Mirror, Mirror

So I was following a link from a favorite blog, to another blog that happened to be talking about the blogger’s relationship with animals. I’m not linking because these things are so common and so frequent that you can probably cite your own examples.

Plural.

Usually the style is soulful. The subject matter: how the author encounters animals, or recounts a story or myth about them, or ponders their existence and nature, and has Deep And Profound Things To Say About Them.

Except it’s not about the animals at all. It’s all about the author. The animal is a mirror, reflecting a human face.

I used to have a recurring not-quite-nightmare when I was a kid–five years old or so. I was playing with my brothers, and we were riding horses. But every time, as the dream went on, the horses would change. They’d turn into the stick horses we actually “rode” in our waking playtime. Then I’d wake up, and the disappointment stayed with me for hours.

I didn’t want stick horses. I wanted real ones. I didn’t care much for talking animals, either, or, as I grew, cartoons with animals that acted out human preoccupations. Humans in animal costumes seemed horrible to me, like clowns. I wanted humans to be humans, and animals to be animals.

Somewhat oddly in context, shapeshifters didn’t bother me, then or afterward. A real human turning into an actual animal, or the reverse? Bring it on. (Team Jacob, oh yes. And Emma Bull’s Pooka and Dun Lady’s Jess and…)

There’s something about an animal being an animal. There will be points of similarity with humans–including emotions and motivations (human objections thereto notwithstanding). But always, the animal is its own thing. It has its own biology, psychology, and agenda. It’s evolved in certain ways for certain purposes–and if it’s been domesticated, that evolution has been altered by human needs and biases. But it’s still, at base, an animal. Not a human, or a mirror of one.

And that’s what tripped my circuit when I read the blog I mentioned at the beginning. I realized that the author saw animals entirely as a reflection of himself. Whatever state of mind he was in, he imposed that on the creatures he met, threw on an overlay of myth, some natural history, and a whole lot of projection, et voila. Magic Mystic Spirit Animals.

I get a fair bit of that here on the farm. Horses are a mythic creature in human lore, and my horses being a Rare Breed with Magical Overtones makes the whole thing just a little bit more intense. Every so often someone comes along who wants to do some sort of “spiritual” thing with them–the Way of the Horse, often with a Native American angle. I’m polite, but that’s not why I’m here.

What gets to stay, and continue, and grow, is the approach that begins with the horses rather than the humans. That sets human prejudices aside and does its best (because we all see the world through the lens of our own biology and psychology) to approach the horse as a horse. As a separate, and distinct, entity.

That’s hard. We always want it to be about us. Stopping, stepping back, examining our assumptions, takes work. It’s not always comfortable. We make mistakes, or we misread. With large animals, that can have bruising consequences.

The reward isn’t always warm or fuzzy. I may find myself relegated well to the background when it comes to the herd’s priorities–unless I’m bringing food, in which case I’m the first thing any of them wants to see. But then, because I’m in the herd, too, from the horses’ perspective, and do what I can within the limits of my physical structure, I’m very much a part of their world. They’ll accommodate me as they can. They come to riding and training willingly, even eagerly. They show every sign of being on board with it.

This interaction, day after day, expands to other animals around the farm–including the wild ones. Those have good reason not to want much if anything to do with the human, but they live in this world and this space, and to a point, they let me be in it, too.

There’s no need for a mirror. They’re all real, and every one has its own reasons for doing the things it does. If I pay attention, I learn a great deal not just about the individual animals, but about how the world works–and how to shut off all my human white noise, all the words and thoughts and biases and projections, and just let it be.

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About Judith Tarr

Judith Tarr is best known for her historical fantasy. She also writes science fiction, straight historicals, high fantasy, and whatever else strikes her fancy--including Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Doing It Right (published by Book View Cafe). She lives near Tucson, Arizona, where she raises and trains Lipizzan horses.
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14 Responses to Mirror, Mirror

  1. Yes, yes. I still haven’t read Watership Down because I so resist the animals-as-humans stories.

    I flunked an important biology test in college because I refused to cite Skinner’s conclusions about animals having no emotions as real. I said his conclusions were false, though I could point to no Lab work (and the prof would only accept that, personal experience didn’t count) as proof.

    I want to learn about animal language–my biggest delight is documentaries that approach them from this angle.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      There really is an issue with humans wanting to see everything as being about them–their particular biases and assumptions and cultural underpinnings. It’s why so much modern fantasy is basically suburban Americans in fancy outfits, and why, the more the work caters to this demographic, the better it tends to sell.

      With animals, the better the animal is at playing along with human expectations, the more likely it is to be viewed in a positive way. If it’s a wild animal, “Disney effect” can take over: cute cartoon creature with human motivations and biases. The human can be profoundly shocked when the animal turns out to have its own agenda–and if the human gets in the way, the human can get hurt or even killed.

      I won’t even start on the movie about the cute male worker ant who falls in love with a cute girl ant. GAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!

  2. Foxessa says:

    This is done with every Other, particularly women and people of color, right to “Way of the Horse” = “Magical Negro.” IOW, all about ME, not about the ostensible subject.

    Love, C.

  3. Artemis Grey says:

    YES. So much this. At the farm we often went on about the different horses and their personalities as if they were people, but not as if they were humans, if that makes sense. Because the horses WERE/ARE individual ‘people’ but they are not, and never will be human. There is a distinct difference between referring to their personalities and anthropomorphizing their actions, one that so many people often miss.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      I’ve been accused of anthropomorphizing my horses because I refer to feelings and opinions. Both of which they have, with big brass bells on. And woe betide the human who tries to deny them.

  4. Kara says:

    Oh, this is so fascinating to me. I’m very different; I love the “magical animal” stories, because they are escapist fantasy. In the real world, it’s very much All About the Animals as they are– their own individual idiosyncratic beings, and I do my best to relate to them as that.

    But story time is about fantasy, and I love the fantasies that give me Animals As People. (Which now has me wondering if that’s because I imprinted so early on Watership Downs/Mercedes Lackey, or if it’s just in my nature. But that’s a whole other story, isn’t it?)

    • Judith Tarr says:

      You’re obviously one of many, because these stories are so very popular. I think people like to project themselves onto the Other, as in a mirror: partly to admire and partly to find and correct flaws.

  5. Jenny says:

    yep. Even mirrors function as filters. Maybe even the biggest filter of all.

  6. “… and how to shut off all my human white noise, all the words and thoughts and biases and projections, and just let it be.”

    This is it. Much deeper than using animals as a mirror. Letting go of ego in this way, just being and allowing others to be just as they are leads us back to our inner selves.

    Thank you.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      You’re welcome. Animals aren’t really about us at all. If we see in them something that we can learn about ourselves, that’s great, but we should never fall into the trap of seeing them as odd-shaped humans. Their instincts and agendas will always come first, and even when, as with horses and dogs, they suppress or adapt these instincts to human needs and demands, the basic animal is still there. Stress or trigger will bring it out–and then the human can get a deep shock, sometimes a fatal one.

      The stories of killer chimpanzees are particularly apt. Our closest genetic relative can be dressed in kids’ clothes and treated like a very hairy, aphasic human, but it will never be human. Owners (and there’s a triggery word right there) who forget or deny this can get in serious trouble.

      What gets me is that the animal in its native state is wondrous. I love the differences, and the challenge of finding ways to meet and even collaborate. I don’t want to turn them into mock humans, any more than I want humans to try become mock animals. We’re all amazing in our own ways. When we embrace that, the world becomes much bigger and more varied and, for me, more fascinating.