Do not throw your leftovers into the fire, place them on the ground. Tomorrow we leave, but others will come. Who? The wolverine, the badger, the crow, the mouse. And if the mouse does not come, the ant will take his place. There are many that walk the Taiga. They are just like us, only they wear a different coat.
Nanai hunter DERSU UZALA
in Hot Breath of the Taiga by V.K. Arsenyev, 1903
Play this game with me, my bloodthirsty little brother! It’s alright if you do not understand it right away. One day perhaps you will, and you’ll be a better person for it. This is the game of brother beast and sister plant. There are many steps on the path to mastering it. In the beginning, a little suffices: do not kill a frog on its wedding night, do not break a wagtail’s eggs, do not pull a fly’s legs out. That is enough for a long time. Your youthful blood must be infused with the beauty of April frogs and watery song, with wonder at a bird’s nest and a fly’s wispy legs, with the joyful knowledge you do not walk this earth alone. It takes time. If a spider comes to call upon you, do not howl in panic. It is just your eight-legged brother who crawls over you. Lift him gently, you are his boulder. If he were three hundred times larger, then there would be cause to panic. I haven’t yet asked you to love tapeworms or adore leeches, the gems of summer fishponds. But try not to harm ants, you kill enough as it is. And do not snuff out the life of each fly that buzzes passed. If a centipede crawls into your tent, lift it out lightly. If you come across a Carpathian blue slug resting on a dewy path, bend to it, move it aside so no hiker tramples it. How simple and how good. If you have come this far in the game, it is far enough. You will know, my stride-taking little brother, that you breathe the same air as all your other brothers. As all those creatures you cannot give life to yourself. As every beast that does a thousand things you can’t, and has been doing so for millions of years. You will cease to pointlessly end another’s life. Respect for life is of utmost importance, obsessing about overbred pets of least purport. As if “purebreds” were not of mongrel stock! Treat animals with respect even if they are the most ordinary creatures, their abundance is no reason to cause them harm. Treat them with respect even if they are uncomely and plain, or cannot raise their voice in song, or cannot be cooked and eaten. It is neither difficult nor praiseworthy to love useful or beautiful beasts. Yet I judge no one, it is not my lot. All depend upon the blood of innocent brothers. Some more so, some less. Eskimos – whalers and butchers – entirely. Bodhisattvas – ashram dwellers, rice eaters lovingly liberating every last louse – least of all. The rest of humanity lies in between, that is the way of things. Ahimsa and Ahinsa, two beautiful Indian princesses, have but one law: kill only what you must!
A beautiful sight, the hunter who kills only to survive. Days of solitary trudging through forests. Man and animal, who will get who? Death is part of the wheel of life; the electrons in a corpse never cease orbiting their nuclei. All the more repulsive is the city hunter, panting murderer, who, once a year, dons hat and coat and sets forth from his rancid office to kill in clean autumn fields. Not for need or for passion, it merely behooves him. Trumpets call out his blasphemy above glazed-eyed hares. The more needless the killing, the more pompous the trumpeting. But horns justify nothing, nor do they give glory to murderers. A bloody game!
Animal games are difficult, the rules unclear. It would seem that man is God to hares and deer and can do with them as he pleases, killing at will. And it’s true, without man, there would be fewer fields and in them fewer hares. Deer, too, would be fewer, only the strong would survive. But someone with many children has no greater right to the lives of his children than someone with one.
That is why each age must create its own rules, as humane as possible, for coexisting with our brothers, the animals. There was a time humans bartered for other humans, shot Indians, killed Tasmanians. Now they are ashamed of it. One day they will lament trapping, murdering and selling their brother beasts. At the moment, most biologists believe animals must be sacrificed for research. There are times when it is necessary and times when it isn’t. But for now, that is the way things are in this barbaric time when no one ever stops to think. This primitivism will pass one day just as slavery did. A new age will dawn and with it, new hunting grounds, new biology, new museums. It must change. For the past three hundred years, scientists have lived entirely on cadavers. Three hundred years of necrophilia, corpse worship, three hundred years of positive science. My friend works in a natural history museum. He has spent his whole life among corpses, collecting them, caring for them lovingly. How appalling. A perverted huntsman. He proves no courage on the hunt, the prey is defenseless, almost tame, soon to soar again in liquid solutions and exhibit boxes, awaiting judgment day. These thrushes and shrews will never rear their young, grow old in forests, return to dust or receive a proper funeral by burying beetles. But he provides them with eternally glassy eyes and a bellyful of stuffing. Hecatombs of birds and butterflies, halted mid-flight. Skulls, cadavers, bones. Death wherever you look, captured in time. Like Azrael, angel of death, my friend wings o’er the countryside playing his dark game. He loves moles best of all. They can keep no secrets from him, every inch of their little corpses has been weighed, measured and counted. How wonderful it would be if he discovered one day that no two moles are alike. That each is a unique little creature with a unique little soul. That day will be long in coming, and who knows if he won’t need to inspect all the moles that tunnel below before he makes his discovery. My museum friend examines his beautiful lover too, but thank goodness, in quite a different manner. He doesn’t care how many hairs she has or how much her insides weigh. Those are secrets she can keep to herself – the most beautiful things about her.
Foul words have I written, hunters and biologists are sure to tear me apart. And rightly so. I deserve it. Just as those who freed the slaves of good people two thousand years ago deserved it. What they still don’t know is that my words on animals apply to plants as well. They, too, hear and see. One day they, too, will be free – but that is a different game.
Back to light, summer forest games! Precious lands, my curious little brother, you will never be alone there. Home to thousands of little creatures. The three Fates, many-legged, frightfully named. Haasea Flavescens, Polydesmus Complanatus, Polyxenus Lagurus. And their mother Glomeris Pustulata and aunt Polyzonium Germanicum. Under leaves, under bark, you might not know it, but they are there. A game of merrymaking!
Try catching an adder by then tip of its tail. It cannot reach your hand to bite you. And if it does, don’t kill it, it would not understand the punishment. Besides, you won’t die if you are not weak of heart. A game of courage!
Try catching a bumblebee, ever so gently. Workers sting, drones do not. They are otherwise nearly indistinguishable. A devils’ game! Bumblebees are not aggressive and seldom sting, but when they do, it is no more painful than an ordinary bee. Yet people never pluck up the courage to touch them. A funny game: elephants afraid of mice.
If you catch a crayfish, admire it. It is only an arthropod, but looking at its large, elaborate body, you’d swear it was a vertebrate. Wonderful. Grandfather of the river, who could ever eat it?
You can play animal games forever, they will make you a better person. At the very end, perhaps you will discover that earthworms infinitely exceed the most perfect machines – an airplane, by comparison, is poorly organized submatter. That it is better to spend a year locked in a prison cell with a fly than with an automobile. That it does less harm to the universe to let a steamboat sink than to kill a wasp. But those truths are not for everyone, my less bloodthirsty brother, they are difficult games!
Enough about animals. They are your brothers, you are profoundly close to them. Little children smell like baby chicks in the nest. Hair and feathers, the same splendid fragrance. It is wonderful to drift off to sleep with a girl at your side, but if she is missing, little brother, falling asleep beside dog or horse is also nice: the reflection of human warmth, breath, love, and life.
You can be sure of one thing, when one day beings from other worlds or star clusters alight upon this earth, they will not be able to distinguish that barely noticeable difference that divides humans from animals. They will not be able to distinguish the playful cries of children from the seagulls cry above the pond. And they will think a skunk to be a man – the same eyes, hunger, ears, stench, the same yearning to live.