Sunday, October 19, 2008

Predators: a poet's eye view of Gordon Grice's The Red Hourglass

"And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears ... I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food." Werner Herzog -- Grizzly Man

"We arrogantly see nonhuman animals as innocents at play in nature's temple, potential victims of evil invating humans. But cats kill for fun, wolves slaughter more than they can eat, and pigs destroy the vegetation they depend on. Many animals are just as intemperate and greedy as we are, though we accomplish more in the way of destruction." Gordon Grice, The Red Hourglass, pp 180

Gordon Grice's book The Red Hourglass covers seven different types of predators: black widows, mantids (mantises), rattlesnakes, tarantulas, pigs, canids (canines), and recluse spiders. He starts with the crackling, brush-fire sound of the widow's slovenly-looking web and its startlingly destructive abilities (it can kill a horse), then moves through the mantid's creepy, mamalian properties (one of the few bugs that hunts by sight, and can swivel its head), and the fearsome size of a rattlesnake bolus – the writhing ball they make before hibernation in their den. Eventually Grice arrives at both the disturbing assertion that "a pig will eat anything" and the outline of our long and troubled history with canids of all stripe. This is a creepy book.

Grice's main intentions seem to be twofold: first, he chooses creature we Americans know, or are familiar with (no lions or sharks) to remind us of the predatory instincts of animals right near us, and second he describes these creatures always in the context of associations with human behavior, refusing to let us see these creatures as evil, or malformed. The pig is dangerous because the pig thinks like us. The mantid is creepy because we can observe in it behavior similar to our own.

I feel like this books fits well as an answer to all of my poet's fictions about walking in the woods, and "reconnecting" with "nature" (where were we otherwise?) Though he was often accused of supporting it, Frost (our last well-known nature poet, I suppose) fought that stereotype as much as anyone. But it persists. The trouble is, of course, that we are just as much a part of nature as the birds and insects that surround us, and pretending we aren't is not much different than the prairie dog believing that her giant den is somehow separate from the rest of the world. Grice makes this point abundantly clear as he shows us animals that both feed on us, and upon which we feed – he reveals human predatory (and canibalistic) instincts by outlining the most gruesome practices of seven of the more gruesome species that inhabit our everyday world.

What's best about this book is that it isn't really about the predators we remember to fear. A visit to the zoo to see leopards and sharks may keep a child up a night or two, but heading out to the farm and accidentally stumbling on a mother sow eating her young will give you the fantods for weeks. It's not because you fear for your life, necessarily (although empathy for the litter is a part of it), but because it's so easy to see yourself in either part of that brutal game. And it's good to be reminded that the game is happening all around us, not just in far away jungles between hunters and pack animals.

Lions are scary, sure, but for most people, especially in the U.S., there's not much chance of running into one that isn't caged, or trapped behind glass. Wander out into your garage, or backyard, and you're likely to find black widows or recluse spiders, or possible a rattlesnake, depending on where you live. You'll certainly see some kind of monster, back in the dark corners of the basement, wrapping a few struggling bugs up in webbing with careful deliberation, delicately biting them, and waiting for their insides to liquefy.

Chances are good you've heard a coyote howl, or have seen a tarantula, or a live pig. And, as Grail makes clear, these are some of the most dangerous and deadly animals, to others and even to us sometimes. They are also amazing and beautiful. Grail's descriptions of the widow up close, or the lean readiness of a wild boar outline just how beautiful nature can make a creature.

Reading this book was difficult. Grail has a sparse, poet's prose, fluid and quick-paced, and his descriptions are beautiful. But the subject matter had me often holding the book by its edges, as if I were afraid it was going to bite me. Descriptions of necrotic lesions caused by recluse spiders, or the pack hunting tactics of even a tame dog had me cringing. And yet. The larger point that he makes – that creatures often brutally torture each other, causing unnecessary pain for fun and species advancement, is a good one to remember. In my view, nature is both beautiful and brutal. Ignoring either one does little justice to the importance of the other. Grail's book is great in that it helps me not forget.

1 comment:

jmcc said...

this reminded me of a really good Believer two-parter essay about the nature of nature.

There does need to be a smack of reality in the face of "communing" with nature. I like to look at my escapes into the wilderness as I do a trip to a foreign land - that I'm there on different rules, trying to take in as much as I can, flooded with insights of all kinds, and then appreciate and loathe different aspects of home when i return.