Saturday, October 30, 2010

A kind word for a kind horse

By this point in an election campaign we are all probably ready to think of other things, so a small pause in our journey through this vale of political tears to say a kind word about a being who was mercifully free of worrying about tax policy, tea partiers, Newt Gingrich's presidential ambitions, or Joe Miller's campaign promise to secure our borders the way communist East Germany secured hers. (I have been reminded lately, anyway, of Tom Lehrer's remark from a similar time a while ago — that the friends who kept pressing him to come up with new funny political satires made him feel, under the circumstances, like a resident of Pompeii asked to offer amusing observations about lava.)

The explanations offered by the hewers of prose for the deep hold that animals can have on our affections come mostly in two unsatisfactory varieties, soppy sentimentality (glops about "unconditional love") or reductionist biology (diagrams of oxytocin and hormone receptors). Neither are entirely wrong, but for me these have always seemed to be at the wrong level of explanation: they're not incorrect, they just miss the point.

The melancholy duty of putting down my old horse yesterday reminded me of this again. I don't think I'm being sentimental when I say he was a kind and gentle soul; as he lay in the field yesterday morning, unable to rise to his legs for the first time in his twenty-eight years, he seemed to take it with quiet resignation, nickering softly to me when I came up to him, something he almost never did in his galloping and jumping days.

But it was the feel of his mind, and his quiet and slightly strange presence that somehow radiated through the farm and my life, whose absence now I feel the sharpest. I went hunting this morning for a passage from Leonard Woolf's memoirs that I vaguely remembered; he is the only writer I know of who has ever come even close to capturing the feeling I am trying to describe, and so I will just let him say it for me:

I do not know why I am so fond of animals. They give me the greatest pleasure both emotionally and intellectually. I get deep affection for cats and dogs, and indeed for almost every kind of animal which I have kept. But I also derive very great pleasure from understanding them, their emotions and their minds. They are, too, as I have said, usually amazingly beautiful. I was always condemned by Lytton [Strachey] on this account for being sentimental and many people, particularly intellectuals, would agree with him. I daresay that to some extent they are right. . . .
But I think there is also something more to it. If you really understand an animal so that he gets to trust you completely and, within his limits, understands you, there grows up between you an affection of purity and simplicity which seems to me peculiarly satisfactory. There is also a cosmic strangeness about animals which always fascinates me and gives to my affection for them a mysterious depth or background.

I'll miss Natch's cosmic strangeness. He was a horse without guile or malice; would that man could say as much.

Natch (and his owner) in their energetic youth