Radiance in the World, and in Words

Photo courtesy of Ignacio Ferre Pérez on Flickr

If you still subscribe to this blog, thank you. I don’t write in this space nearly as much as I once did, owing to my commitment to the Loving the World newsletter (see free subscription link to right). The newsletter has been, and continues to be, a delight. But I’ve had the experience of reading a book about animal lives, including human life, that lit me up and made me want to write about it. This is a good place for that.

The Radiant Lives of Animals is the second book of Linda Hogan’s that has spoken deeply to me. The first, a gift from my son (and thank you to his Native American Studies teacher for the idea), was her novel Solar Storms. I rarely read fiction, but I had all the emotions, in the best possible way, with Solar Storms. It conjured a feeling of that longed-for, deep reconnection with the world, and pondered what truly matters in our lives as humans.

This blog entry, however, focuses on The Radiant Lives of Animals. I read it using my resurrected habit of reading with pen in hand, underlining or starring things that struck me. Mostly, this was a college habit. But I’ve (re)learned, lately, that I read more deeply when I do this. It works best on really good books. Slowing down to underline or exclaim allows a second taste of what I just read.

SO many underlines and asterisks! Some mark Hogan’s beautiful and provocative turns of phrase, others mark fascinating facts. I mean to do more research on some of what I gleaned, too.

It’s clear Hogan knows that of which she speaks—at both an intuitive and an intellectual level. But she was wise not to turn her book into a “factoid” amalgamation. When she weaves in intriguing facts, they have a deeper message than just, “well, isn’t this a cool thing?”

Here’s one example: she writes about “lavender-blue butterflies that have just been freed from anthills…These have been cared for by the ants while they were cocoons…As the butterflies mature and grow wings, the ants with their busy legs open earth, giving the lavender-blue insects the freedom of air and light and the ability to fly away and become a living part of the sky.”

I certainly get the sense that Hogan feels deep awe and gratitude about this happening, but she is also matter of fact—yes, this is our day-to-day world, with miracles at every turn. She expects no less. She sees and hears marvels everywhere, including in the seemingly more mundane.

But she isn’t gushing, and that is an excellent choice. I think the gushing would have made it more about Hogan and her own emotional experience. While we can intuit Hogan’s personal passion in the story, our attention is drawn to the beloved creatures at hand. It is an instruction in humility, in realizing we humans are part of all this and have so much to learn. We are not some removed entity, despite our many actions and attitudes that so often create a rift between us and other beings in nature.

Many of us readers who are starring and underlining the heck out of such passages, or maybe pausing to read them aloud to our loved one sitting near, have the strong urge to learn more, and of course the information is out there, like in this Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine article about the cocoons.   

(Hogan, by the way, is writing about Colorado in this book, where she lives alone in an old and modest cabin. At least I think she still lives there, based on the address on her website.)

This is the kind of person who has decorative birdhouses on her wall inside. When wasps occupy them, she lives along with them. She throws open the windows during the day, so the wasps can do their outdoor thing. She closes the windows at night, and they all cohabit in the dark. One morning, she hadn’t opened the windows, having slept in, and an “alarm wasp” buzzed over to remind her of their need to get outside.

Hogan’s Chickasaw heritage no doubt contributes to her all-encompassing perspective. The belief that animals have so much to teach us, and that we are not in a hierarchy with humans at the top, is one that reads as deeply rooted. While in one way it seems fantastic, on the other it is intuitively rationale and believable when she shares, humbly, her nonverbal communications with creatures of many kinds.

The Native American perspective, informed by eons on this continent, is one I admire more with each thing I learn. Sometimes I find myself envying those with this heritage, also hoping that such wisdom would drive our current global and political climate.

I also envy this woman living alone, always observing, always allowing space for other creatures. Her interactions are not those born of naivete—she’s had to scare mountain lions away from her property, and to navigate with trepidation around an elk stranded in her barn during a storm. His larger-than-life antlers filled the space as he repeatedly clicked his teeth at her in warning. But she had to feed the horses. She lowered her gaze, avoiding eye contact.

Clearly, her sense of self-preservation is intact. But she also sees the creatures as in it with her, with their own fears and trials. We are all trying to survive. We want safe offspring, plentiful food, and not to be poked and prodded.

Oh, gosh, I wrote just above that it’s good and wise that Hogan doesn’t gush in The Radiant Lives of Animals. Is that what I am doing here? It’s hard not to, and, yes, I did submit some fan comments via her website. It’s just that the read had such a deep effect. It’s hard not to crow about it (or to think very differently about crows, having read her words on them).

The animal encounters are compelling, and there are way too many to mention here, including the intimacies of some life-altering rescue relationships. But the book isn’t simply a catalogue of this encounter and that encounter. It encourages an attitude of contemplation and a thoughtful examination of our human lives and roles.

For example, Hogan writes about re-minding. We humans need “to have changed minds.” We are also charged to “re-member.” She quotes Meridel Le Sueur, who wrote about remembering the dismembered, restoring those connections to the whole that we have lost.

I could go on, but this is where I get to wrap it up, to encourage you to get both the books that I mention here. I realize that the appreciation of writing is subjective, but I’d be surprised if you don’t find some gems in the reads, even if they don’t resonate as deeply as they did for me.