Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Short Essay on Animal Distress

Robert McGowan's essay "Owl," at only two pages, leading off the new issue of River Teeth, a journal that owes its title to something resonant and literary, I have no doubt, even though I have no clue what that is because I am not very well-read or smart, accomplishes something substantial, good and hard, possibly not in that order, in a very short space. It starts simply with the twitter-worthy (in fact I just tweeted it to my digital commonplace) sentence: "I have a sad story about brave death," goes on to describe, in completely unsentimental terms (the necessity of this is probably obvious to all involved), an encounter with a great horned owl caught in barbed wire.

Already you're not interested in reading this, I suspect. Unexpected encounters with animal distress--even the overtly manipulative Sarah McLachlan-tracked and -starring ads for the ASPCA, all of which will still immediately bring me to tears upon accidental viewing, even in fast-forward on my DVR, both because of a remnant fondness for early Sarah McLachlan as well as the series of one-eyed dogs, wounded cats, and abused, abandoned, or otherwise homeless pets--push my buttons way too quickly and disable my critical response, leading to my nearly instantaneous paypal donation, which is, after all, the point of this manipulation. Perhaps they have this effect on you too. It's a weakness, a lack of intellectual force. I admit it.

After all, animals in distress, particularly wild ones, just happened upon in the course of our boring errands (calling William Stafford's "Traveling through the Dark"), are an easy occasion for the puncturing of our daily lives that the essay--and the poem, and the story for that matter--does well. In this increasingly simulated, marketed-to, click-tracked, GPS-overlaid, overly-narratized, focus-grouped, poll- and pundit-pummelled, bought and sold, digital, data-mined, spun and, above all else, in ways we are increasingly inured to, virtual world, it's easy to forget in our dailyness and our Daily Showness that the world we live in is only barely controlled if it is controlled at all. Living in Tucson, Arizona, where great horned owls are one among many good reasons not to let your domestic animals outside, is a nice reminder of this. This is to say that you can build your own wounded animal reflection essay with this here received language and emotion kit for only $29.95 plus the obligatory shipping gouge.

McGowan doesn't do that, and the essay holds up under later, cooler-headed examination. "Owl"'s (that's one awkward construction) power owes quite a bit to its economy. That first line performs it well. We get a few swerves, some authority-and-scene-building "dusty chert roads," a quick diversion into the evolutionary behavior of owls, but nothing superfluous. Nothing you'd be able to edit out. Just well-formed declarative sentences (seeming artlessness is in fact an art) that require your attention and reward it.

The essay proceeds to its inevitable conclusion, culminating in a slightly--but, to its credit, only slightly--more examined penultimate Stafford moment with what seems to me an indisputably great line, "In the ground, the owl went into other animals, and it does not matter, but I would like for him to have become fuel for soaring." What makes it for me is "and it does not matter."--the way in which it defers sentimentality. And then "Owl" departs quickly with a quick and faintly spooky coda and then all we have is white space on the page.

And even if it does not matter, or if I am being marketed to and my experience soundtracked by McLachlan's lackluster "Adia" (try Solace or Vox, Lilith Fair weather fans), the experience is what it is: I trust what I feel, or felt, the combination of experience and its hazy memory, and I felt a little more alive today.


  1. & if you're interested in the origin of the journal's name: http://static.ashland.edu//riverteeth/introduction.htm

  2. This is possibly a terrible thing to admit in a public forum - but I frequently find animal distress harder to bear than human distress. Something to do with the sense that we, as humans, have more agency. Or at minimum the ability to comprehend our world, however bad it is, in a way that our furry friends simply can't.

    I saw a cat leading four kittens - barely big enough to trundle along behind her - around the periphery of an exurban California Applebees parking lot last year and while everybody else said "oh, cute, kittens!", all I could think of was the long odds, the near impossibility in coyote, hawk, snake and automobile country, that this momma cat would see all four of those into adulthood.

    And then I wanted to genetically trace that momma cat back to the person who originally didn't have their cat spayed and give them a solid punch in the nose.