The Almost-Forgotten Book

Even though this was the first book that I wanted to own and the first that I spent my pocket money on, it was actually only my second book. The first book was littler than the Little Guide, brown, about half an inch thick, and called something like Mammals of Great Britain. It had a fox on the cover. A teacher gave it to me when I was eight, having seen that I had an interest in animals, probably from my absorption in drawing and painting them. It was not the first book that had been bought for me, but the first that stole my heart. It had not occurred to my own parents to place such a book in my hands; although well-intentioned and encouraging of the habit of reading, they tended to give me more conventional childen’s books, such as simplified versions of the Arabian Nights or Robinson Crusoe. And it would certainly not have occurred to me to want to buy a guidebook to fauna. Until that day pocket money was dedicated to sweets and ice-cream. This teacher, Mrs. Williams, had given every child in her class a small something for Christmas, and I am sure that she found the right gift for each one of us. I remember clearly the feel and smell of this book, but not the author’s name or exact title; and I have been unable to find it on Google. Yet this almost-forgotten book, a faded petroglyph in the prehistory of my reading, became the most important book in the growth of my mind. It inspired me to save my coins for my first book purchase, the Little Guide, after which came a long line of books on animals and birds. Some of these subsequent additions were little more than lists of the mammals of the world, illustrated by line drawings, but I would nonetheless spend hours poring over exotic names and the enthralling manifold of animal forms.

   The first book took over my life for several months. I didn’t really read it. What fascinated me more were the names and pictures, which I would re-draw and then color more vividly. Even at age eight I had a lucid conception of relatively obscure creatures such as the coypu, all the various voles, every sngle European mustelid — as well as their tracks and scat. I wasn’t an outdoorsy boy, and never made any effort to find or even see these creatures in the wild; my engagement was entirely imaginative. I had inherited a fear of the outdoors from my parents and my early years in Malaysia, where a superabundance of dangerous snakes and painful insects has the effect of nipping in the bud potential Wordsworths and Thoreaus.  I don’t understand how one year after we moved to England I could have developed a passion for wild animals strong enough for a teacher to recognize it. We had no books on animals in the house; my family had not yet discovered National Geographic; and in 1967-68 wildlife documentaries on TV were sparse. Yet suddenly here I was, spending hours each day entranced by animal forms. This trance lasted about five years, during which I read almost every animal narrative I could find in my local library. Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, and Joy Adamson’s Born Free made deep impressions on my young mind and heart; they played a crucial part in teaching me about love, and about letting other beings be themselves (which is the condition for love). In school we studied Call of the Wild and White Fang, but neither of these had as deep a respect for the mysteries of the wild animal as Tarka the Otter did — the most beautiful book about an animal, and also the most powerful evocation ever written of the English countryside. It could be that Intergalactic science fiction never won my attention precisely because no alien that a human mind conceived could be stranger or more wonderful than an animal on our muddy planet.

   My alternative life would have been in natural history. If I hadn’t wound up in literature and philosophy, I would have loved to have been David Attenborough, one of my heroes. Yet that life would have been out of the question for me, for I would not have had his uninhibited self-confidence in plunging into impenetrable jungles and purblind snake-infested caves. His confidence is characteristic of a northern European upper-middle-class boy’s easy familiarity with the woods and fields, his sense of being at home on the land (which may be owned by his family) — whereas the middle-class boy of the tropics is shy of the wild and its buzzing, biting denizens. So being David Attenborough had to remain a fantasy  running like an underground river through my life of books. I had wanted to pursue parallel careers in both biology and English in my university studies, but was dissuaded from that by my high school teachers and encouraged to commit to just one — so if I had followed Attenborough’s trail, my subterranean life would have been as poet and writer. I wonder if every modern person needs two lives, a real one and a shadow one, to be complete.

   As my love of natural history went underground, it began to permeate my life in ways that had no connection with my official successes or failures: the enjoyment of hiking and the need to live in places where the Wild was just next door or around the corner; a home constantly full of animals; volunteer work with animal rescues; the practice of physical exercise that either incorporates animal movements (such as menagerie exercises or Qi Gong Five Animal forms) or seeks to maintain the physical vitality that animals are naturally blessed with. “Move like a bear! See how the bear moves as if he had no joints…” Or “Be like a snake! See how at whichever point on its body you pick it up by, it has the same amount of life!” And of course I still love to read books about animals, watch David Attenborough, and draw birds and mammals. All of this can be traced to that first book. If that book had a name and author for me, and if the interest in animals had become more explicit and taken form as a career, would it have had the same power to permeate my life from beneath, as it were?

  A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to study Adolf Portmann’s Animal Forms and Patterns (1948) with a group of excited high school students. This neglected classic takes as its working hypothesis the idea that the multifarious forms of animals are meant to be seen, and that the visible features of an animal are a window into the mysteries of its being. Portmann is aware of writing late in life a book that is the fulfillment of a childhood fascination with animal forms; indeed, the entire book is a loving meditation on what it means for living beings to be visible and also visibly remarkable. It may be the case that such a meditation is possible only later in life, when passion has become conscious, attentive, contemplative. The ecstasy of intimacy has been superseded by a more deliberate mood of savoring, almost of rasa:

While a child, as soon as I had reached the stage when the name of an animal meant something to me, I began to draw animals, very lovingly. Soon I made voluminous, but chaotic, collections of pictures and very extraordinary texts to go with them. At that time an early, curious draft of a book on animals took shape. But, having climbed to that peak in a school career where one feels certain that one can see through everything in the world, the whole of these first attempts were destroyed as being childish. Yet, however thoroughly one burns what has been created, it is still there — and so the early pictures have continued to work within me, and have secretly found their way into everything which scientifc research into animal life has brought to my later years.

   So then, while I was working at this book, my thoughts often went back to the sitting-room known to my childhood’s days. There, on many an evening and many a holiday, I was blissfully forgetful of all else as I copied one animal picture after another from the old ‘Brehm’ or some other beautiful book of animals, precious treasures which I had been allowed to fetch away from the Public Free Library. Maybe here and here something will speak from the pages of this book which may help to awaken in others love for livng things and respect for that existence within the animal form which is beyond our full comprehension…Has it indeed managed to capture within this later form something of the blissfulness of those very early activities, and so to pass on the germ of what may develop into quiet delight?  (pp.15-16)

Up until the age of eleven, I loved to paint animals in profile, particularly horses. I loved the muscularity of the outline, the dignity and strength of the animal just standing. Then I would paint the animal with every imaginable color, as if my fantastical coloring magically liberated the animal into a realm beyond the literal. This never ceased to be interesting. My art teacher at school, a dullard called Major Dobbin, grew noticeably frustrated with what he saw as a monotonous series of profiles not conducive to the cultivation of skill in draughtsmanship. At first he gave me suggestions and examples for drawing animals from a variety of perspectives and poses, but when I persisted in rendering horses in ever more spectacular profile he finally became angry and told me that my paintings were simply boring. After that I too lost interest, and I didn’t painted again until over thirty years later, with my daughters. The spontaneity and sheer pleasure of painting has taken even longer to return. It is amazing how delicate the love of beauty can be — how, like the leaves of certain plants it curls away from brutal touch and rolls up to protect itself from death by stupidity — and also how, many decades later, it can unfold once more to the sunlight.

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