Bestiary

Anthony Walent’s A Desert Pilgrim’s Bestiary is “a compendium of animals that slither, run and dwell in the Southwest desert”.

Bestiaries are a literary form as well as a way to express a worldview. They go back to Ancient times, but were most popular in the Middle Ages. In those days, every living thing was endowed with its own special meaning, so describing various animals served as a medium for a moral lesson and authors did not mind writing about what we now regard as imaginary creatures. The main thing was not that these really existed, only how significant they were. “Nature” was an inspiration for interpreting society. Throughout history, tales and fables have used animals as moral stand-ins for humans, as reflecting or distorting mirrors of society: in 1714, Mandeville’s Fable of The Bees facetiously and scandalously argued that private vices create social benefits.

After the Renaissance, when the immediacy between humans and the rest of nature (animals, rivers, trees, rocks…) gave way to a clear cut between the two (exemplified by 18th and 19th century encyclopaedias), non-human creatures were increasingly treated as objects to be rationally commodified and industrialised. Fiction was separated from science, bestiaries no longer pretended to offer a vision of the world, and today they are mostly written and read as a tongue-in-cheek literary genre, for example Borges  Manual de zoología fantástica (1957).

Over the pages of Anthony’s bestiary, the reader will travel back and forth to Ancient Egypt, early Zoroastrian days and the Middle Ages. He will encounter a vast array of characters: the Greek poet Archilochus,  scientists/philosophers (Heraclitus, Aristotle, Pliny the Elder), poet and bad boy François Villon, Francis of Assisi, doctor/alchemist Paracelsus, artists (Bosch, Brueghel, Dürer), 18th century explorer Pfefferkorn, Darwin (who contrary to common belief did not promote the “struggle for life” creed),  Marx, Kropotkin (anarchist theorist of mutual aid), biologist Stephen J. Gould, and D.H. Laurence who lived in New Mexico for two years.

A Desert Pilgrim’s Bestiary combines history-geography with ecology. It takes into account the interplay between myth and reality without conflating the two. It is not a New Age book. Nor an invitation to a regressive, backward-nostalgic journey. The author is well aware that traditional societies’ “communion with nature” went with oppressive traits, notably the weight of religion and the subordination of women.

But this certainly is the book of a dedicated hiker, familiar with the US South West deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, particularly the Sonoran Desert, which lies west of Tucson and east of San Diego. These vast areas are not immune from the ills of capitalism:  “one of the largest generators of nuclear power in the US is stationed within reach of Arizona’s brimming city of sprawl: Phoenix”. The infamous US-Mexico border wall cuts through the region. The South West Desert is home to military bases and testing grounds, condos, shopping centres, survivalists’ bunkers, sects’ temples, etc. Adding insult to injury, it contributes to mental confusion: north of El Paso, Roswell remains an unending source of UFO speculation since aliens supposedly crashed there in 1947. Deceive Inveigle Obfuscate… So all is not for the best in the wild.        

 

Here are just a few of the 22 desert inhabitants portrayed in the book, from ass to wolf.

The A to W starts by getting the record straight about asses, brought to America from the Middle East, often badly treated and unjustly maligned. Next we meet the black bear, regarded by Native Americans as a Keeper of Dreams.  

The “elusive and secretive” and possibly repulsive coyote is ill-famed as a predator. Maybe Native Americans knew better: “unlike the cowboy tales of treacherous and villainous coyotes stalking the land, [their stories] tend to portray frolicsome coyotes as heroes or reflections of human greed and pride.” 

The desert tortoise is commonly disparaged for being slow, “lazy”, only reproductive of its own life : corporate bosses are “far more prone to praise” the ants “whose mounds and hills resemble their own human empires”. In contrast, “we could do well to imitate [the tortoise’s] indolent pace toward a night of sweet dreams”.

The eagle has given birth to a rich and ambivalent symbolism due to its powers of flight above all creatures. In the New Testament, John the Evangelist saw it as an image of spiritual elevation. On the other hand, it is associated with lords and rulers. Roman, Austrian and German empires all had an eagle on their coats of arms (contemporary Germany has still kept one since the 1990 reunification of the country). Not forgetting the bald eagle on the seal of the US of America, an assertion of strength and domination, the overland all-seeing and threatening presence of Predator and Reaper drones. Anthony wishes to perceive the imperial bird differently, as an emblem of freedom: unlike the falcon, a frequent companion of the aristocracy, the eagle cannot be tamed.

The gila monster is a giant lizard, up to 2 feet, not as fearsome as the Indonesian Komodo dragon (10 ft.), but much more venomous. Fortunately for us – and itself - it keeps aloof from humans.

The goat is “portrayed as Belzebut or as a cursed animal” in Judaism and Christianity : to atone for their or somebody’s sins, humans would send the scapegoat into the desert to die of hunger, thirst and predators. In fact, desert goats are now used in Spring “to clear grasses and bushes that could otherwise act as fuel for the incoming fire season”, which does not save them from ill-treatment.

Desert ramblers must be ready for the unexpected. Trouble may not come in the form of vicious insects or big wild beasts. A humming bird went for the ear of the author, perhaps mistaking it for a source of nectar, then flew out of sight.

The javelina (common name for the collared peccary) looks like a pig, but differs physically, and is smaller than a wild boar. Anthony met a band of 25 within 100 feet of his camp. They often live and travel together, and javelina families “are not opposed to absorbing and taking in strangers”.

The mountain lion shares the same prestige as its “misty [African] relative”. As in the case of the eagle, the image of the lion is equivocal. It is the “acknowledged ruler of the animal world. Situating the lion at the top of such a pyramid effectively cemented the dominant social order”. As the symbol that typifies Mark the Evangelist, the lion stands for the roaring power of the Word, but equally it represents the dominance of monarchy and military might. For its part, the Sonoran lion roams a vast span of territory, in the “hardiest and most rugged terrain”, and is barely ever seen.

Unlike the King of Beasts, the mule deer faces many predators, the most lethal of whom is the human being, yet it sometimes dares to come close to roads.

Anthony makes no secret that “stories, myths and biological truths [..] linger by [his] side”. So it will come as no surprise that his Bestiary depicts the improbable phoenix, which epitomises the acceptance of death as regeneration : such a visionary being is the “bearer of renewed yearnings and offerings”. Likewise, the salamander stands for indestructibility and re-emergence from the ashes.

Back to reality, we read about the roadrunner, an athletic bird and amazing sprinter that can run 18 miles per hour on its two feet, while remaining an amiable creature which “responds to human prompts”.

The snake is remembered as the perfect (i.e. worst) agent of the Fall from a mythical Garden of Eden, the alleged cause of the evils that have plagued us since the dawn of humanity, all because one of us - Eve –was conned into tasting the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. A 2nd- 3rd century gnostic sect, however, the Ophites (from the Greek ophis: snake), “reversed the tale, suggesting that Eve and the serpent are the guiding lights of the story”: far from being a cunning ploy, the serpent persuaded humankind to search for knowledge and to experience freedom, whatever the costs. (Actually, isn’t the desire and ability to make a difference between good and bad a possible definition of the human species ?) In the South West Desert, in any case, “most snakes are harmless”.  

In like manner, the unfortunate wolf “takes its cue from Satan”. European peasant societies did their utmost “to eradicate the beast from the landscape”, notwithstanding a fascination for this age-old enemy, a duality echoed in fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood). A contemporary illustration is to be found in Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, inspired by Angela Carter’s short story of the same name. Anthony Walent does not mention the film, but has harsh words for Dances with Wolves: “a blockbuster Hollywood flick designed for suburban soccer moms and teens tired with the humdrum routine of suburban life”.

Desert wolves are near extinct now, especially the grey Mexican one. In 1998, an attempt to reintroduce wolves in Arizona ended in failure. They number about 100 in the whole of Arizona and New Mexico.

 

Today, animals are either processed for food (2.2 million chickens are eaten in the UK each day), tamed into pets (8 million cats in the UK, “reliable sources for love, affection and happiness”), or turned into images of whatever humans wish to believe in or fear within themselves. For European settlers in America, Anthony explains, nature was very much a “demon-haunted world” that needed to be processed : huge corn fields and prairies for cattle in the Midwest, fruit and wine valleys in California, industrial and mining zones, and of course ever-sprawling cities, had to be compensated for by national and state parks. Beyond an always receding frontier, lay the otherness of an untamed wilderness. Indians and nature were safely put in reserves. Together with a touch of nostalgia (Jack London’s Call of the Wild).

On the one hand, the image of an unfathomable potentially threatening animal world (the Australian 2010 film by David Michôd about a criminal family in Melbourne is sadly but typically titled Animal Kingdom).

On the other hand, fluff toys and cartoonish creatures: humanised animals.  

 

Anthony Walent does not tell us how to get rid of “our world of [..] artificial green lawns”, nor does he pretend to:  “I felt compelled to draw some poetic and moral conclusions based on my own reflections and research”. His bestiary will best be read as an imagination enhancer. It is up to the reader to envision the way to a social (therefore necessarily ecological) revolution that could reconnect us with nature and with ourselves.

December 2020

 

A Desert Pilgrim’s Bestiary, Printed and designed on Eberhardt Press, 2019. Richly yet soberly illustrated. With a Bibliography from Saint Ambrose to Ian Angus (Facing the Anthropocene) via Kropotkin and Mark Twain. Plus an Index.

Write to the author: Anthony Walent, Post Office 2048, Tucson, Arizona 85702, USA.

Anthony Walent is also the publisher and main writer of The Communicating Vessels, a title borrowed from a book by André Breton. This is enough to show how much his mag draws its inspiration from a Surrealist, anarchist and poetic critique of the world, complete with imaginative drawings and illustrations. Its 30th issue came out in Summer 2020.  

The Communicating Vessels. An Anthology of Essays was published under the name of Anthony Leskov by Communicating Vessels Books, 2006. It includes our Alice in Monsterland (2001)