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On living with animals in the present age


The Grass Library

book-review-icon-july2019THE EDITOR HAS been kind enough to suggest I review my own book. I’m reluctant, but I’m also reluctant to lean on a friend to do it for me. I suspect authors review their own books more often than we know, under pseudonyms, but also that they tend to be rather harder on those books than strangers might be.

So, for The District Bulletin — for which (for its stance on kangaroos) I have such admiration — I’ll give in. Kindly assume the book is even more enticing than I’ll make it sound.

The Grass Library is a kind of memoir, or rather begins as such and uses that — the story of dog Charlie and, a bit later, of the sheep who’ve come to live with us in the high Blue Mountains — as a platform for a set of meditations upon animality, animal rights, and the predicaments of animals, mainly ‘rescued’ animals, in our time.

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (When Elephants Weep) has said that it is ‘One of the most beautifully written books about animals I have ever read’. I am deeply grateful for that. I myself think of it as a set of carefully sweetened pills, at the core of which are some bitter truths and reflections. Others speak of its ‘gentle insistence’.

The Grass Library, in other words, is not some kind of repository the CSIRO might assemble. I spent a long time teaching literature. In a sense it’s about what happens when such a person is put out to grass, among animals, and what the grasses — or the eaters of grass — have led him to think about.

It’s also, of course, about my own writing room, a converted farm shed on the edge of a paddock, a room the sheep can enter, if they knock politely (I’ve given up trying to get them to wipe their feet), not that they are often inclined to stay very long:

‘Amongst other things, human spaces, non-sheep spaces, can be dangerous. Henry and Orpheus Pumpkin have each taken a stumble from the veranda stairs, and Jonathan has tumbled down the three steps from the cabin kitchen into the writing room. And boring. All the books in these rooms! Leaves of Grass  doesn’t smell of grass at all! Antic Hay  doesn’t smell like hay. There is no grain in SiloA Body of  Water  is undrinkable.  A Million Wild Acres  is barely five centimetres wide.’

It has, this library, a very real, physical precedent. I went to a party once, in the earliest 1970s, in Oaks Estate (yes, Canberra). Some friends were house-sitting there. The old house had what I think was a converted woolshed, carefully air-conditioned and refurbished as a library, in which was an astonishing array of rare first editions of English Literature. A library, out amongst the sheep! How? What did it mean? If anyone can help me identify whose library it was I’d be most happy to hear from them. I’ve always thought of that long-ago library as a kind of metaphor, but for what? The literature I have loved life-long, out in the middle of a paddock, facing a kind of test — subject (as I put it in the book) to the scrutiny of grass.

Three tiny passages, as a taste:

On Henry (ex ram):
A drizzly day, and cooler, after heat. The sheep are invigorated. Henry is up on the cabin deck, wanting someone to play with him. No one is there. Eventually he comes down and charges across the paddock to the wild ducks. Used to his antics, they simply part as he approaches, and let him barge through.

On becoming vegan, fourteen years ago:
There was, too, an unexpected pleasure — relief — in the thought that just by not doing something we were saving lives. You don’t realise the guilt you’ve been suppressing until you no longer feel it. ‘Now I can look at you in peace’, writes Kafka: ‘I don’t eat you anymore.’

And on the defenestration of a very stubborn, very cunning rat:
But then, straight away, anticlimax, and something like guilt. It feels like a victory, but also selfish, a kind of thuggery. How much chance did he stand, really? What have we done other than assert our territory, reaffirmed the species barrier we spend so much time arguing against? … How far have we come, really, if we can’t live with a rat?

Brandl & Schlesinger, Blackheath, NSW, 2019
221pp, RRP $26.95, ISBN 9780648202646

IMAGERY: Cover supplied. (Background David Hancock/Dreamstime)

• If you’d like to read a “stranger’s” review of this delightful book — visit this link Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers

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