The Life Force in Animals—and in Rocks

From Barbara King of the Friday Animal Blog:

It’s been an axiom of my thinking and my writing that humans’ relating with animals differs in some essential way from our relating with all other parts of the universe. Ancient redwood trees, high-stalked sunflowers, bones-of-the-earth red-rock formations may all compel, for me, a gasp of admiration, a whisper of delight, an urge to stop time with a photograph.

Yet admiration is not immersion. Trees, flowers, and rocks leave me thirsting for a sort of base mutuality. The gorilla who dares to look me in the eyes, the cat who head-bumps my chin, the bunny who thumps his way across a room for an ear-stroking, it’s they who immerse my heart. It’s a paradox of sorts because I feel just the same when confronted with creatures who remain stolidly indifferent to my presence, like the grazing bison or the soaring eagle. With them, too, the mutuality pulses on because with them I feel the shared life force of dwelling in and dying from this world.

As an anthropologist, I know something about animism, the idea that all sorts of objects in the world, even rocks, may have spirits and souls. I’ve enjoyed the writing of geologists who describe the dynamic thrusts of our earth in terms of fierce endearment. And once at a visitor center in the Grand Canyon, I touched the Vishnu schist, a rock that’s almost 2 billion years old. As decidedly cool as that was, the life force for me that day stopped at my fingertips, as my flesh met the flat rock.

I’m glad I’m going back to the Grand Canyon in 2012 because I’ve had one of those rare, joyful, catapult-like shifts in perspectives that a good writer can bring to bear on one’s sensibilities. In the memoir I’m reading this week, called The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch grabs that life force and propels it powerfully into rocks so that never again will I see (or touch) rocks in the same way.

Yuknavitch writes:

Suddenly a gray rock becomes ashen or clouded with dream. A ring round a rock is luck. To find a red rock is to discover earthblood. Blue rocks make you believe in them. Patterns and flecks on rocks are bits of different countries and terrains, speckled questions. Conglomerates are the movement of land in the freedom of water, smoothed into a small thing you can hold in your hand, rub against your face. Sandstone is soothing and lucid. Shale, of course, is rational. Find pleasure in these ordinary palm worlds. Help yourself prepare for a life. Recognize when there are no words for the pain, when there are no words for the joy, there are rocks. Fill all the clear drinking glasses in your house with rocks, no matter what your husband or lover thinks. Gather rocks in small piles on the counters, the tables, the windowsills. Divide rocks by color, texture, size, shape. Collect some larger stones, place them along the floor of your living room, never mind what the guests think, build an intricate labyrinth of inanimates. Move around your rocks like a curl of water. Begin to detect smells and sounds to different varieties of rock. Give names to some, not geological, but of your own making. Memorize their presence, know if one is missing or out of place. Bathe them in water once each week. Carry a different one in your pocket every day. Move away from normal but don’t notice it. Move towards excess but don’t care. Own more rocks than clothing, than dishes, than books. Lie down next to them on the floor, put the smaller ones in your mouth occasionally. Sometimes, feel lithic, or petrified, or rupestral instead of tired, irritable, depressed. At night, alone, naked, place one green, one red, one ashen on different parts of your body. Tell no one.

That is memoir, but it is also poetry. No animism-account, geological discourse, or close-schist encounter ever made me see rocks and feel rocks like Yuknavitch has. A bit further on she writes of rocks: “They carry the chronology of water. All things simultaneously living and dead in your hands.”

I’m blasted by this writing. Yuknavitch’s rock passages are just precisely on fire for me because they brought alive my unrealized mutuality with rocks.

I recommend The Chronology of Water with every spare heartbeat. But don’t let me imply it’s a gentle paen to the natural world. No, the rock passages describe a time after Yuknavitch’s daughter was stillborn. Yuknavitch was lost, and lost, we learn, for so many wounded reasons besides that single tragedy. Her memoir roots itself in a ferocious sexuality and turns terrible pain into beauty on the page, into beauty in her own being. I feel its life force.

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