Under lockdown I began following twitter accounts and even sometimes tweeting a cautious tweet. The divisiveness of the politics I encountered almost made me despair, and I withdrew from twitter for a few days, but the sheer oddness of some of the tweets and posts drew me back in, that and the discovery of new poetic forms (the Etherin!). One twitter poll I had to take part in was on the subject of reading and dreaming – can you read in your dreams? I have been interested in why you can’t read in dreams for a while, along with the way no one uses a cell phone in dreams, or can drive a car. There is something technology-shy about dreams which I find wonderfully mysterious. But oddly, when I took the poll, more than half the respondents claimed they could read in their dreams! I was so surprised I had to check with Simon that he couldn’t read in his dreams (he said he didn’t know!) and then, incredulous, had to check that for him, too, whenever he tried to drive a car it would turn into a pedal car, then a sort of shell of a car around his dreaming self as he ran in a kind of sitting form along the ground (and probably with bare feet). He said no, he drove cars in his dreams, just usually over a cliff, or down an impossibly steep hill without brakes. Which might make you wonder about our marriage. Then, that night, the night after the poll and after this conversation, I dreamed I was reading. I woke up and thought, indignantly, this is a whole new way for a dream to undermine me, almost impressed at the ingenuity of my dreaming self but disturbed too at the thought of a dreaming self so actively hostile to my waking mind, not using my unconsciousness to reveal things to me I might not have access to with my usual filtered attention even though I must somehow know them in some sort of capacity, but rather playing games with me to prove me wrong and undo any kind of narrative I might begin to embark on, sleeping or waking. Last night, I dreamed I was hiding under a desk in an empty school room. Obviously this was never going to save me from my eventual discovery, or from the pouring of acid over me before I woke up. That, I thought at first, on waking, was a dream about twitter, but perhaps it was a dream about dreaming itself, if consciousness is thought of as the desk under which we are hiding when we are awake.
I was listening to a very simple, old pop song the other day and was suddenly awash with feeling, awash with tears even, a depth of feeling rather too much for such a simple song. Wondering about it later, I thought the gap between the depth of the song and the depth of the feeling was an essential part of the effect. What was so moving was the way the song resonated with a situation and a feeling I was aware of bringing to it rather than finding in it, so that the experience of listening to it was the experience also of bringing the two things together, the reality and the song. The songs I might think I like more, songs that are more specific, more complicated, more the individual expression of a singer’s sensibility, could never move me in quite so absurd a way, so lovely a way, as this song did that morning.
I could not be a farmer myself, or not without changing how I relate to animals so much I would need to become a different person than I am, but I would not want to live in a world without farming. What I would like to live in a world without is the intensive factory farming that is not what I would call farming at all but an atrocity. George Monbiot points out that the opposite of intensive farming is extensive farming, given that, even if individual farms are small-scale, to produce enough food to feed a population still projected to keep growing we would need even greater numbers of these farms than we already have, and many more again if they were to replace the intensive farms now producing so much of our food. The land used by all these small farms, in place of the fewer and far more efficient factories of caged animals, is land that could have been rewilded, full of animals living out their natural lives without interference or domestication. But there are other things we use land for we could give up in order to reduce the space we take away from the wilderness, like schools, libraries, golf courses, parks and gardens. If we all lived in high-rise apartments without any public buildings or green spaces, our cities could be a lot smaller, and if no-one lived in a suburb or small town, our cities could rise out of the surrounding wilderness like islands we would never have to leave, except for those truck drivers bringing in food from the factories, or except for those farmers who might then be able to keep farming on their small-scale, organic farms, just a little worried about the wolves. If I wouldn’t want to live in a world without libraries, parks or gardens, how can it be right to keep millions of animals in factories, in order to let other animals live wild? The amount of meat eaten now is unsustainable, but even in a world in which everyone could be made to be vegan, intensive farming of peas, soy, almonds and other crops involves the use of vast amounts of land, chemical fertilisers and animal mortality, as deer, possums, wild birds and millions upon millions of mice are killed to sow, harvest and protect the crops (one estimate finds 25 times more animals die to produce a kilo of protein from wheat than from beef), creating inhospitable monoculture tracts of land that might serve a purpose, but are no kind of good in themselves. I would rather we looked at other ways of making space for wilderness than allowing intensive farming to take place of the kind of farming in which all kinds of animals, farmed and wild, can live good lives. And extensive farming doesn’t have to mean vast farmlands, but can also mean vast numbers of small farms and even tiny micro-farming initiatives, making space for farming in our own cities, with beehives on city apartment roofs, and hen coops in our back gardens. There are too few truly wild places left but there are also too few animals in the lives of too many people and I don’t want to live in a world where human people are wholly separated from plants and animals, never meeting anyone not of their own species.
Recovery programmes releasing animals into the wild are discovering the importance of culture. The habitat can be as ideal as it was when it supported the species originally and yet the fledglings let loose into it fail to thrive as their ancestors did, having the nature but not the culture they need to adapt. I was reading about a programme releasing macaw parrots: “Some rescue programmes declare success if a released animal survives one year,” but Sam Williams of the Costa Rica Macaw Recovery Service says, “a year is meaningless for a bird like a macaw that doesn’t mature until it’s eight years old.” Those eight years are spent learning macaw culture, which cannot be taught to them, but can only be picked up by them, the way the child psychologist D W Winnicott believed children should best pick up their own culture, or, rather, should enter into and transform their culture. So, for instance, morality, he argues, should not be taught to a child, but, rather, moral codes and moral beliefs should be left available to a child in the same way objects, such as teddy bears, dolls or toy engines, should simply be left available to a child to pick up and play with as it will, rather than as the child is instructed to. Adam Phillips follows this thinking a step further: “If trauma is untransformable experience, then any moral belief that is simply abided by rather than personally transformed is akin to a trauma.” It is a strange and compelling idea, though not very applicable to thinking about animals and culture and in fact might call into question whether it is culture, exactly, we are talking about when we talk about the transmission of learned behaviours between animals, if this doesn’t involve transformability. Like the traumatised child, the animal can’t put the trauma they have experienced into words or give the trauma the perspective of narrative, any more than they can put any of their experiences into words and turn them into stories. If all experience is, in this sense, traumatic for an animal, can an animal experience trauma? But perhaps the transmission of learned behaviours between animals does involve transformability, and perhaps there is more to animal culture than the transmission of learned behaviours. When Sam Williams is assessing parrots ready for release, he assesses them not in terms of the survival skills they have been taught, but in terms of their social abilities. Those scoring lowest on sociability rarely survive in the wild, and if they score too low they will be difficult even to catch and return to captivity if they fail to thrive. Almost always impossible to release are the ex-pets, who remain oriented towards people rather than the other parrots. For them, a release into the wild is truly traumatic, a blow on top of the original blow when their owners abandoned them to the shelter. The birds who will survive in the wild are the birds who get on best with the other parrots, who have the social agility that will allow them to pick up the moral codes and social politics of parrots in the wild they will need to integrate successfully, or even to develop moral codes and social politics in habitats where only the rescue parrots now belong. This is, perhaps, what belonging will mean, and will transform not only the culture of the flock but the personalities of the individual birds.
It is impossible not to be interested at the moment in how shaped we are by the usual routines of work and movements to and from the workplace and the home, as we give these routines up and establish new ways of living, most people making up new routines for themselves. Even the animals of the household adjust their routines, the hens including an afternoon session on the deck throughout April, when I sat there reading after lunch, the cat learning the new cues for feeding times. And then, talking to friends about their experiences, for different medical reasons, with steroids, I was struck by their different responses and about how shaped we are not only by our daily routines but by our ordinary levels of physical energy. One friend would almost prefer not to breathe easily than feel her personality changed on steroids, though to an observer she might seem simply more outgoing than usual and more energetic, another finds the regular withdrawal from steroids the hardest part of the treatment she is undergoing, suffering from the same loss of energy welcomed by the other. Perhaps the physical experience really is very different for each of them, but perhaps it is also a question of how they have shaped their personalities around their different characteristic energy levels, so that a rise in energy for one as much as a loss of energy for the other equally involves the dismantling of all their usual psychic defences. Defences is perhaps too judgemental a word for the construction of the self around how we live, which might involve more sitting or more movement which might in turn allow more or less reflection, more or less engagement with others, more or less reading and writing, drawing or dancing, which are not only the activities that add up to what a life is, around which we arrange the days we live in, but perhaps also determine our personality, the ways we manage moods, the times we think and the thoughts we avoid having, or have no need to have, the ways we find without even knowing it to become who we are.
I haven’t not washed in lockdown, I have had the loveliest long baths, but the early morning shower before getting ready for work has dropped out of the routine till this morning when I had a shower that was much longer than it needed to be as I found myself lost in thoughts I hadn’t had for weeks. I wouldn’t call these thoughts thoughts in the Jan Morris sense, far more the kind of thoughts that distract me from concentrating when I am making coffee, thoughts about committees and the work we should be doing on them, forms that should have been filled in, how to sustain our research and teaching in a difficult economic climate. But I had a thought about thinking such thoughts for the first time in weeks which was that thoughts seem to have a way of lingering in locations where you have had such thoughts before, like the smell of shampoo around newly washed hair, or the smell of sleep around someone just risen from bed, as if thoughts were like airborne viruses that you could catch again by moving into their space, the way a whale, for instance, might move through the sea picking up barnacles. Though this thought itself is a thought I have had elsewhere, in my office at work, which I used to drive to sometimes in the weekend so as to sit at the same place where my thinking had last left off, to pick up an unfinished thought and finish it, even though I had everything I needed at home to keep writing. How strange now to have to make my own house a place full of unfinished thoughts for working in. In the hen coop I have never thought about anything at all except the hens.