When you live with an artist, almost anything can become art. This is our living room sofa, I'm not sure I know what it looks like, it has always been covered in quilts, coverings, and this morning, even a potholder, all made by my prolific and talented wife. Today, the morning sun came in and graced the sofa, spotlighted it's beautiful colors and coverings. Sometimes, you don't even see the real art right under your nose.
Insane winds today, I can't recall a time when the weather was the same more than a couple of days in a row. None of this seems to bother Red, who keeps a steady eye on things, through rain, wind, ice and snow.
Tonight something new for me, a poetry reading. I've chosen two poems about spring and one or two Divine Old Dog poems. I am not comfortable reading poetry much, I've never done it, but I am never uncomfortable at readings. I always feel it's my destiny to stand up in front of crowds and read my work. We'll see how tonight goes, the reading starts at 7 p.m., at the Round House Cafe in Cambridge.
I am thinking of collecting some of my poems into an e-book form along with some photographs. I'll publish them myself, with my agent, Christopher Schelling. I am hoping to go to New York City next week to meet my friend George Forss there, he wants to go to New York to visit some friends and he also wants to go and photograph the carriage horses with me. I'd love that, trying to figure out if I can justify going to New York purely for fun. It is an expensive place to visit.
Nearly one hundred years ago, the author and naturalist Henry Beston called for a wiser and more mystical understanding of animals. He could not have imagined how prescient that plea would come to be. The carriage horse controversy in New York shows us we do not yet have such an understanding, or anything close to it. Beston's call has become much more urgent now than it was then, as animals like these horses are rapidly disappearing from our world and our lives. They are the objects of controversy and argument, not salvation. Their lives depend us speaking for them, this is one of the last and best opportunities to know them and save them.
"Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice," Beston wrote, "man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man." They are not, wrote Beston, our "brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."
Beston's call sparked the birth of what has become the animal rights movement, but tragically for animals, this movement has not come to a wiser or more mystical understanding of animals. Instead, it advances the narrowest possible view of animals – creatures so dependent and fragile that they can no longer live with people or work with them. There is nothing mystical or wise about life on a rescue farm or a slaughterhouse, each one is a monument to the failure of human beings to be merciful and accepting.
What does it mean to come to a wiser understanding of animals like the carriage horses?
- I love Beston's idea of partnership. Animals share our lives, for better worse. They are not made of crystal; they do not need or deserve better lives than we have. I have seen some of the happiest and most loved animals in the poorest, conflicted, and most troubled of families, their lives ought not to be judged by money, green grass, the absence of difficulty or challenge, any more than ours can be. That is what partnership means. The carriage drivers do not need to be saints to be a good partners for their horses, the carriage horse owners do not need to be flawless human beings to choose to work with animals. Like all living things, the lives of animals do not progress on a straight line; none of us live in paradise, in this world. Like all of us, the horses and their humans are caught in the net of time and life, fellow prisoners of the good and bad things life on earth offers. That, after all, is our bond.
The horses do not need to live in the utopia, they just need to be cared for, exactly like the people who live in the great city. In New York, the splendor and travail of the earth is evident on almost any street. The horses are not above humans, nor below them, they exist to share our lives, not be taken from them. They do not need to be corralled into human fantasies of nirvana, they are more adaptable than we can imagine, so much more so than the people around them.
- There is a private space, a sanctity, to the relationship of people and the animals who have always worked and lived with them, who have protected, loved, or served human beings. It is personal, intensely intimate and individual. There is no one way to look at it or judge it. I know farmers whose dogs are the happiest and most fulfilled animals on the earth, they run after trucks, are kicked by cows, sleep outside in heat and cold, are fed in barns. Dogs in broken and shattered homes do some of the most important work of animals on the earth. It can not be judged by wealth and fantasy. Some of the most miserable animals I have ever seen are languishing in barns and stables and living rooms with nothing to do, no chance to exercise, no purpose or work, little interaction with animals or people.
When some of the farmer's dogs get old and die, they are shot quickly and cleanly in the backs of their heads, mostly to save them the indignity of dying on a stranger's linoleum floor. They are not abused in any sense of the word; they live out the destiny of dogs in the most glorious of ways. If they lived in New York City, the farmers would be picketed and arrested, their dogs taken from them. No one has the right to judge people and their animals from the outside, except in the most extreme of circumstances.
It is not the business of government or strangers to intrude.
To be an animal lover is not to be a police officer or interrogator or judge or inquisitor, it is a private relationship, government and private individuals have no business entering into it without the most extreme cause. We never really know what goes in behind the closed doors of law-abiding people. And it is no one's business. I love animals, I wish to understand them, not be the judge of them and the people who own them. Righteousness is a disease, not a moral force. I do not tell other people how to get animals or how to live with them. There are many laws governing cruelty and abuse; that is the province of the law, the legitimate province of government, not of me, and certainly not of ambitious politicians and people who see animals as an ideology, not as living things.
- People who do not know, live with or understand animals have no right to determine their fates or futures. Animals are not people; they do not need what people need. They are not happy or sad, those are human ideas. They are content or uncomfortable, aroused or calm. Animals exist in their own reality, their own sense of time and place. Socializing for horses or donkeys or dogs does not mean the same thing as it does for us, they socialize by being near one another, by being aware of one another, by communicating in ways we cannot imagine. They do not need to hold hands or hug or party or have dinner together.
Pulling a carriage is not hard work for a draft horse, it is good and natural work. Animals do not pine for things that they do not know, they do not make career choices; their lives are elemental – centered around food, shelter, attention and medical care. They do not long for things they do not have, they do not seek the lives people seek. Animals do not have our words, our language, our complex and often neurotic narratives.
It is not cruel for working animals to work; it is essential to their health, well-being and safety. There is not a knowledgeable veterinarian, behaviorist, trainer or animal lover who does not know this and who is not shocked by the idea -widely advanced in New York city and widely accepted there – that work is cruel or abusive.
The drama of the New York Carriage Horses highlights the great danger to animals of having their lives determined by people who are ignorant of them. The mayor of New York, the political leader who says again and again that the horses do not belong in New York, seems to be a good and honest man in some ways, yet his ignorance of animals is painful and disturbing to see. It is an embarrassment in so sophisticated a city; it is obvious to almost everyone, on either side of this issue. All over the country, people are shaking their heads at the spectacle of this campaign against some of the best-cared for and regulated animals in the world.
The mayor is putting the horses he wants to save in the greatest danger, and if he succeeds, many other animals will be in great danger. Everyone who loves horses knows how expensive and difficult it would be to feed and care for these giant animals for years, how likely it will be they will go to slaughter in this obsessive effort to rescue them from good lives.
I am not qualified to speak to the nature of his new administration, but I have been following the mayor's statements about the horses. The mayor has not, in all of these months of argument, uttered a single sentence that suggests he has any idea what abuse means, how the horses are being treated, what is good for them, what they need, what their history has been. I'm sorry to say that the animal rights spokespeople – the children of Henry Beston's eloquent plea – have done no better. And they have far less excuse, they claim to be advocates for the rights and welfare of animals. They are well-organized, have tons of money, an army of malleable celebrities happy to talk for them. They are squandering their great opportunity to speak for animals in a meaningful and just way and in so doing further trivializing the very idea of rights for animals.
I wonder sometimes if the mayor and the other people shouting to take the horses away can see what is under their very noses – there has been an extraordinary revolution in the human- animal bond in the past several generations. Countless animals – more than ever in history – are helping the people in New York and elsewhere, helping the city to be safer, carrying police officers, guiding the blind and inform, helping troubled and ill children, searching for bombs and dangers, making the sometimes disconnected city more loving and bearable.
Why would the horses, of all domesticated animals, and with the strongest history of serving and working with them, be singled out as the only ones that the city cannot bear to have? And what awful symbolism and portent for animals to have horses replaced by more automobiles, and in the name of improving the environment?
Are horses the only animals that can't do good? That cannot be accommodated? All one has to do in New York City to know this can't be true is to stand on any street corner and see what good animals can do, how well they can tolerate urban life, how many great lengths human beings will go to in order to keep them in their lives. The police horses prove this every day, so do the seeing-eye and therapy and apartment dwelling dogs in the city and the bomb-sniffing dogs of Amtrak.
I wonder at the mystical power of animals; it is a travesty to remove gentle and domesticated animals from people. The famed biologist Jared Diamond wrote that horses are the perfect domesticable animals for cities, they have dominance hierarchies, a great tolerance for other species, genetic malleability, and herding instincts that keep them grounded. They are, in many ways, better suited to New York City than many breeds of dogs who live there, mostly successfully.
Rescue and isolation does not bring us to a wiser understanding of animals, it is the narrowest and shallowest way to know them.
These horses are tougher than we are, stronger and hardier. Like all working animals, we can ask things of them beyond eating and dropping manure. It is not cruel, it is the cornerstone of a moral relationship with animals. And it will save them.
We can ask them to take responsibility for work and meaning, help us save the earth, help us find love and connection. They can heal the broken minds of people and children, keep the ancient parts of being a human being alive, awaken the romance, magic and mystery of the natural world. And they can help us appreciate the beauty and majesty of a great park and the city that surrounds it. These are all things these horses have been known to have done, things they do now, things they can do in the future.
- I think the most fascinating element of Beston's call was for a more mystical understanding of animals. His plea has been lost in all of the arguing back and forth. In our relentless emotionalizing of animals and projecting human needs and neuroses onto them, we are losing a sense of what they are like. We are the most arrogant species. The truth is, there is so much we do not know about animals and what they think, about their consciousness, about their powerful connection to us.
There is so much that is a mystery.
Last month, I went into my barnyard to practice Tai Chi, something I am learning. My donkey Simon came up to me and placed his forehead against my back, as if to support me, and that is how he and I do Tai Chi every morning. It gives me great strength and confidence and balance. What is he doing? What is he feeling? My therapy dog Red, a border collie, lays down on the floor with veterans recently back from Iraq or Afghanistan and opens their wounded hearts and souls, melts their anger and disconnection? People who won't speak will cry with a dog in their arms. What is Red doing? What is he sending?
If you step back at the carriage horse controversy, it is clear how powerful these horses are, how deeply people feel about them and care for them and their fate. Otherwise, there would not be a great controversy, evidence in itself of how important they are.
We need animals as much or more as they need us, we need to know much more about them before we decide they can no longer share the world with us. Their removal is something that once undertaken, can never be reclaimed. If the horses leave New York, they will vanish from our sight and consciousness; they will be condemned to leave the earth, as so many of their forebears have. The precedents are all too clear.
These animals, like donkeys and dogs and cats, have known human beings for thousands of years. We have the most powerful and mystical connections to them. We need a better understanding of them when we presume to decide their fatre. They are spirits, not helpless things, they are our memory and connection to the natural world; they are wards of the earth, not of shallow and fickle human beings.
We have no right to presume to remove them from the world.
Sometimes I wish border collies could be bred to enter politics, I think they would figure out a way to bring order and reason to our government, they transcend argument and dogma, they just get it done. This morning, Maria and I walked the pastures to see if the grass has grown enough for us to stop bringing out hay. Not quite yet, Red kept the sheep reasonable and orderly and out of our hair.
This is a time of rebirth, from the long and cold winter to Spring, the rebirth of life, the return of light and color. Soon enough, I imagine the windowsill gallery will be alive with flowers taken from our gardens, but for now, the vases and bottles wait, they absord the light and shadows of the sun, they signal us to be patient and accepting, as the animals do. I can't wait for the Windowsill Gallery, our own little museum, to come to life. I have one of the great curators of the world right here.