Saturday, 4 February 2017

No 41 - Animals in the (post)apocalypse

A recent issue of Africa Geographic highlighted what it called an “Elephant Apocalypse” – meaning that elephants are (yet again) coming under intense pressure from ivory hunters.  The word “apocalypse” has become so loose that it more or less equates with “disaster”, or “severe damage”, rather than the complete cleaning-of-the-slate envisaged in the original Apocalypse relayed by John in the Book of Revelation.

Not that it’s easy to discern just how much destruction there is in that phantasmagoric prophecy, as it unfolds through its various bizarre and terrifying stages.  Just what is unveiled – apocalypse derives from the Greek for an unveiling or uncovering – is weirdly obscure.  My own question, though, is this: while the fate of sinful and repentant humans is obviously the central concern in Revelation – what is said of the fate of other species?

The short answer is: not much.  In one of the early stages of God’s ravaging of earth, one third of the earth, its forests and animals, are slated for termination.  Well, we humans are close to achieving that rate of extinction all by ourselves.  Thereafter, a number of nightmarish symbolic animal hybrids appear on both good and evil sides of the equation: four great “creatures” with animal features worship the Lord; four vari-hued horses bear the forbidding horsemen; locusts bear scorpion-like stings; a woman sprouts eagle’s wings; Jesus is the raging Lamb and Satan a “beast” with ten horns and seven heads or a vomiting serpent.  But these are obviously all metamorphic symbols of a distraught imagination; and until the last chapter, when John dismisses dogs, along with various human miscreants, “outside”, there is no sign of real animals at all, and certainly no concern for their moral or ecological well-being.

This sort of existential neglect still affects the views of many Christians today, though thankfully it’s being countered by movements within various churches advocating – instead of a Genesis-based “we command the earth” attitude – forms of ecological stewardship, sometimes including animal rights.  One can find arguments, drawing on a very different selection of Biblical quotations, placing animals firmly within God’s glorious creative ambit.

Meanwhile, humankind, with no apparent intervention from the divine, is visiting its own apocalypse upon the animal kingdom: nearly half of all non-human species destroyed just within the last 40 years.  Another form of literature – science-fiction or speculative literature – has for a long time been projecting this man-made catastrophe into our imagined future.  In these fictional apocalypses, there are almost always survivors left on earth to muddle through the aftermath, often in the company of animals.

Back when nuclear holocaust seemed imminent, Edwin Muir wrote his famous poem “The Horses”, in which horses re-emerge to save humans from their post-technology plight.  In the more misanthropic treatments, animals outlive the humans.  This is the case with American poet Anne Sexton’s 1962 poem “Venus and the Ark”.  In this slightly tongue-in-cheek updating of the Biblical Noah’s Ark story, a rocket mission is launched, bearing various odd animal species and two human PhDs, to colonise Venus – at which point Earth itself is obliterated in a nuclear war. Stranded on Venus, the captive animals get restless, and the two scientists release them:

  Trees sprang
            from lichen, the rock became a park ...
            it grew quick and noisy with
            a kind of wonder in the lonely air...
            and the waters grew, green came
            taller and the happy rats sped
            through the integrated forest...

Rather unwisely, the mission had neglected to include a breeding pair of humans!  A non-human ecosystem begins it all again: on their dying day they perceive “two fish creatures stop/ on spangled legs and crawl/ from the belly of the sea.”

As for fiction, many of us will have read Margaret Atwood’s futurist trilogy, especially the first, Oryx and Crake. The sequels – The Year of the Flood and MaddAdam (2014)– don’t quite match up, in my view, and there is always something just a bit obvious about Atwood.  She has insisted – not to everyone’s satisfaction – on a distinction between science-fiction, involving the technology-obsessed realms of time travel or other-planetary improbabilities, and speculative fiction, which takes current real-world trends and extrapolates them into a plausible future.  Most of the animals in the MaddAdam trilogy are clones and hybrids of various sorts – pigoons and the like – created by biotechnology which already exists.  Nevertheless, it still feels a little overblown and improbable, delivered with a certain teenage-y jocularity that doesn’t convince me of Atwood’s seriousness.

Much closer to a conventional and almost over-serious realism is another speculative trilogy: Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Science in the Capital” series, set in a near-future Washington DC.  Government agencies, politicians and scientists grapple with abrupt and massive climate change.  In the first volume, Forty Signs of Rain (2004) the city is flooded by deluges of near-biblical scale.  Animals don’t appear much, but Robinson is thoroughly informed on current climate science.

Animals feature more strongly in the second volume, Fifty Degrees Below (2005), in which the polar ice-cap melts, causing a catastrophic shift in the offshore Gulf Stream (this is already happening).  The central character of the novel kind of goes feral: temporarily homeless, he builds a treehouse in a well-wooded park, which he shares with various animals.  Many of these have escaped from zoos and are having to adapt to changing climate – though many of them are having trouble with the rapid onset of unprecedentedly savage winter (again, this has already been happening).  Robinson conceives of a kind of multinational microcosm of the world’s animals: tapirs and okapi, jaguars and zebras.  The protagonist is especially fond of a group of gibbons, with whom he communicates after a fashion:

Other days he woke and could only struggle to escape the knot his stomach had been tied into during the night. Then it took the gibbons to free him. If they were within earshot, and he heard them lift their voices, then all was immediately well within him ... It was another gift. Sometimes he just listened, but usually he sang with them, if singing was the right word.  He hooted, whooped, called...

If Robinson here hints that animals presences are, if not actually vital to our lives, at least of therapeutic value, he is later in the novel both more scientific and less optimistic.  He notes that because of acidification of the oceans and temperature changes, the tiniest, almost invisible animalcules of the ocean – phytoplankton – the base of the pyramid upon which all other life rests, not excluding helping govern the oxygen-CO2 balance – are also threatened with extinction.  And at this point of the novel – set only marginally in the future – Robinson’s characters, scientists and policy-makers alike, are forced to realise that certain climate-change effects are now “unmitigable”: there is simply nothing that humans can do to halt the catastrophic processes that they themselves have induced.

Animals feature in at least two other perhaps less well-known post-apocalyptic novels.  One is John Updike’s Toward the End of Time (1997), which is as much a complaint about the ravages of old age as about a vaguely “post-war” future America – an unusual foray for the usually thoroughly realistic Updike.  The feisty essayist David Foster Wallace, despite being an Updike fan, gave this work a thorough mauling, claiming there was far too much introspection about the protagonist’s waning sexuality.  At any rate, it opens with a chapter entitled “The Deer”: some environmental awareness and animal issues are encapsulated in the main couple’s conflict over a deer.  It eats the wife’s roses, so she badgers her octogenarian husband to go out and shoot it with a shotgun – but by the time he totters out there it has always vanished...

Far more wacky is a final novel by the now unfairly-neglected Bernard Malamud, God’s Grace (1982).  Here the protagonist just happens to be alone at the bottom of the Marianas Trench in a submersible when nuclear holocaust overtakes the world.  He surfaces to find himself alone on the ocean with only one companion – a chimpanzee who has survived on board the mother ship, once subject to horrible experiments.  The chimp has learned to speak in human language, in fact (another in a long literary tradition of speaking apes, from Franz Kafka to Jeannette Winterson).  As the title indicates, there is quite a bit of discussion about what role God has played in this weird apocalypse (God converses, too).  When the pair eventually wash up on a remote island, they find other chimps, who also begin to learn human speech independently...

Few writers – Cormac McCarthy in The Road excepted, perhaps – seem willing to envisage a future without animals.  But with Donald Trump and Co apparently quite happy to make (nuclear-) warlike noises as well as to ignore environmental degradation, the fate of animals, including human animals, is looking as bleak as it has ever done. And one wonders, in our Trumpish ‘post-truth’ world, what is the role of fiction in affecting human consciousness.  Updike’s narrator in Toward the End of the Time ironically comments: “I never read fiction; after all its little hurly-burly what does it amount to but more proof that we are of all animals the most miserable?”  Yet this very outpouring of future scenario-building evidences our unquenchable – dare one say animal? – capacity for hope.