace . . . the terrible soul-stirring cries of the wolves, the bears lurking everywhere. I grew up with a fear of wild animals that was of a very deep and primeval kind” (150). She recalls that she was “raised in a fight against Nature for survival” (214). Pioneers in new worlds, like the narrator’s parents, saw nature as an aggressive enemy – as Margaret Atwood puts it, “Nature as Monster” (87) – from which they must protect themselves. Animals often embodied that enemy, and the pioneers feared them, for both practical and impractical reasons. In the first months as a newcomer on the Butala ranch, the narrator replays the role of settler in a strange new land, and she feels the same sense of apprehension and fear toward animals that she felt as a child. She is “very afraid” of the herd of Saddlebred horses, and Peter must “coax” her (as one might coax a nervous mare) into the corral with them (152). Later, she is filled with “terror” when two coyotes circle her “as they would prey” (156). Although she acknowledges that there are no large predators on the ranch, she states that there are “excellent reasons to keep [her] distance” from many of the wild animals (156).
An encounter with a mysterious wild animal reinforces the narrator’s desire to become more aware of animals. While out for a walk in the fields, lost in thought, she mistakes a bobcat for a kangaroo; as a result, she realizes “how far removed [she] was from the world around [her]” (141). She takes the encounter as a sign. She says, “I had been given a gift, and I was throwing that gift away by not paying attention” (142). She resolves to pay better attention to her environment from then on and to get to know the animals. Key to this fledgling relationship is the animal-human gaze. In her attempt to understand animals, the narrator’s first step is to begin simply looking at them – the first step in communication and understanding. In his essay “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger suggests that in the contemporary world, the gaze between humans and animals is always one-way: “animals are always the observed” (14). Humans watch animals through zoo Plexiglas, through the camera lens, on a TV screen, or on a painter’s canvas. “The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance,” according to Berger (14). It is true that in the beginning of her time at the ranch, the narrator acts as “spectator” (Berger 22), seeing the wild animals as her “own private zoo” that she observes through the truck windshield or the living room window (Butala 151). The animals seem to her, at first, like “interesting and beautiful cardboard cutouts” (151). She thinks of them as, to borrow Berger’s terminology, entertainment, as visual spectacle (Berger 13). Gradually, though, she begins to look more closely and carefully at them.
The animals return the narrator’s gaze, thereby partly refuting Berger’s assertion that the human-animal gaze is one-way. In captivity, Berger says, an animal’s gaze “flickers and passes on” (26). Not so on the Butala ranch. Whereas in a zoo setting a human gazes upon an animal from a position of power, in the fields the unarmed narrator and the animals meet on equal footing and display mutual curiosity. When she encounters the bobcat, the narrator reports, “it paused in its jumping and stared down the road at me as I stared up the road at it” (141). Clearly this is a two-way exchange, and the bobcat’s gaze is long and steady. In an encounter with a coyote, the animal looks “back over his shoulder” at her (168). Another time, the narrator encounters two coyotes. One “stare[s] hard at [her]” (157) and then casts her a “disgusted look” (156) – when (as she interprets it) she does not respond appropriately – leaving her “terrified” and “chagrined” (157). She senses “tension in the air” (156) and knows the encounter – the two-way gaze – is significant. However, she finds it impossible to interpret the coyote’s look. As Berger writes, “The animal scrutinises [the human] across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension. . . . The [hu]man too is looking across a similar, but not identical, abyss of non-comprehension. . . . He is always looking across ignorance and fear” (Berger 3). No matter how intriguing the gaze is, the narrator can make little meaning of it and is left unsettled.
The narrator suspects that her animal encounters offer hidden meaning. She remembers, after her run-in with the coyotes, “I felt that something was about to happen, something out of the ordinary; I was waiting for it” (156). As Berger contends, long before humans used them for food or tools, “animals first entered the [human] imagination as messengers and promises” (2), and humans traditionally and universally used “animal-signs for charting the experience of the world” (6), knowing that “everywhere animals offered explanations” (6). He argues that this “experience is almost lost” in contemporary society (6). The narrator of Perfection is wise enough to know that the animal appearances mean something, but she is not experienced enough to know what that meaning is. The intuitive belief that there is meaning waiting for us in a two-way gaze with animals is a common one. As wild animal story writer Charles G.D. Roberts puts it, “Looking deep into the eyes of certain of the four-footed kindred, we have been startled to see therein a something, before unrecognized, that answers to our inner and intellectual, if not spiritual selves. We have suddenly attained a new and clearer vision” (28). The narrator longs for this “new and clearer vision” in the eyes of animals. She desires to do as cattlewoman/eco-critic Barney Nelson urges all humans to do: “apprentice ourselves to animals, accept them again as teachers” (133). Unfortunately, the narrator reports after the encounter with the two coyotes, “This might have been the opportunity I was waiting for to actually communicate in some direct way with a wild animal, . . . if I’d not been such a coward and had stood my ground, something enlightening might have happened” (157). When she encounters wild animals, she says, “we both hold still and from a safe distance study each other” (169). Fear keeps her from having the encounter she craves.
In addition to looking at animals, the narrator begins to talk and listen, too. She “spend[s] half an hour talking to [horses] across the fence” (26). In a humorous scene, she yells to a coyote: “‘Get a job!’” (167). Sometimes as she listens to the animals, she anthropomorphizes them in an attempt to understand what they are saying. She imagines the cries of coyotes as “a heartfelt lament to the gods” as they sing “of their sorrow, their suffering across the centuries and around the world” (166). Another time, she listens to a doe make a noise somewhere between “a whinny and a whisper” and wonders whether the doe is “teaching the fawn the lore of the prairie” or maybe even “having a conversation with the tree” (155). Berger states that anthropomorphism was traditionally, at least until the nineteenth century, “integral to the relation between man and animal” (9), for it helped humans imagine the minds of animals. Biologist Marc Bekoff would agree: “By engaging in anthropomorphism we make the world of other animals accessible to ourselves. . . . By being anthropomorphic we can more readily understand and explain the emotions or feelings of other animals” (73). The narrator’s anthropomorphism, then, though whimsical, is not a silly, romantic mistake; rather, it enables her to move a step closer to imagining what might go on inside an animal’s mind.
Mostly, though, the narrator finds herself listening to wild animals and unable to understand them: “Hawks, eagles, gophers, antelope, the occasional badger, small garter snakes, coyotes, . . . river carp, . . . the beaver and the muskrat – I waited for them to speak to me; I was looking for hints, for clues, for explanations” (86). This theme is reinforced when the narrator makes an early-morning visit to the river and hears an owl, in “its tender, feminine voice,” “speaking some gentle message [she] couldn’t interpret’ (215). As Berger points out, we humans have long held a desire to “talk with animals in their own language” (4), and the narrator is frustrated that she cannot do so. However, she wisely does not blame the animals for the lack of communication. After all, the question of who is to be blamed for the inability of humans and animals to communicate effectively has been long debated.2 As Berger notes, we humans tend to believe it is always the animals’ “lack of common language, its silence [that] guarantees its distance, its distinctness, its exclusion, from and of [humans]” (4). However, more than three hundred years ago, Montaigne questioned the assumption that animals’ lack of intelligence was the sole barrier to our communication with them. He asked: “The defect which hindreth the communication betweene them and us, why may it not as well be in us as in them? It is a matter of divination to guesse in whom the fault is that we understand not one another. For we understand them no more than they us” (58). The blame, Montaigne implied, should be shared. Indeed, Berger concludes that those who live closely with animals often believe that it is humans “who lack the capacity to speak with animals” (4). The narrator shares responsibility for her inability to talk with animals; nevertheless, she can see no way to overcome the communication barrier, and she remains frustrated that she cannot interpret their messages.
Despite her inability to share a steady gaze or a common language with animals, the narrator remains curious about their minds. Upon arriving at the ranch, she gives little thought to animal minds. When she remarks to her husband that the cows “‘aren’t really very smart,’” Peter assures her that “‘they know what they need to know’” (78). She studies the cattle “to feel their consciousness, what it was they saw and smelled and knew” (78). Her first indication that animal minds might be more complex than she imagined comes from Peter’s saddle horse. When the gelding impatiently but gently taps Peter’s thigh, letting him know it is time to go, the narrator is surprised, having assumed such an animal would have “no way to communicate” (154). She remembers, “I had never thought that a horse might have an opinion, that it would occur to him that he might be allowed an opinion, . . . or that he thought at all” (154). She credits this event with prompting her to become “more curious about [animals], and also more accepting of them as fellow creatures with innate natures of their own” (154). As Linda Kalof and Amy Fitzgerald point out in The Animals Reader, humans have been struggling to understand the minds of animals for over two thousand years, with Lucretius’s implication that “animals are thinking, reflexive, emotional beings” on one end of the spectrum and Descartes’s assertion that “animals are mere unthinking, unfeeling machines” on the other (55). Today, scientists widely agree that animals have consciousness, and recent research demonstrates that they are “capable of compassion, morality, and a range of emotions” (Kalof and Fitzgerald 56). This research strongly suggests that “many of the cognitive domains formerly reserved to human beings alone – emotions, communication, versatile behaviour, tool use, even forms of self-consciousness – are actually shared . . . across many species” (Fiamengo 3). However, despite evidence that tells us that animal minds are complex and parallel to ours in many ways, we humans are still restricted from knowing them because, as Bekoff, states, “We are humans and we have by necessity a human view of the world” (73), which is on one hand obvious and on the other hand an important and possibly insurmountable barrier to our understanding of other species. Although she can observe behaviour and other evidence, the narrator of Perfection cannot leap inside another animal’s mind. She experiences this repeatedly and finally admits, “I don’t know what [animals’] essence is, or what they know of existence and death, or of the meaning of their own lives” (163). She cannot bridge the gulf between her mind and theirs. She reflects, “The nature of animals was . . . one . . . aspect of rural life about which I had a lot to learn. That it is an aspect at the absolute core of it, I also had to learn” (151). It is worth noting that her failure to communicate with and understand animals does not represent an individual failure; rather it reflects the failure of the human species to comprehend other animals. As Janice Fiamengo notes, due to the inevitable and inescapable “species-specific bounds of our imaginative perception,” it is possible that we might not be able to “think them at all” (2).
A central question underlying the text’s representation of animals – and indeed it is a question that underlies animal studies in general – is this: Through what sort of relationships can humans possibly come to know animals in a meaningful way? The narrator muses that we might “come to truly know animals [through our roles] as trappers, hunters, naturalists, zoo-goers, photographers, or pet owners . . . to answer the essential questions about them” (164). Yet each one of these complicated relationships is fraught with problems, as many theorists have pointed out. Anthropologist Matt Cartmill, for example, makes a strong case against hunting; obviously a relationship between a hunter and an animal is based on the animal’s violent death (very rarely the hunter’s, thanks to modern technology). Randy Malamud convincingly argues that zoo spectatorship is based on a non-reciprocal one-way power relationship that enables the exploitation and destruction of animals and nature (230). Yi-Fu Tuan, the influential geographer, questions the ethics of owning animals as pets because pet owners dominate and manipulate animals for their own convenience. Marjorie Spiegel compares the relationship between farmer and farm animals to that of slave owner and slave. And environmental historian Harriet Ritvo even suggests that photography is merely another form of hunting. What remains? What relationship could a human have with an animal that does not involve a power imbalance that favours the human? If there is no such relationship, how can we possibly “know” animals? It may be that humans simply are incapable of comprehending themselves as animals or knowing other animals as kin. The emotional and intellectual struggles of the narrator will be familiar to any human who struggles to imagine humans and animals as one.
Like the Romantic poets or Aboriginal North Americans, the narrator finds divinity in nature. Sociologist Adrian Franklin, writing about the importance of nature to Australians, notes that immersing oneself in a natural place “is transformative in ways that cannot be predicted and the very performance of . . . walking, seeing, reflecting, and sensing, has profound implications for one’s unfolding identity and the geography of one’s life” (130). This is the case for the narrator of Perfection. However, the belief that nature is divine does not easily coexist with the narrator’s Catholic upbringing or with Christianity in general. As Roberts points out, the advent of Christianity in the Western world taught that “in man alone was the seed of the divine” (26). This teaching – that God was not to be found in nature, and certainly not in animals – “set man at odds with the natural world” (Roberts 26). After all, animals were well below humans on the Great Chain of Being, not equal to them, and certainly not above them. Nevertheless, the narrator notes that in some Aboriginal traditions, “wild animals are placed closer to the gods than humans,” often acting as “emissaries of the gods [or] sometimes embodiments of them” (164–5). Indeed, she has several experiences on the ranch that give her a glimpse into the peace available through animals. She says of riding and checking cattle, “I always found something magical in it; it seemed so extraordinary that one might spend a life full of moments of such peace, purity, and serenity” (148). While riding a horse on a cattle drive, she reports, “I have never felt such pure, unadulterated joy in simple existence” (91). Finally, she notes that “waking each morning to birdsong, . . . and going to bed each night listening to the muted croak of the nighthawk and the distant, melodious choir of coyote voices” is “real balm for the heart and soul” (60). When she and Peter sit in the corral amongst the horses, the narrator describes the mood as “enchanted”: “we were, for that little time, a part of whatever the horses were” (152). She experiences for herself the possibility of immersing herself in nature – specifically with animals, in this case – like Peter does.
The juxtaposition of the narrator’s and Peter’s relationships with animals reveals what the narrator is missing. Peter has a much easier relationship with animals than the narrator does. The image of Peter lying in the grass with the animals puzzles her for years. The scene gives her a glimpse of something she cannot access, something she cannot understand or articulate. In nature, the narrator notices, Peter is “calm” (2, 49), “secure” (2, 49), “comfortable” (4), “at ease” (4, 148), and “completely at home” (148) – qualities she envies. Although she does not explicitly label it as such, I suspect that the scene in which she sees Peter lying with the animals haunts her because she sees it as a moment of what she calls “universal oneness” (23).3 Early in the memoir, the narrator shares her glimpses of universal oneness, first during her First Communion and again after the birth of her son, when she sees that “the child, the grass, the trees, the sky above were all woven of the same material, were all part of the same fabric, which was the fabric of which the universe is made, and that this fabric lived” (21). When she sees Peter sleeping among the animals, I suspect she imagines him, the antelope, the horses, and the cows as “all part of the same fabric . . ., the fabric of . . . the universe” (21). There is no distinction between human and animal, no distinction between wild and domestic. All three – man, wild animal, and domestic animal – coexist in nature in that moment. In that moment, they are all one. Peter, in his easygoing way, is living universal oneness everyday; without striving for it or talking about it or analyzing it, he has achieved integration with nature.4 What the narrator can only occasionally glimpse, Peter is living. The narrator senses that great things might be gleaned – spiritually and personally – from an intimate relationship with nature that includes animals. However, she never explicitly states – because she herself doesn’t know – exactly what sort of encounter or relationship she might ideally have with animals, nor what exactly it is she hopes to hear or learn from them.
Despite those promising glimpses, animals remain the weak link in the narrator’s immersion with nature. She tries – intellectually – to integrate them. She uses the term “other animals” (162) to refer to non-human animals, acknowledging that humans are merely one of many species. The chapter title “Animal Kin” (150), too, is a nod to the idea that humans are part of the animal family. However, her emotional responses often thwart her intellectual attempts. She notes that “animals had a kingdom in, around, beside ours where they lived out their lives and went about their animal ways, fitting into Nature – being Nature – in a way humans can’t seem to” (158). She envies animals for their integration with nature – for the fact that they are nature – but she sees their world as separate from hers.5 Even in the local ranchers, the narrator recognizes their “deep respect for animals, their admiration of them, their nearness to the ones they knew well and yet, despite their calm acceptance of them, the eternal distance that remained between them” (152). Of her encounter with the coyotes, she writes, “Seeing a coyote in the flesh and blood I am afraid, or see him as Other more than I see him as a fellow creature with whom I might possibly communicate” (168–169). She admits, “at their core, [animals] remain strangers . . . the Other” (163). As I have suggested, the narrator’s failure to perceive animals as anything but Other is a reflection of the difficulty humans in general have with comprehending themselves as animals and comprehending that animals might be kin. The implications of accepting other animals as our kin would necessitate a major upheaval in human thought and lifestyle, affecting everything from religion to zoos to food to clothing to economics to travel. As Fiamengo points out, to admit that we share this world with other thinking animals is a “potentially revolutionary conception” (3) – both intellectually and practically. The narrator, like most of us, is not able to make this leap.
In spite of the immense difficulties inherent in comprehending other animals as fellow creatures, the narrator is not entirely satisfied with relegating them to the role of Other. She decides that animals are at the “absolute core” of rural life (161), and she concludes that they are “a deep mystery that need[s] solving before it [will] be possible to live easily in this landscape” (155).6 She learns that knowing the landscape requires knowing its animals, and she senses that a relationship with animals is the key to her own integration with nature. She would likely agree with nature writer Barry Lopez’s suggestion that wild animals might teach us how to “find a viable natural philosophy, one that places us again with the elements of our natural history” (199). This, ultimately, is what the narrator craves. She also senses, as Franklin claims, that “through understanding our relations with animals we can come to a better understanding of ourselves” (5). The narrator’s path to self-awareness involves both her attempts to understand this and other aspects of nature and her writing of the memoir. Scott Slovic writes:
Both nature and writing . . . demand and contribute to an author’s awareness of self and non-self. By confronting “face to face” the separate realm of nature, by becoming aware of its “otherness,” the writer implicitly becomes more deeply aware of his or her own dimensions, limitations of form and understanding, and processes of grappling with the unknown. . . . It is by testing the boundaries of self against an outside medium . . . that many nature writers manage to realize who they are and what’s what in the world. (352–353)
Thus, the narrator’s failure to fully comprehend other animals as kin and her admission that they remain Other do not mean that she has failed to understand animals or herself more deeply. The very process of testing herself against them and finding them to be Other results in progress in her understanding of both animals and self. The text thereby achieves what Slovic calls “the tension between correspondence and other[ness]” (353); this contributes to its appeal and success.
Butala, then, successfully explores several issues inherent in the question of the animal. The narrator demonstrates how attractive and intriguing animals can be to humans. She explores the human tendency to look to animals for signs and symbols and offers the possibility that we might find divinity in animals. She also reveals that there are many barriers to a successful human-animal relationship, including fear and the human inability to communicate with or to know animal minds.
However, the text also includes some problematic statements about other animal issues that are neither as thoroughly explored nor as satisfactorily resolved.7 These statements, which I will come to shortly, are founded upon the text’s implicit acceptance of what Barney Nelson calls the wild/domestic dichotomy (1), the idea, popularly accepted in North America and North American literature, that there is a fundamental difference in value between wild and domestic animals.
Upon her arrival at the ranch, the narrator expects the domestic animals – cows, horses, barn cats, and the dog – to be passive and docile. She expects that “riding a horse would be like driving a car, and that cattle would offer no resistance to a rancher’s plans for them” (151). As Nelson points out, this tendency to see domestic animals as “passive” and “ignorant” is all too common (130). Although the narrator revises her initial impressions through the course of the book – she learns for example, that “horned Herefords [are] beautiful, powerful animals whose strong white horns can kill with one well-aimed thrust” (14) – she does not bestow upon them the same importance that she does wild ones. While she does not explicitly state that wild animals are superior to domestic ones, throughout the text she implies that wild animals are intrinsically more valuable – or, at least, they are more valuable to her. Ritvo points out that humans show a preference, and ascribe higher value to, wild animals in everything from zoos to art (137). Certainly the narrator of Perfection is more interested in the many wild animals on the ranch – antelope, deer, bobcats, coyotes, badgers, gophers, porcupine, rabbits, snakes, eagles, ducks, grouse, larks, and dozens of other birds – than domestic ones. It is exclusively to wild animals that she looks for signs on her spiritual journey, though she does not articulate why. Of her encounter with the coyote, she writes “this might have been the opportunity I’d been waiting for to actually communicate in some direct way with a wild animal” (157, my italics). She notes that after “any one of [her] encounters with wild animals,” she feels for a moment that she has “glimpsed . . . the long-ago vision of universal oneness” (168, my italics). In putting this emphasis on wild animals as the source of divinity, and apparently ignoring domestic animals, at least in the spiritual realm (i.e. she does not look to the farm dog or the barn cats for enlightenment), the narrator preserves the wild/domestic dichotomy, and positions wild animals as separate from and superior to domestic ones. That assumption underlies her quest and the text itself.
However, while on the surface the narrator seems to intentionally maintain that boundary between wild and domestic, through its anecdotes about animals the text actually reveals a blurring between the realms of wild and domestic. While the narrator assumes that wild and domestic animals are separate, the animals themselves in Perfection demonstrate that, as Nelson argues, domestic and wild animals might be more alike than we think: “The more one really knows wild animals, the more domestic they seem. The more one knows domestic animals, the wilder they seem” (133). Some animals in Perfection live in the space between “domestic” and “wild.” One example of an animal living on that boundary is Peter’s “big bay gelding” (91), a horse that the narrator calls “half-wild” and “semi-domesticated” (154). Ostensibly, this is a domestic animal, a horse that has been broken for service to the cowboy.8 However, while this horse is gentle with Peter, he is not always tame and docile. The narrator mentions that he is “a horse nobody else ever rode” (154): “for me to ride him was unthinkable, the very thought making my stomach turn over and my knees quake” (91). Although this horse has a domestic job, he certainly retains elements of wildness that the narrator fears. Other animals cross the wild-domestic boundary. For example, a mangy coyote that enters the yard does not “run away” or “threaten” the narrator and her husband (158). Peter gets within six feet of him as they stand and gaze at him. (Interestingly, in this scene the two humans are not much different from the curious cows who stand “crowded together in a semicircle staring in silent wonder” (158)). The coyote hangs out in the yard for a week, acting like a farm dog, rolling and chewing bones, sniffing the cars and trucks (159). These examples serve to support Cartmill’s and Nelson’s argument that “the distinction between wild and domestic animals . . . is arbitrary” (Cartmill 243), “imaginary,” “human-constructed,” and “false” (Nelson 8, 10, 57), rather than anything intrinsic to the animals.
The underlying assumption throughout the text that wild animals are more valuable than domestic ones gives rise to some problematic statements concerning animals. The first is regarding hunting and farming as means of providing food for humans. The narrator admits, “I had always been one of those city people who hate hunting, believing, although knowing nothing about it, that non-Native hunters were gun-crazy and cruel and filled with nothing else but a lust for blood” (160).9 When a neighbour shoots the mangy coyote, the narrator is upset. She remembers, “I could not reconcile myself to that casual, unthinking shot” (160). This incident prompts a reflection on hunting in general. She states, “Hunting for sport, precisely because it isn’t necessary, can engender a casualness, a carelessness and a lack of respect for the animals. To the extent that we kill casually without good reason, we brutalize ourselves, we brutalize the human race” (162). Her judgment of hunting mirrors that of many people in Western society. For example, as Cartmill points out in “Hunting and Humanity in Western Thought,” “anti-hunting sentiment has become ever more common in Western art and literature. It has grown to be more or less the norm in modern America. . . . Most Americans express agreement with the proposition that hunting for sport or for trophies, or for any purpose other than putting meat on the table, should be forbidden by law” (238). Cartmill concludes that hunting is “just another species of butchery,” and “butchery is not . . . an appropriate recreation for free people” (243). The narrator seems, then, to be reflecting common social criticism of hunting.
However, she goes on to make this problematic statement: “Hunting out of necessity, for one’s food supply, is a different story from shooting animals as pests or hunting when one could more easily buy the meat at the supermarket” (161). The first half of the sentence – “Hunting out of necessity, for one’s food supply, is a different story from shooting animals as pests” (161) – again reflects the societal beliefs just mentioned. While some Westerners condemn hunting outright, many others who might condemn sport hunting forgive those who hunt for food. However, the second part of the sentence – “. . . when one could more easily buy the meat at the supermarket” (161) – is problematic. The narrator expresses a preference for the production of meat for a supermarket over hunting for meat in the wild. In other words, she condemns hunters because they kill wild animals. But can killing domestic animals for food be justified any more easily than killing wild ones for food or for fun? If all animal lives were equally valuable, there would be no moral difference between shooting a deer and slaughtering a cow. In fact, one could convincingly argue that if we humans are to eat meat at all, there is more integrity in killing an animal oneself than in mindlessly picking up a plastic-wrapped package of hamburger at the supermarket without a thought about where it came from. The narrator never directly addresses the fact that her husband’s livelihood depends entirely on the raising and killing of animals, so a double-standard is implicit in the text. She mourns the death of a sick coyote while ignoring the plight of cattle raised for beef.10 This sort of moral confusion is common in Western society; it allows us to condemn, for example, the killing of baby seals while giving no thought to ordering veal at a fine restaurant. When we view animals as, as Berger puts it, “raw materials” that are “processed like manufactured food” (11), they become invisible. Farm animals are seen as “consumables,” and their status reflects that categorization (Mason and Finelli 170). The narrator acknowledges that hunting might be acceptable if hunters learned to respect the animals they kill (161); however, she does not mention any need to respect farm animals destined for the slaughterhouse. All in all, her comments imply a moral distinction between killing and eating wild and domestic animals, thus implying that wild animals are intrinsically more valuable than domestic ones.
The narrator’s aversion to hunting may go beyond her concern for the welfare of individual wild animals; it may also be based on a more symbolic concern. Cartmill, discussing why Western society condemns hunting but not farming, writes, “What disturbs us about the hunt is not the killing of animals as such. If that were what bothered us, we would see more picket lines around slaughterhouses. What we are really disturbed by is the armed confrontation between technology and the wilderness, between sinful human history and the timeless harmonies of nature” (242). I suspect that the narrator sees the hunting of coyotes and other local wild animals as an attack on nature itself, and this is why it upsets her so when the coyote is shot.
A second problematic passage arises from the same assumption that there is a difference between wild and domestic animals. In her discussion of hunting, the narrator muses:
. . . it appears that to eat other animals is instinctive and subdued only by an act of will. One of the greatest transitions for most of the human race took place ten thousand years ago when farming was invented and survival strictly by hunting gradually became, in much of the world, a thing of the past. The chief reason for this act of will seems to be a spiritual one: the belief that it is wrong to kill and eat other animals. (162)
The final sentence in this quotation is illogical for two reasons. First, the narrator implies that early humans gave up hunting in favour of solely plant-based agriculture. This is not the case.11 As humans shifted to stationary settlements and agriculture, they domesticated cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs, and, as Ritvo points out, animals were domesticated because they “supplemented human labor, enhanced transportation, and provided skins and fibers, as well as milk and meat” (133, my italics). Humans did not stop killing animals; they just began to kill fewer wild animals in favor of slaughtering domestic ones. The second problem is with the assumption that this shift supposedly occurred because of a moral belief that “it is wrong to kill and eat animals” (162). Even if we were to assume that the statement were to refer only to wild animals, it seems improbable that the shift to agriculture was based on such noble goals. More likely, early humans simply found it easier and more convenient to kill a tethered goat than to stalk and spear a wild deer. The decision likely had little to do with any perceived difference in value between wild and domestic sources of meat.
Pointing out these problematic passages is not meant to imply criticism of the narrator, the text, or the author. Rather, I believe these passages simply reflect confusions and contradictions common in Western thought with regards to the question of the animal and our relationship to it. As Fiamengo writes, there are “contradictions in our relations with animals, who are often both cherished family members and factory-raised and slaughtered food on the table – at times loved and wept over; at other times ignored” (3). Berger suggests that “dualism” is “implicit” in our relationships with and thinking about animals (9). These contradictions stem from the inability of our species to communicate with other animals, to imagine their thoughts, and – ultimately – to fully accept them as our kin. However, as Marian Scholtmeijer acknowledges, “‘we are fortunate in the modern era to at least be confused over the right way to think about animals’” (qtd. in Fiamengo 4). The fact that Butala’s text raises these contradictions and that readers ponder them is, at least, a step in the direction of progress in our ability to comprehend animals and our relationship to them.
After two decades on the south Saskatchewan plains, immersed in nature and the discovery of place, self, and spirit, the narrator of The Perfection of the Morning learns that animals are the core of rural life and nature, and she has made progress in becoming acquainted with them. However, by the end of the memoir, she has neither fully come to terms with the animals in her world nor reconciled her relationship with them. Her understanding of them and their importance is hampered by the same things that hamper most humans in our understanding of animals: fear, lack of knowledge, the inability to communicate, and the limits of our imaginations. The narrator reflects:
Of all the interesting, strange and beautiful things I have seen and felt living in the landscape, none have stirred and puzzled me more than my encounters with animals. . . . [T]hese encounters have struck a chord as deep as life itself, have opened up a darkness inside me resonant with knowledge that chooses to shape itself as questions rather than answers. (168)
To her, for now, animals are a “continuing mystery” (165). That she has failed to achieve a perfect understanding of animals and an intimate relationship with them – and that problems emerge from her discussion of animals – reflects the uneasiness that many Westerners feel with the question of the animal and the contradictions inherent in our relationships with them. Many humans, like the narrator, are curious about animals and sense that they might hold important knowledge and answers if we could only learn to listen to them, but our lack of knowledge and fears keep us separate, leaving us with more questions than answers. Though the narrator is certainly less afraid of animals as the years go by, she still keeps “a safe distance” (169) from the animals, as do many humans. Our fear, I suspect, is not only (or even primarily) the very instinctual fear that animals may physically harm us; it is the even more profound fear of the implications of what animals might tell us about themselves, the world, and us, if we were able to understand them.
1 Saskatoon is a medium-sized city in the province of Saskatchewan in Canada.
2 I do not mean to imply that humans and animals cannot communicate at all. Any successful dog owner or horse rider sends and receives messages to and from her animal companion, using everything from words to non-verbal sounds to sign language. As well, much research has been done regarding communication between humans and, for example, dolphins or chimpanzees. However, the narrator seems to be seeking the communication of information that is far more complex than commands or simple utterances can convey. She wants to understand what the animals know about philosophical and spiritual matters, and there is no shared language through which she can access what she wants to learn.
3 As Jenny Kerber notes, this scene also alludes to the biblical prophecy of the peace that will reign after Christ’s return to earth on Judgment Day: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (Isaiah 11.6-7).
4 I should not romanticize Peter’s relationship with animals. Since Peter is a rancher, obviously there is a power structure at play in his relationship with them. He controls their lives and their deaths. From a postcolonial perspective, as Travis V. Mason argues, “non-human animals” are “politically and culturally marginalized . . . subjects of a colonizing power (namely humans)” (101). The cattle and horses can certainly be viewed as the rancher’s subjects. Still, Peter seems to have found a peace with them that the narrator can only envy, and in that particular moment, asleep on the grass, he is equally vulnerable and powerless.
5 This discussion raises an important question that is beyond the scope of this paper but that has been written about at length elsewhere: that is, What is “nature”? Is the boundary between nature and non-nature the circumference of a farmyard, with people and farmyard animals not part of nature, while the coyotes and bobcats on the plains are? Others might draw that line between human and animal, so that nature includes domestic animals such as the barn cats and the farm dog. Still others might argue that nature also comprises humans and everything associated with them – including ranch houses and skyscrapers and automobiles – simply because if humans are able to create them, they are “natural.”
6 In light of Butala’s statements that animals are at the “core” of rural life (161) and that they must be understood before the place can be understood, it is curious that scholarly writing on The Perfection of the Morning has so far not considered the role of animals in Butala’s book; Alison Calder, Smaro Kamboureli, and Cheryl Lousley, for example, mention animals only in passing, if at all, in their articles on Butala’s text.
7 I am grateful to Jenny Kerber for initiating discussion on this topic during a seminar on The Perfection of the Morning at the University of Calgary.
8 Barney Nelson defines broken as it is used in this context: “a broken animal is one that has lost its fear of humans and has become cooperative.” She adds, however, “If the situation becomes stressful enough, even the most well-’broken’ horse or steer will fight back or run away and display its hidden ‘wildness’” (6).
9 Margaret Atwood notes a similar assumption in other Canadian writing that “the only ‘authentic’ hunters are those who must still kill to eat, the Indians and locals who ‘really live here’” (93).
10 I should point out that Butala does address this issue more thoroughly elsewhere. In the novel Luna, for example, the character Selena’s reflections on ranching offer a more nuanced approach to the subject: “The calves in Selena’s pen milled and cried, bleating for their lost mothers, and the cows in the field behind them bellowed frantically in reply. . . . It was better not to think about it. We have to eat, she reminded herself. We’re cattle ranchers, we raise cattle, that’s how we make our living. If we didn’t do it, somebody else would. And at least here the cows are free to move around and graze on the open range. They aren’t prisoners in those terrible feedlots, confined in a few square feet with dozens of other cows, standing knee-deep in their own shit all their lives. . . . She glanced down at the calves. . . . But I suppose it really isn’t right, she thought. None of it, but I mustn’t think about that . . .” (Butala, Luna 160).
11 For a thorough discussion of the domestication of animals in early agricultural practices, see, for example, Chapters 8 and 9 of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.
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