Recently in South Africa it is claimed that a new hominid has been discovered, Homo Naledi, “From The Stars” in the Sesotho language. And she is not an ape, no grunting ancestor so distant as to be alien, rather the group of skeletons discovered may suggest that they were buried together, that Homo Naledi, however many years ago, already had ritualistic practices around death. If the research is correct, then Homo Naledi is one of us, she is our selves not yet fully formed.
Also this week I read yet another opinion pieces opining the endless sensory saturation and over stimulation of the senses forced upon us by the electronic age. We are overstimulated to a point of constant agitation the logic goes.
This is not my experience at all. Rather than over-stimulated (my move from the Suffolk countryside to the city and an entirely online, urban existence, light and noise, billboards, lurid headlines, traffic jams, air-conditioning) all these have not left me with sensory overload at all, but rather uni-sensory. I am reduced to my sight. The intensity of the white noise produced by a city means I hear nothing at all. Screens do not smell and I cannot taste ideas. Days can pass before I feel my skin pimple from the cold or a breeze or a sharp pain.
My routes are habitual and my life seems to have sunk to a a routine of writing in the same cafe every early morning, then driving to my job, home, then to the same dog park and back home again. My friends and I eat in the same three of four restaurants and in a country where there are no divisible seasons and every day is warm and sunny, there is no passage of time, nor sense of birth and death and renewal. I do not suffer form sensory overload, I suffer form sensory deprivation. Fatal to a writer’s craft.
A shout, a cry in the middle of a city travels no further than an outstretched hand. A foot that falls on a pavement leaves no print. But, in the wild, a boot that sinks deep into peat and mud will leave its mark so that the very earth holds the memory of your passing. In the city a parkade machine blips a neon “Welcome” as you take your ticket from the machine, in the wild, a great flock of birds will announce your footfall with a startle of wings and an alarm to set your hair on edge.
To live in rural Suffolk, as I did for six years, was to every day sense the weather before I had fully woken. Each start-of-day walk across the land, I was so acutely aware of how time and space and sound and sight were connected. A breeze would register on my left arm and I could count one, two, three and see the leaves on the far line of poplars begin to respond and then, one, two, the great bows of the ancient oaks begin to creak. A crow, another bird startling, a crack of twigs and then, the thing I always looked for, and dreaded too, the quick of a fox’s tail.
My relationship with foxes began in Suffolk and continues now in the realm of writing and dream. The first month I was in Suffolk a big old fox walked across a snow field in front of me, panting and disorientated and then disappeared into the thicket. The next day, I found him dead. Only a couple of weeks later my dogs would chase a smaller one and corner her against a barbed wire fence. The fox managed to lacerate the face of one dog and injure another before I got to her and tried to help her free of the fence and the bites she had incurred in the fight. I ran six fields with the fox in my arms, weighed down by boots and mud and winter clothing, trying to get her to someone who could save her. Even now I can remember her young heart beating under my hands, her pelt hot and prickly. Before I got her to safety, she had died. I was devastated.
But that was not the end, on and on, foxes would stalk me, watch me, haunt me and my unreconstructed Pagan soul would respond to their totemic medicine and recognise they were calling me.
I had previously only ever lived in the city. I wore velvet shoes, worked in an office and spent long nights in cocktails bars around London. Alone and isolated on a Suffolk farm, the sense of threat, the feeling of darkness and wilderness was sometimes overwhelming.
(I have found the English countryside has a peculiarly eerie menace that I have never felt elsewhere in Europe. Not in Italy for example despite proximity to wolves, often spotted up close. Nor have I ever felt it in Africa where large big toothed predators and fatal snakes and insects haunt the veldt. But that is another story.)
But the foxes continued to haunt me until one day, I decided to go and find them. I would watch them, instead of they watching me. I knew where their earths were, deep in the woods that ran the length of the farm and opening out onto a wide and barren stretch of sandy fields so thick with rabbits that at a certain time of year, as I walked, dogs out ahead, they retreated like a grey tide.
All evening I sat and waited, stalking the foxes who had stalked me. Eventually, and with dusk, came the vixen, light footed, sprung from her shoulders through to her paw pads. She was copper-hot, and even under her pelt I knew there was blood.
I could not breathe or blink or break away from her stare. She fixed me in a perfect moment of suspension in that terrible place between terror and euphoria. She was radiant. Perfect. My mouth was bitter with adrenaline, every muscle primed.
What is it about encountering an animal in its wild place that sets the skin to fire? Why does the moment seem to freeze and produce a weather more suited to dreams? It is the possibility of beauty and terror finding its way into the same breathe, pulsing its quick-fire spasms through the fur and the sinew and the teeth.
This is contrary to all our beliefs. The Judeo-Christian tradition (and others) demand that good and evil be delineated, that all that is dangerous be sanctioned to allow purity, beauty, honesty to thrive. And here in less than a heart beat, all ears and tail and tongue, is death and majesty conjoined. The mandate to shiver in that unholy ambivalence is the true meat of the thrill.
And who can stand to be in this equivocal mire; death and beauty, terror and life all at once? This is the place of fur and blood. The threat of death and the majestic pulse of life. It is, in other words, the eternal feminine, the original life force and power that allows Little Red Riding Hood to look full faced into the mouth of the Wolf.
There are those for whom this murky powerful aspect is overwhelming and the ambivalence of both life and death so powerfully incarnate in a single moment is unbearable. These are the people who must trade in absolutes. God and Satan, life and death. Even a moment where they might look at a beast and see in it the dissolution of the binary that makes their lives possible is intolerable. These are the hunters, the trophy killers.
This is no primal pursuit for food, no ancient ritual for survival. There is no understanding that one’s own footfall must mirror the animal one stalks, that one’s very aspect must be cloaked in the animal’s cloak so that you arrow might find his heart. The true and original hunters, our pre-fathers and ancestors, pulled taught the arrow so that the quiver touched his own heart before it was released. And its arc was the final prayer for forgiveness before it found the heart of the antelope or bird.
No. there is no prayer, no ritual, no need. Rather there is the drive to stamp out the dappling of ambivalence, to let loose a true devil’s vengeance and extinguish the beast that refused the binary and the certitude.
But who are we without this moment, this mandate for not-knowing, for disorientation, but thugs. Is it not our very connection to the beasts and birds, their pagan medicine, their innate knowledge of flight and dive that reminds us of our own?
Perhaps this is why we are so struck, so thrilled by an encounter with a wild animal, a lion on safari, even a hedgehog crossing the lonely road on a dark night, a family of wolves crossing a mountain top, slouching shoulders, great and hard as the granite cliffs around them. And we in our naked, flat footed animal selves see for a moment our original selves, we hear our original language, our grunts and clatterings and whoops.
And even as you read this, can you not feel you fur stand a little proud, the beginnings of a rich and oily pelt begin to form?
Your shoulders are stretching out a little, you spine flattens and lengthens, your toes claw in on themselves and your nose is itching where it meets your lip. And then it twitches once, and then twice, and your skin, your eyes, your brain all begin to prickle with light, as if from the stars.