I don’t remember what novel it was. I just remember throwing it across the room.
A few years ago I noticed something odd happening whenever I sat down to read a new novel or collection of short stories. I’ve always loved to read. Actually loved isn’t strong enough. Reading has been like breathing for me ever since I was a kid, but now it felt like something was wrong with this absolute pleasure I had never questioned before. Even with books that pulled me in and kept me turning pages, a kind of vague, restless dissatisfaction would eventually bubble up, sometimes enough to make me close the book and go find something else to do. Had something changed in the books, or in me?
One day I was halfway through a big contemporary novel full of people single-mindedly pursuing their goals in a world full of other people doing the same, and then it happened.
Birds are dropping from the skies, I remember shouting as I flung the book away from me. Who cares about your disappointing love life?
After I calmed down I realized the feeling was more than simply misplaced dread about climate change and species extinction. That was there too, but at its heart was a yearning for everything that the novel usually leaves out and that, in darker moments, seemed fated for destruction. With my thoughts turning more often to the natural world and what we’re doing to it, I must have been subconsciously yearning for reading experiences that would acknowledge all of this: not just the damage and the dread but the wonder, too; stories that would place humans and their inwardly focused lives within something larger, a wider and wilder universe that would let me take great restorative lungfuls of imaginary air and encounter other kinds of people. Nonhuman people.
That’s what I really wanted: stories that would take me further out of my own skin.
I already knew that what I sought was to be found in abundance in poetry, which had always intuited—and celebrated—a deep kinship with other living things and natural processes. I could find this larger-than-human awareness in Wang Wei and Saint Francis of Assisi and William Blake. In the verses of Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Wisława Szymborska. In Joy Harjo’s “Eagle Poem,” Robinson Jeffers’s “Hurt Hawks,” and Don McKay’s “Song for the Song of the White-Throated Sparrow.” In the words of Uvavnuk, the Inuit oral poet and angakkuq whose song celebrating the opening out of the self was set down in writing by Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen in the 1920s:
The great sea moves me, sets me adrift.
It moves me like algae on stones in running brook water.
The vault of heaven moves me.
Mighty weather storms through my soul.
It carries me with it.
Trembling with joy.
But I was tracking my quarry in more or less realist narrative fiction, where it was proving harder to find. Had I simply been reading the wrong books, or was there something about narrative art that made it more difficult or just too transgressive for a writer to step outside a reductivist human perspective? I had some theories, mainly to do with poetry as a more ancient strand of verbal art than prose, inherited from a time when “early humans perceived nature as a society with diverse members existing in a multitude of interrelationships,” as biologist Andreas Weber puts in in his book The Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, Feeling, and the Metamorphosis of Science. Not only that, but as Weber relates, early humans saw themselves as members of this society rather than apart from it, or superior to it. By the time prose and narrative fiction came on the scene, this awareness of our deep existential symbiosis with everything else—our “interbeing” as Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls it—had already fallen behind the grand march of human domination of the biosphere, raising a vast dust cloud of obfuscation (also known as organized religion and materialist philosophy) as it advanced.
We didn’t need God to exile us from the garden: we did it to ourselves.
This primal ecological insight of interbeing crops up here and there in prose written long before the twentieth century.
The Golden Ass by the Roman author Apuleius is one of the Western world’s earliest surviving novels (during the era in which Apuleius wrote, Christianity was still a minor religion in the empire). A recent abridged translation of the novel by Ellen Finkelpearl includes an afterword by Peter Singer, philosopher and author of the seminal text on speciesism, Animal Liberation. According to the jacket this edition of Apuleius’s novel has had the book’s many side plots and digressions pruned away to uncover “the still-beating heart of the text: the highs and lows in the life of an ass.” The story concerns a young rake named Lucius who foolishly tries a sorceress’s magic ointment (in the hope of becoming an eagle) and is transformed into a donkey. In this shape Lucius is driven, literally, on a series of misadventures involving robbers, witches, and courtesans, during which he is loaded with burdens, chained up and forced to walk endless circles to grind flour, worked half to death, beaten, kicked, and purposely set on fire, learning the hard way that the life of a working animal is one long misery. The goddess Isis eventually takes pity on Lucius and helps him become human again.
Here is the moment of Lucius’s transformation, as translated by Finkelpearl:
Soon it was obvious that my body hair was thickening into bristles, my delicate skin hardening into hide, at the ends of my palms my ten fingers were becoming single hooves, and a gigantic tail was emerging from the tip of my spine. Now my face was enormous, my mouth elongated, my nostrils gaping, and my lips pendulous. My ears, too, were hideously enlarged and bristly.
If this scene sounds familiar, it’s probably because Carlo Collodi drew upon The Golden Ass for his 1883 children’s novel, Pinocchio, in which a similar experience befalls the puppet hero, memorably translated onto the screen by Walt Disney in his 1940 animated feature film. Apuleius’s novel might have entered the children’s lit canon itself (where most of the sentient animal characters in literature are to be found) if it weren’t for all the explicit sex in its pages.
Singer’s afterword on the ethical significance of this early novel highlights the same sympathetic imaginative leap that Kafka makes in his fantastical tale “The Metamorphosis,” where Gregor Samsa finds himself transformed into a human-sized bug (Gregor’s tragedy isn’t that he has become an insect—he isn’t disgusted or in despair about his new form—it’s that others treat him like one). Early in the history of the novel Apuleius imagines stepping out of a human perspective into that of another living creature. In doing so The Golden Ass makes the case that other animals can suffer pain and fear, a seemingly obvious fact denied by Enlightenment thinkers like Descartes who asserted that animals were nothing more than complex machines engineered by God, solely for our benefit, without a spark of soul or consciousness. This mechanistic outlook on nature prevailed in the modern era and laid the philosophical groundwork for such practices as modern industrial farming and all the inhumane treatment and suffering concealed behind the walls of livestock processing plants (ironic how we’re most likely to insist other animals lack intelligence and feeling whenever we’re the ones being thoughtless and cruel). If nature is only a machine, you can dispose of it as you please. You can take it apart, pump it full of drugs to make its biological mechanisms fit your schedule, extract everything you can from it, kill it, all without any moral qualms. You can deprive a fellow creature of the freedom to enact the behaviours that give it pleasure and fulfill its being, treating it like an always-already-dead thing, because only human beings could possibly have inner lives that matter to them.
Thinking pigs? Talking trees? The children’s literature section is over there.
When I was ten years old, Richard Adams’s Watership Down shrank my world down to a few acres of English countryside and the nervous, close-to-the-earth sensibilities of rabbits. But as Hazel and his band set out in search of a new home after their warren is destroyed to make way for a housing development, Adams enlarges those few acres and elevates that leporine perspective to epic grandeur. A rabbit fleeing across a meadow chased by a madly barking dog is an event as consequential to rabbitkind as Achilles chasing Hector around the walls of Troy was for the ancient Greeks.
Thanks to this novel I discovered an astonishing truth: that a rabbit’s life mattered to the rabbit as much as my own life mattered to me (a fact that wouldn’t be astonishing to a rabbit). In the novel humans remain peripheral figures of menace, their strange habits and tools unknowable but almost always harmful. Rabbits in the novel die horribly by way of human devices such as snares and poison gas, and as a young reader I fully shared the rabbits’ bewildered and terrified journey through humankind’s dominion over the countryside.
Through the power of Adams’s sympathetic imagination I inhabited the world of another creature with such intensity and fellow feeling that it spurred me to one of my earliest attempts at writing a story: a tale of forest animals fighting a war. I knew I couldn’t use rabbits as my protagonists since Adams had already claimed that territory. And it had to be about animals in my own part of the world, the Canadian West. Squirrels? Coyotes? Badgers? If badgers fought a war, who would they fight? What did I really know about the lives of these creatures? Next to nothing. Had I ever seen one in the wild? No. The budding story withered on my inability to imagine my way into another creature’s life.
Children’s literature teems with talking, thinking, feeling animals—and other creatures or entities seemingly further from our own species: anthropomorphized trees and flowers and even supposedly nonliving things (the titular character in the Fan Brothers’ Lizzy and the Cloud acquires a pet cloud she names Milo). Often the stories feature only the talking, feeling animals themselves, without any human characters involved at all. When there are child protagonists in these stories, they form immediate caring, reciprocal relationships with other animate beings as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. As Robin Wall Kimmerer says in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants: “Our toddlers speak of plants and animals as if they were people, extending to them self and intention and compassion—until we teach them not to. We quickly retrain them and make them forget.”
As we grow up we learn to look back ironically on the responsive, animate nature we once took for granted, as a way to make a big scary world less frightening and inexplicable to children (although perhaps we unconsciously hang on to our belief in a sentient natural world if we become readers of adult fantasy fiction, which is really neotenous children’s literature, often retaining a “magical” animist worldview at least as a conventional element of imaginary worlds if not a truth about our planet). Many adults still read children’s stories for pleasure, even if we tell ourselves that’s not how things really are. Animals don’t have hopes and fears. Trees don’t talk.
Except that we now know—or we’re relearning—that trees do talk. To each other, at least, but we’ve started to listen in. Science is discovering that animals and plants not only communicate but think and feel in their own ways. There’s a risk of evaluating these processes in overly human terms, but as Timothy Morton points out in his environmental treatise Humankind, “I may be anthropomorphizing a bird, but I’m also being ornithomorphized by the bird.” The point being that the magpie yakking away outside my window has a life all its own in a magpie-centric world, although we share so much: we are both embodied beings and seek the fulfillment of that being; we don’t just obey our DNA-coded instruction manual—we live and have new experiences that were not pre-programmed. We both encounter things we’ve never come across before—such as one another—and incorporate them into our unfolding life history. We breathe the same air and we’re made of the same stuff: the same elements cycle through the magpie that cycle through me.
The boundaries between one thing and another are always blurry and changing, if not actually nonexistent. We know that clouds and earth and bacteria and the cycles of nature are extensions of ourselves just as we are extensions of them. We know that there are up to a thousand different species of bacteria living symbiotically in our bodies (we’re made up of at least as many bacterial cells as “our” cells), not to mention the mitochondria that power our bodies, which started out as distinct single-celled organisms engulfed by other cells to become energy powerhouses living in mutuality with their hosts. We know that the water in our bodies was once in the atmosphere and the oceans and it will leave us for this larger cycle and come back to us again and again in our lifetime.
We are separate from none of this. We are this. To truly know ourselves, we need to know everything else. We don’t have to go in search of it or let it in; it’s already right here.
It may be that all this time children’s books have been closer to reality than fiction for grown-ups.
The modern realist novel is, by and large, about humans. If we don’t usually think of our fictions this way it’s because the notion is self-evident enough to be invisible. We’re so fixated on ourselves as a species that we even make up imaginary people to obsess over. Just ask any Jane Austen fan.
In most conventional fiction the natural world is either absent or it’s relegated to backdrop—“setting”—for what really matters: human actors and their conflicts within—and with—human society. In the HBO television series Succession, the uberwealthy Roy family travels to some of the world’s most beautiful places, but does anyone ever stop to notice an unusual tree, or listen to birds calling and responding? In this regard our stories have reflected the general attitude of Homo sapiens toward other life that has prevailed at least since the dawn of the agricultural age, when we started building fences and separating ourselves—or thinking ourselves separate—from our natural environment, as if it was something other than us. Animals and plants and all the messy multitudinous stuff that the world appears to be made of are simply that: stuff out there for us to pose in front of, make use of, create wealth from. This speciesist attitude comes preloaded in the operating instructions for most realist fiction. One might even say realism and capitalism have been in a mutually supportive—or codependent—relationship all this time, reinforcing one another in a reductionist paradigm.
Realism is not so much a genre as it is an attitude toward storytelling. It’s like a literary parallel to the scientific method: only those aspects of the universe which are verifiable by rational consensus can be objects of study. Or story. Strip away beliefs and hopes (older forms of storytelling) and focus only on how things really are.
Except that realism, unlike science, tends to erase or disregard 99% of what actually constitutes how things really are on the Earth’s surface: in other words, the biosphere that sustains our existence and made it possible in the first place. In realism, “the world” means human affairs. Other living entities don’t fully exist, or at least don’t matter anywhere near as much as we do.
There’s no excuse anymore for pretending only human stories matter, or that humans are at the centre of all stories and everything else is window dressing for our narcissistic melodramas. Realism has become stagnant, out of touch, and worse, boring. It’s grown comfortable and smug in its preeminence. And in fact, where realism goes from here has become a matter of some urgency, like so much else. In the era of CRISPR and climate breakdown, the stories we choose to tell matter. Stories can put us to sleep, but they can also wake us up.
Realism is the fairy tale we’ve been telling all this time about our own exceptionality.
My tour through stories I already knew was refreshing, but the core idea—what Andreas Weber calls our “shared aliveness in a fertile cosmos”—seemed to me uncontroversial enough from a twenty-first century perspective informed by science and the renaissance of Indigenous knowledge traditions that it should no longer require magic or framing as “fantasy” to excuse its presence. It should be showing up not just in fantastical tales and kids’ books. All it required, I thought, was for realist writers to stretch their imaginations and their sympathies a little more.
And some, of course, have been doing that. The genre of eco-fiction has been around since the 1970s, but as an umbrella term it’s so capacious—including everything from thrillers with an environmental focus to solarpunk to animal stories for children—that it has been dubbed a “super genre.” Writer Mary Woodbury, on the Dragonfly Eco-fiction site, provides a useful guide to the roots and branchings of the genre, and they are many and various. But I wasn’t really interested in genre. I rarely give a thought to genre when I’m engaged in my own writing, and when I do it’s usually because I’m searching for a way out of it. Once you label something with a genre, people get territorial (we are animals, after all). The borders get policed, reputations are invested, and conflicts erupt. And containing stories about the climate crisis and biodiversity loss to their own category simply reinforces the belief that these topics aren’t urgently relevant to everyone.
I knew that what I was looking for wasn’t a category but its opposite: a transgression. A different way of seeing, of embracing things that are not supposed to show up in a story set in the realist’s version of the way things are. You could stumble across these boundary-blurrings just about anywhere in fiction, I figured—or hoped—just as you could in nature.
And I did start to stumble across them. I found what I began to call a “trans-species” outlook in contemporary fiction, often in books that started from a more or less familiar realist stance and then took flight in breathtaking directions.
Like Richard Powers’s The Overstory, which weaves together the lives of nine Americans who are all ultimately connected by their extraordinary relationships with trees. And the trees themselves are not simply backdrop for the human drama, but play a central role in the narrative. Nothing happens in the story that would offend a strict materialist. There are no impossible transformations or talking rabbits; human characters predominate as actors in the narrative. But in the end the trees themselves overwhelm, with their size, their age, their wisdom and beauty. And they symbolize precisely nothing. These are not allegorical trees that stand for some human quality. They’re trees. The magical and miraculous to be found in the book is entirely the fact of their physical presence on this Earth, while the novel’s long view of time takes it as a certainty that their kind will outlast humanity and go on living, breathing, and being into a future we will never know.
Or Lucy Ellman’s Joycean tour de force Ducks, Newburyport, in which the unnamed main character, who lives with her husband and children in Ohio and sells baked goods to local restaurants, carries on a running stream-of-consciousness narrative for over a thousand pages. Among her many other passing thoughts she worries about climate change, pollution, and the miserable lives of industrially farmed chickens. But the most remarkable element of the book has to be the short interspersed episodes in the life of a female mountain lion in Appalachia whose cubs are taken by humans. The story of this wild animal may be symbolically reflective of that of the unnamed narrator, but a reader isn’t required to make any such literary connection: the lioness’s journey in search of her cubs is simply something else that’s happening in the world while the human character goes about her day. Whose story is more important? Neither, perhaps. Ellmann takes up the modernist challenge to show humankind as it “really” is, but along the way she nudges open the realist novel to let in just a little more of the planet we live on.
Sheila Heti’s recent Governor General’s Award–winning short novel, Pure Colour, takes its protagonist, a young woman named Mira, on a detour from her muddled, unhappy human life into an interval of existence as a disembodied consciousness within a leaf. Mira discovers what it might feel like to be a photosynthetic form of life—rather dull, but peaceful—ultimately revealing to her the seamless coexistence of everything in the universe:
She hadn’t known that plants were the grateful recipients of all consciousness—not only of people, but of snails and squirrels and the sun and the rain … Was every tree so peppered with the consciousness of snails and squirrels and people and bees? And what will happen to her in the autumn? Is that when she will really be dead? No, perhaps then she’ll retreat into the trunk of the tree. Perhaps that’s what makes trees so magnificent: that as gorgeous and accepting as their leaves are, their trunk is even more accepting. It welcomes one and all. Then the tree will let her slip out again, back through its branches as it buds in the spring. But what if the tree is cut down? Perhaps she’ll go on to the next tree, then she’ll go on to the next one, and she’ll just keep on going—into the soil or whatever’s left; particles from a distant sun.
Drawn by her unfulfilled yearning for love and connection, Mira returns from this sojourn into plant life to her existence as a flesh and blood woman, and the novel proceeds as most realist novels do, chronicling Mira’s difficulties relating to other humans.
Jordan Abel’s forthcoming Empty Spaces is something like a post-apocalyptic novel with the human protagonists removed. I say “something like” because this book is wonderfully unclassifiable. It features no identified characters, and begins with descriptions of rocks, rivers, forests, and other natural features. There appears to be a human presence here beyond the narrating consciousness, but it’s peripheral, usually referred to only as “bodies” and sometimes indistinguishable from numerous other animal bodies found in the landscape.
Somewhere in the trees there are leaves falling onto a path. A path that winds through the trees and around the river. Behind the curvature of the path, there is a dark, wooded outline and a soft, silvery wind. The open heavens and the drifting vapours and the broken treetops and the sullen sounds and the evening atmosphere and the blazing fire and the deep laughter and the broken rocks and the roaring cavern and the rushing water and the impenetrable darkness and the water glimmering in the moonlight and the hills and the gloom and the moving surfaces and the quiet uneasiness and the wooded outlines and the silvery wind and the broken branches and soft, dark places in the forest. In this gully, there is a darkness that can only be tasted.
Through expanding, interweaving loops of descriptive prose the free-roaming narrative perspective moves from the forests and rivers toward an urban landscape, where it seems some terrible catastrophe has occurred, or will soon occur, or has always been occurring. The undifferentiated bodies proliferate, lying in the ditches and streets, and the sense of a desolated, human-dominated nature grows almost suffocating. Whether this text is to be considered fiction or not seems almost beside the point. It resolutely refuses to cohere into a story, or perhaps the story it tells is one of the breakdown of stories in the impact of this catastrophe that might be colonialism itself, and what it has wrought on the human—but also greater-than-human—world.
I’m scrambling eggs in the kitchen when my son comes to tell me there’s something weird in the basement I need to see. I head downstairs to find that one of the walls is gone; the basement is open to the elements, and an odd creature—half lizard, half bird—sits perched on the back of our old recliner. Startled, I shoo the creature and it darts outside. But I’m drawn after it by what I see out there: a lush meadow under falling twilight. I follow the lizard-bird into the grass; it has changed into something more like a tawny cat, or a fox. It leads me farther into the meadow, while I try to decide: Is it a cat? A fox? Just as I catch up with it, the catfox shoots upward like a rocket and bursts like fireworks into a glittering cloud of brilliant sparks, sizzling and popping and falling back to the earth, in a shower of tiny glimmering stars. The evening sky is full of these falling sparks. Countless numbers of them, raining silently and softly on everything. One of them drifts down lazily right in front of me. I hold out my hand and the star settles in my palm, softly pulsing. It’s a neutrino, I realize. This is what they look like when you actually catch one, these elusive elementary particles that stream in countless numbers through ordinary matter, unseen, unfelt, insubstantial. This is a neutrino, and the truth is, it’s alive. These tiny luminous things are the seeds of life and they have existed forever and always will, ceaselessly changing form, becoming lizard, cat, fox, and everything else. Everyone else.
I see my house in front of me and I go inside. I come out into the kitchen, where the dream started. My family is here, waiting for me around the dinner table. My brother and sisters. My wife. My son. My mother. And my father, who died three years ago.
When I see Dad there I realize this must be a dream, but I don’t wake up. I know these are not really my loved ones, they’re projections of my subconscious, but a pang of urgency draws me into the room. I need to leave them, and myself, with the knowledge I’ve gained before the dream dissolves and they wink out forever like falling stars.
I sit down at the place they’ve saved for me.
Sorry I’m late, I say. You won’t believe what I just found out. We will never die.
When I wake up I write down the dream in my journal. I’ve never had a dream quite like that before. It haunts me for days. Too bad it’s not true, I tell myself. Neutrinos aren’t alive.
I thought this essay would be a manifesto, but it didn’t turn out that way. Maybe I should call it an animafesto instead. Whatever it’s become, I discovered while writing this that dictating what others should write is not really in the spirit of what I’d like to see in the stories I read. But I want to offer some suggestions for what fiction that seeks to be “true to life” needs to acknowledge and explore.
In what follows I’m taking cues from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and from biologist Andreas Weber, who in his books Enlivenment and The Biology of Wonder proffers the tenets of a new science of “poetic ecology.” In Weber’s view, feeling, desire, and subjectivity, far from being human-centred impositions on a mindless nature, are the very foundation of life on Earth. This is a living, feeling world of creatures who, like ourselves, yearn to fulfill their being, and we’ve exiled ourselves from it by fooling ourselves into believing we’re independent, self-created, and superior—that nature is something we’ve transcended. If, as Weber argues, quoting poet Gary Snyder, nature has an imaginative dimension that unfolds through the lives of all things, then language and story don’t separate us from this living world; they are “our way to be part of the wild.”
One: Human beings are, before anything else, living things. Start there. What if our stories took place in a world where everything is alive?
Two: We are animals. I’m not referring to some idea of our “primitive” nature; we don’t have to go out and scream in the woods to connect with it. I mean our bodily intelligence that evolved alongside and in symbiosis with countless other species. The wild is inside us. It’s not all claw and fang—it’s our innate creaturely wisdom.
Three: As writers, how can we rewild our language? “In English you are either a human or a thing. Our grammar boxes us in by the choice of reducing a nonhuman being to an it, or it must be gendered, inappropriately, as a he or a she. Where are our words for the simple existence of another living being?” Kimmerer writes.
Four: Which also means rethinking—rebuilding—character. “The majority of organisms must be viewed as ‘metabiomes’ consisting of thousands of symbiotic, mostly bacterial species,” writes Weber in Enlivenment. What does this mean for the idea of an individual destiny? “Identity is a commons. This [ecological] narrative’s respective narrators—you, I, and all beings—are forever a part of what is happening, and at the same time always create their own plot.”
Five: Realism is dominant in literary fiction not because it’s the most truthful form of narrative, but because it coincided with—and helped justify—the ascendency of capitalism and colonialism. These isms have been busy raping the planet, based on an old, malignant story that the environment is nothing but dead stuff to exploit. Realism will have to face its complicity with this story and seek another path. Or many paths.
Six: Instead of linear plots: rhizomes, spirals, waves. Instead of setting: nature as our true home, a continually renegotiated tidal zone between self and other. Instead of beginning, middle, and end: growth, emergence, transformation.
Seven: “A first-person science would … take into account the inner dimensions of foxes and fish, rivers and forests, oceans and shores,” Weber writes in Enlivenment. How about a true first-person—or many-person—fiction? There’s something it is like to be a bat. A white-tailed deer. A sturgeon. A monarch butterfly emerging from its cocoon. Maybe even a spruce tree, a dandelion growing in a sidewalk crack, a mycorrhizal network, the North Saskatchewan River. It might be that our science can never know or measure that interiority. But our stories can imagine it. They can take our heads and hearts where the deepest truth of our being already lives.
The first great breakthrough for the novel was discovering that the ordinary unsung individual could be a subject of story. That the personal struggles and histories of “nobodies”—not only the lives of kings and conquerors—were meaningful and worth telling.
The next breakthrough for the novel will be to catch up to what poetry, children’s literature, and nonrealist fiction has always intuited, and discover the rest of the biosphere: the lives of animals, trees, plants, fungi, bacteria, protista, and their ceaseless recycling of sunlight, soil, rocks, water, and the elements that make them up; endless transfigurations of matter and energy, and the truth that we aren’t just here with all of this—we are this. Life as a desiring force that has shaped the planet’s processes and that speaks to us and through us as kin, not strangers.
The novel will discover what planet we actually live on.