I owe speculative fiction and my non-traditional upbringing for being the person I am.
Today, I got to work and found a tiny wasp had perched itself on top of my bun. I am slightly allergic to wasps, so this caused a bit of a heart-stopping moment. But it was unusually cold last night, and the wasp was sluggish. No doubt he (or she) had been drawn to my heat.
There’s this very Western idea that I encounter a lot. It’s the idea that animals don’t have souls. Now I don’t know much about whether animals or people or anything has a soul in the classical Christian sense – an animus that continues forward after we die, taking the same shape, the same bounds, carrying the same memories and personality. There’s no way to really know that one way or the other. But it seems there are a lot of people who believe in that, and believe that it is for humans only. And the idea that another creature has thoughts and can make decisions, in whatever alien fashion, never seems to cross their minds.
When I caught my little wasp friend up in a paper towel and put it out on the front porch in the sun, my motions must have seemed alien to those people.
My dad read me a lot of stories when I was a kid, from all different places. We read Native American stories (How the Rattlesnake Got His Fangs, The Same Sun Was in the Sky, The Birth of Fire) which featured jackrabbits and yellow jackets and javelinas and willows and histories. We read African and Black diaspora stories (Brer Rabbit comes to mind. There are so many Brer Rabbit stories.) We read stories from King Arthur’s Round Table and the childhood of Merlin, the greatest wizard of British legend. We read myths from Sumeria, Greece, China, and Japan. And, between these shorter stories, we read the epics of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and so many other fantasy writers imagining different worlds. Worlds where humans were not the only thing that spoke.
I don’t think that humans are the only things that speak here either. I have always known that animals and plants had, if not a soul, then a spirit. Life imbues them. They are not merely programmed automatons anymore than we are (or, if they are automatons, bound by their natures, then so are we). They make decisions, alien as they may seem.
Western culture often does one of two things with other forms of life. It dismisses it, consigning it to a lesser status, rationalizing its abuse and degradation. Or it idolizes it, putting it up on a pedestal, arguing that it cannot do wrong things, that it is somehow more pure than human life. Neither of these approaches makes sense. Both of them reduce what life is. It is a complex dance, encapsulating both the good and the bad. A snake that bites you and kills you is not evil. The dolphin that swims with you and lets you stroke its nose is not good. Animals have personalities. They are individual. How they interact with you is largely dependent on that personality and on how you treat them. Putting your head in the right place to anticipate their choices is imperative for good relations. Respecting them for their individuality is the ethical choice. Valuing life when you can, and taking care of it when you can, is important, but understanding that you can’t always avoid death is also imperative. But when you can avoid death, why seek it out? Why kill a wasp that merely looked for shelter from the cold?
It’s hard to think of things that way if you have never been forced to look outside yourself. I know it can be hard to keep in mind even with as much of a predisposition for it as I have. But I think that this wide exposure to story, this experience of thinking like other creatures as well as other people, has helped me a great deal as a writer and as a person. It has made my stories what they are.
I can never fail to be thankful for that.