When all seems lost, pet a dog. Or a cat. Or maybe an octopus. I promise it will make you feel better. And if you don’t happen to have an octopus nearby, you can read about one and that will make you feel better, too.
One of the best books I read about animals last year was The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (272 pages, audiobook, narrated by the author. Atria Books, published 2015)
A finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, this book taught me first and foremost that the plural of octopus is not octopi but octopuses; that the octopus has three hearts and more brain neurons than a rat; and that the average octopus lives only two or three years. But the great joy of this book is Montgomery’s ability to convey the almost spiritual connection she experiences with these creatures whose outer skin layer is basically the same as the lining of the human gut. From the New England Aquarium to the shallows of a Moorea lagoon, Montgomery pursues her passion for the reclusive mollusks and shares the tender kinship she comes to feel with them. And yes, she pets them! A quote: “Perhaps this is the pace at which the Creator thinks, in this weighty, graceful, liquid manner, like blood flows, not like synapses fire…” Highly recommended.
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina (480 pages, Kindle. Henry Holt and Co., published 2015) was a less graceful read, but I came to accept that its discursivity had purpose. Safina could have written three more easily digestible books here rather than one. But he ardently desires his reader to follow the thread he stitches across various species, celebrating their magnificence and despairing in the often horrific fate they experience when their paths cross with those of humans. The thread, roughly, is the complex philosophical concept of theory of mind, but for those of us of less lofty mind let’s just say that Safina makes a compelling case for the intellectual and communication abilities of animals, focusing primarily on elephants, wolves and killer whales. Safina occasionally waxes fanatic but this is still a worthy read. Safina apparently keeps chickens, so in the end he’s all right by me.
New York Times photo:
Speaking of elephants, one of the great joys of my reading year was Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II by Vicki Croke (368 pages, Kindle. Random House, published 2014) The subject of this New York Times bestseller is World War II legend James Howard “Billy” Williams; the other main characters are the Texas-sized country of Burma and the elephants that Howard harnessed in a harrowing evacuation from Japanese-held territory.
A National Geographic review of the book is accompanied by this photo of a mahout astride an elephant hefting a massive teak log:
Williams entered the jungles of Burma after World War I as a teak logger, where he forged an uncanny connection with the elephants used to transport the mighty teak logs. He was the right man in the right place at the right time, and emerged a hero. Highly recommended. (For another fascinating read on WWII Burma (minus the elephants) please consider Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker prize-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North.)
I am an unrepentant lover of almost all creatures furred and feathered, but I struggle mightily with coyotes. So, just as I did when I faced up to my ambivalence about crows , I decided to seek out a book about the wily “prairie wolf”. Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History by Dan Flores (288 pages, audiobook, narrated by Elijah Alexander. Basic Books, published 2016)
I certainly learned a thing or twelve about coyotes, although my relationship with them remains uneasy at best. Author Flores, on the other hand, is most definitely on team coyote, seeming to hold them in as high esteem as the Native Americans and Aztecs for whom the canid served as a deity. Well researched and written, if a bit starstruck over his subject, Flores’ book is worth reading if you really, really, really want to know about these ubiquitous predators.
A book is at its best when it absolutely transports the reader, which is exactly what The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape (304 pages, paperback, Published by Allen Lane, 2015) did for me. The author is a third-generation sheep farmer in England’s wondrously beautiful Lake District. Rebanks is justifiably proud yet just the slightest bit self-consciously combative about his post-Oxford decision to continue in the tradition of his father and grandfather in raising Herdwick sheep. The book’s title is a riff on the 1910 novel A Shepherd’s Life by William Henry Hudson, presumably in a nod to the timelessness of his career choice.
The Telegraph photo of Rebanks:
Rebanks hails from the same county in Cumbria as Beatrix Potter and like her, he makes one wants to linger there forever among the fells and the fields. He loves the land, he loves his family and he especially loves his border collies. You can follow him on Twitter @herdyshepherd1 and be treated to almost daily photos, along with his unreservedly strong opinions about politics and the ethics of farming.
All these blessed critters illuminated my reading experience. I hope they will likewise illuminate yours.
Love the animals. God has given them
the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled.
Don’t trouble it, don’t harass them,
don’t deprive them of their happiness,
don’t work against God’s intent.”
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov