All creatures great and small
A new collection of essays on the animal kingdom tells wondrous tales of the natural world
Before I began reading Janaki Lenin’s delightful collection of essays, Every Creature Has A Story, I didn’t know that spiders salivate during sex. I didn’t know that chimpanzees can mourn. And I certainly didn’t know that as far as birds are concerned, good singers also make great fathers. Well, I will hold up my dorsal fin and say that before reading this book, I didn’t know much about anything regarding the animal kingdom at all.
Lenin’s book is a collection of science columns about birds, beasts and insects that she wrote over a few years for The Wire. But unlike most such collections, which do little more than feed a columnist’s ego, I am extremely glad that Lenin’s book exists. In large part, this is because the essays aren’t about her, but about the animals she’s writing about, and she writes about them with a great deal of charm. In her introduction, the wildlife writer, film-maker and conservationist says that while writing her pieces, she read up research papers and spoke to scientists. This rigour is evident, not just in the stories she tells but also in the detailed bibliography of the research Lenin consulted.
The other reason this book succeeds is the brevity of the 50 essays. None of them overstays their welcome, and Lenin writes about the unique traits of her subjects with a lightness of touch that communicates the wonder and joy of these alien-seeming creatures. Nor do the essays venture into laments about the animals in terms of habitat degradation or other forms of detrimental human interference. This allows the reader the simple joy of being amazed at the sheer diversity of animals with which we share this planet.
The fact that the book is so good at communicating Lenin’s own sense of love for, and wonder of, the wild seems apt because the overarching theme of the essays is about how animals communicate. If humans believe they are somehow special because they can hide behind a complex semiotic web of vocalized linguistic symbols, this book certainly puts them in their place. For animals have a wide range of means of communication to draw on: As the first essay in the book depicts, one of these can be through song.
Male nightingales have a stunning repertoire of over 180 songs. The older the bird and the bigger the repertoire, the more desirable he is to a female nightingale. Why? Because a bird that has the dedication and stamina to sing is a bird that can be counted upon to bring those same qualities to raising the young.
In another essay, Lenin tries to answer an intriguing question: Can primates—our genetic cousins—mourn their dead? Drawing upon research findings and speaking with some of the scientists involved, Lenin indicates, with haunting examples, that it could be so. But then again, the subtext of this and all the other essays is just how unknowable all animals are to human beings. The sundering of homo sapiens from the natural order is so complete, and has been that way for so long, that much of the knowledge that was once probably a part of human heritage needs to be learnt anew, through laboratory experiments.
I was reminded of the science fiction novel,The Abolition Of Species, by German writer Dietmar Dath. In the book, following a cataclysm caused by human hubris, human civilization has been replaced by an animal one: a tenuous but fascinatingly new world order peopled by sophisticated birds and beasts and insects of all stripes, communicating through a world wide web of smells and other gestures—a language that has absolutely nothing to do with something as “primitive" as the spoken or written word.
Much like the sneezing of wild dogs. In Lenin’s book, this is a vital act that functions as a form of consensus-building mechanism in a pack. Waking up from sleep, a pack must decide if it would like to laze some more, or go on a hunt. The dogs get together and enact a series of communicative gestures, the most important of these being sneezing. It’s democracy of sorts, though one that is manipulated to adhere to what the alpha of the pack wants. The decision ultimately comes down to the number of sneezes required for a consensus.
Lenin wryly notes that the most fascinating thing about all this is finding out that dogs can count sneezes. On that note, I would give this wonderful book five sneezes out of five.