“Pity Earth’s Creatures” by Edward Hoaglund

by Jason Tougaw

Edward Hoaglund has written an “Opinion” essay in The New York Times–“Pity Earth Creatures”about the human penchant for using other species of animals as metaphors to explain our weird behavior while we bully them into submission or extinction:

By our own account we’re pigs, yet bearish, owly but mousy, catty and bovine. We beaver at work, hawk merchandise, and ape others by parroting them. We’re lemmings, wolfish, snakes in the grass, weasels, bucks, hens, leonine or sharks. We’re beaky or tigerish, doe-eyed, raven-haired, foxy, chicken-hearted, slow as a tortoise, meek as a dove, sheepish, dogged, old goats, goosey, sitting ducks or vultures. We butt in, bull ahead, change our stripes or spots, strut like a peacock, weep crocodile tears, ram through or swan about. We’re rabbity, calf-eyed, we beat our chests like gorillas, buzz off, or act like a jellyfish.  

The essay doesn’t feel like New York Times writing, which is what’s delightful about it. No offense to the Times, but it tends toward self-seriousness, even when it’s over-simplifying the science, or the history, or the politics. Hoaglund’s essay reads like an old-school essay: exploratory, playful, meandering, juxtaposing, synthesizing. It offers no conclusions, but plenty of evocative language:

Power to the people is a worldwide revolutionary slogan advancing democracy, but presupposes a more ancient meaning: the prehistoric conquest of every other vertebrate on earth. When I lived on Samos myself in 1965, I heard about perhaps the last wild leopard killed in Europe. It had swum across the strait from Mount Mycale in Turkey, only a mile or so away, presumably a bachelor seeking virgin territory, and when discovered and chased, had taken refuge in a cave, where the Samians promptly walled it in to die of thirst. Wouldn’t you have done the same? I suspect that Aesop, however, might have advocated setting it free to garland the 27-mile long island (and thus Europe) for a few more years with a last whiff of the eons preceeding modernity.

Who would refuse that leopard a last whiff of the eons preceeding modernity? Not me. But Hoaglund does have a kind of thesis:

Call it progress or metastasizing, what we have done as a race, a species or a civilization is dumbfounding. Every inch of the planet is ours, we claim, and elements of clear improvement are intertwined with cancerous excess: the two-car American dream empowering women’s independence but engendering horrendous African droughts.

So here I am, recommending Hoaglund’s essay; imagining more graceful relations among humans and other species; and feeling curious about this novel Hoaglund is publishing soon: “Children Are Diamonds: An African Apocalypse.” Thanks to Nicole Wallack for calling my attention to the essay. It was a good way to start the day.



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