Zoologies: On Animals And The Human Spirit
Alison Hawthorne Deming
Milkweed Editions, October 2014
As children, many of us felt instinctually connected to and curious about animals. Maybe we even found solace in imagining our personal dinosaur counterparts. Alison Hawthorne Deming’s book Zoologies: On Animals And The Human Spirit reawakened that in me.
In this collection of essays, Deming shares fascinating animal behaviors and the incredible history of humanity’s relationship with animals. Biology is the study of living things, and she does it justice by truly digging in to the meaning of life.
Deming travels all over the world seeking to understand the human and animal condition. She explores the forests of Oregon, the isles of Maine, the villages of Brazil, the plains of Tanzania, and the Sonoran desert of her current home. She describes the surplus killing enacted by hyenas, the companionship of crows, the post-traumatic stress of elephants, and the transgenic experiments of the spider-web-producing goat and the glowing rabbit. She goes beyond asking how to ask why, what it all means, and where it will lead us. Such is the nature of her mind and her writing. “This bestiary for the twenty-first century,” she says, “is my gratitude, my reverence, my penance, my secular prayer for the beauties and beasts of Earth.”
Deming devotes herself to conservation projects founded upon the belief that both facts and art are needed for humans to rethink habitat destruction, animal endangerment, and ultimately self-ruin. This is crucial in a time when “human beings are degrading ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history.” Art, she says, “weaves connective tissue between fact and feeling, self and world, individual and collective good.”
Halfway through the book, Deming begins to reveal more personal information about herself and her family. This is a welcome break, and it provides context about her as a character. She shares just enough to humanize herself as an individual, and she turns personal memories into poignant moments that will resound with many readers. We learn a little about her hundred-year-old mother, rescuing lobsters in honor of her brother, her daughter’s intuitive connection with horses, and her own terror of our undeniable mortality. This background beautifully illustrates why she seeks the significance of biology, zoology, and purpose.
Even in her acute awareness of the climate crisis and animal extinction, Deming finds hope that we will emerge with a better way of taking care of the earth. She summons a child-like wonder with an adult sense of responsibility. It is a privilege to accompany her on this journey to find meaning. In trying to discover the purpose of life, we find that “life insists upon purpose through a continual process of emergence.” Zoologies is a moving testament to the beauty of this process, the science of spirit, and the poetry of animal life.
Originally from Kingman, Arizona, Chelsey Burden currently lives in Flagstaff where she is earning her MFA in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies and in Sociology. She works at the Flagstaff City Library, where she reads as many books as she can for free.