A Most Fruitful Sabbatical: Two New Books by Martin Rowe
Reviewed by Norm Phelps
The Elephants in the Room: An Excavation
Lantern Books, Brooklyn, NY, 2014.
The Polar Bear in the Zoo: A Speculation
Lantern Books, Brooklyn, NY, 2014
Martin Rowe is something of a Renaissance man. Author of Nicaea: A Book of Correspondences, a haunting, atmospheric novel set in the city that gave birth to the Nicene Creed, he is also co-author (with Evander Lomke) of Right Off the Bat, an entertaining and informative look at baseball and cricket, as well as editor of The Way of Compassion and Running, Eating, Thinking: A Vegan Anthology. In addition to writing and editing, Rowe has made inestimable contributions to the environmental and animal protection movements as a publisher. In 1994, he founded Satya magazine, which he guided through its first five years of existence. (Satya ceased publication in 2007, and the hole it left in the fabric of environmental and animal advocacy has yet to be rewoven.) In 1999, with Gene Gollogly, he co-founded Lantern Books, which quickly became a premier publisher of books on social justice, animal rights, environmental protection, vegetarianism and spiritual health. Lantern Books, like Satya before it, has been a platform from which theorists and activists can get a public hearing for ideas and perspectives that are typically ignored by the corporate media and the more anthropocentric independent presses. (Full disclosure: Lantern has published four of my books.)
In February, 2013 Martin Rowe took a year’s sabbatical from Lantern to pursue his own writing projects. The result was two remarkable works of nonfiction that reveal him to be a probing thinker and graceful stylist who glides elegantly beneath the surface of an issue to engage with the ideas that lie hidden below.
The Question Beneath the Question
In The Elephants in the Room, Rowe employs the life-settings and activism of two very different African women, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011) and “elephant whisperer” Dame Daphne Sheldrick (b. 1934), to explore questions that swirl beneath the surface of the public dialogue.
The launching pad for The Elephants in the Room is a lecture given by Sheldrick at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and attended by Rowe and his lifepartner, Mia MacDonald, executive director of the environmental and sustainability “action tank” Brighter Green.
Daphne Sheldrick is a white citizen of Kenya, founder of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (named for her late husband) and pioneering rehabilitator of free-living babies who have been orphaned, most famously elephants. She is also a descendent of the 19th century British colonizers who stole Africa at gun point from the people who already lived there. Down to the present, her family has farmed land from which indigenous Africans were forcibly, brutally evicted (just as my family has farmed land from which indigenous Americans were forcibly, brutally evicted). During the 1950s, some of her male relatives fought to crush the Mau-Maus’ efforts to reclaim by violence the land that the Kikuyu nation had lost to violence.
Born into the Kikuyu nation, Wangari Maathai was converted to Christianity as a child and received a Western education. (She studied at the University of Kenya in Nairobi, Benedictine College and the University of Pittsburgh in the US, and the Universities of Giessen and Munich in Germany. She was a trained biologist with a PhD in veterinary anatomy, and in addition to her native Kikuyu, she was fluent in English, Kiswahili and German.) Thus, Maathai was able to move easily in three distinct worlds: the traditional East African village, the contemporary West, and the hybrid that is modern urban Kenya. She sat in the Kenyan parliament, served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, and founded the Green Belt Movement (GBM), which has planted tens of thousands of trees and engages globally in environmental advocacy. For the last decade of Maathai’s life (She died of ovarian cancer in 2011.), she worked closely with Martin Rowe and Mia MacDonald on several literary projects, including The Green Belt Movement, published by Lantern and Unbowed, Maathai’s autobiography.
The two women are united and separated by Africa. And the British colonization of Kenya, accomplished long before either was born, remains the central event in both of their lives.
On the one hand, Daphne Sheldrick understands the nature of the crime that created her home in Kenya. But simultaneously she sees her forebears, and herself, as honest, hard-working pioneers and settlers who took great risks and endured intense hardship to bring the benefits of modern Western civilization to Africa while building homes and lives for themselves and their families. Born and raised in Kenya, Dame Daphne feels Kenyan, but in some vague, ill-defined way, not really Kenyan. The scion of a family that is British to the core, Sheldrick clings to her English identity even though she realizes that she could never adapt to life in the metropole and does not want to try. In the end, Sheldrick has devoted her life to Kenya and to the rescue and restoration of the free-living animals of Africa, who are also victims of the old colonial enterprise and the degradation of the natural world that accompanied it,
Wangari Maathai understood the benefits that came with the modernization that followed the British conquest. But she understood at an even deeper level the individual suffering and death and the social disruption and environmental devastation that are the price her people have paid for Western comforts. Whereas Sheldrick has two identities: not-quite-Kenyan and not-quite-British, Maathai had three: traditional Kikuyu, modern, sophisticated Kenyan, and scientifically trained heir to the Western spirit of inquiry and progress.
On Martin Rowe’s rendering, Doctor Maathai and Dame Daphne each succeeded to a remarkable degree in integrating their disparate identities into a compassionate and functioning gestalt, enabling them to pursue lives dedicated to healing the damage done by past violence. As cold warrior James J. Angleton once observed, “The past telescopes into the present.” Wounds heal, but scars remain. One way of reading The Elephants in the Room is as a meditation on scars, and on the ways in which we can learn to acknowledge them, drain the poison out of them (scars on the spirit continue to suppurate the poisons of the past long after the wound appears to have closed up), and transform them into empathy and compassion for all who suffer.
Another way to read The Elephants in the Room is as an inquiry into the importance of perspective and the impossibility of achieving objectivity. We are all, Rowe muses, like the men in the parable by Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi who enter a pitch-dark room in which an elephant is standing; each of the men touches a different part of the elephant, and all come away with radically different, seemingly irreconcilable ideas about the size and shape of elephants—witness Wangari Maathai and Daphne Sheldrick, daughters of the two faces of colonialism. And witness also Martin Rowe, whose perspectives on the topics he discusses are, he tells us, influenced by his own identity as a British ex-pat from an upper middle class family who feels a deep attachment to Great Britain while also finding himself in sync with the energy and openness of a young country that is less restrained by tradition and history. (Those of us born and raised in the U. S. can only hope that Rowe is seeing the America of the present and future, not an America that has receded into history and been replaced by a hi-tech police state and global commercial empire sustained by perpetual war.) The tyranny of perspective, even from a considerable distance, is shown by the fact that in 2006 a white woman, Daphne Sheldrick, became the first Kenyan to be knighted by the Queen since Kenya gained independence in 1963. While taking nothing from Dame Daphne, it is hard to believe that between 1963 and 2006, no black Kenyan, male or female, was deserving of knighthood. We must learn to temper our convictions, Rowe’s narrative reminds us, with the knowledge that they are our convictions and not necessarily universal truth handed down from on high.
But “the elephant in the room,” is also a metaphor for some dreadful fact whose existence is too painful or too threatening to acknowledge, so that people sit around sipping wine or coffee and chatting politely while pretending that there is no 10,000 pound animal who stands eight feet tall taking up most of the room. The modern world has several of these elephants, Rowe suggests, most left in the room by the sins of the past: racism, colonialism, war, a sustained assault on the natural world—violence of many sorts. This past can never be healed. It has slipped out of our reach. But Elephants can also be read as an exploration of how we can confront the elephants in our rooms with a view to healing the present into which the past has telescoped.
The Elephants in the Room urges all of us to recognize the scars we bear and the limitations imposed upon us by our history and life setting. Only when we have performed this act of self-exploration will we be able to push forward with gentleness and tolerance, but also with determination, on the endless task of healing that is, or should be, at the heart of all social justice, animal and environmental activism. For this is the journey that the Wangari Maathai and Daphne Sheldrick shown to us by Martin Rowe have made. And at the end of the day, what binds them together is that they are healers, first of themselves, then of their nation, and finally of their planet and all who share it.
The Sacred Encounter with the Unknowable
Early on in The Polar Bear in the Zoo, Martin Rowe nails us with this two-by-four between the eyes:
“It’s hard to believe that sound argument or sets of laws will alter [human] acquisitiveness or change the trajectory for animals. Indeed, since we show no signs of arresting our abuse, enslavement, and murder of our fellow human beings— let alone stopping the continued humiliation of and violence toward girls and women— simply to imagine a world without human mercilessness toward nonhuman animals is to conceive of absurdity piled upon ridiculousness.” (Kindle Locations 367-371).
In a kind of one-two punch, he follows this up with:
“Not only is the scale of the suffering immeasurably vast, it’s impossible to imagine a world without animal products scattered among or buried within our collective bodies. Try it: the task is literally inconceivable. No effort or self can apprehend it or come closer to achieving it: for every animal rescued from the farm, another takes its place on the disassembly line; for every individual who stops eating animals somewhere in the world, a new person becomes wealthy enough to breed their own, eat meat, buy an exotic animal, purchase a fur coat, and then have more of the same.” (Kindle Locations 391-395)
Martin Rowe’s first argument, that we will never achieve a world entirely without animal exploitation and abuse, measures success by a standard which no social justice movement could ever satisfy. When he says that the goal of animal liberation is “a world without human mercilessness toward nonhuman animals,” he clearly means a world with no animal slavery and slaughter, none—in a word, perfection. And as much as I long for perfection, I have to admit that Martin Rowe is absolutely right, it will never happen. But perfection, I would like to suggest, is not a valid metric for evaluating anything or anyone in this structurally imperfect world. It is a fundamental fact of reality that neither the world nor anything in it is perfectible. But the world and everything in it are infinitely improvable. And infinite improvement, not perfection, is the proper goal of social justice movements. Success comes in quanta of improvement achieved and quanta of degeneration forestalled, not in the transmutation of Earth into Eden.
The campaign for the abolition of human slavery succeeded when slavery became contrary to law and was condemned by society, even though work remains to be done. The American civil rights movement achieved victory when discrimination on the basis of race became contrary to law and was condemned by society, although the struggle for full equality goes on. The feminist movement succeeded when subaltern status for women became contrary to law and was condemned by society, although there is still much progress that needs to be made.
Looking at the history of our relationship to animals, the history of other social justice movements, and the trajectory of the animal liberation movement thus far, I have no doubt that the slavery and slaughter of animals for human benefit will someday be contrary to law and condemned by society. It will not happen soon, probably not in the lifetime of anyone reading this in the year I wrote it, 2014; but it will happen. And when it does, a scale will have been tipped, a new order will have begun. Suffering and premature death for the sake of human greed and appetite will have become the exception, not the rule. And that will be success, even though there will always remain urgent work to be done.
The animal liberation movement is approaching its 50th anniversary (counting from the publication in The Sunday Times on October 10, 1965 of a full page op-ed, “The Rights of Animals,” by English novelist, playwright and feminist and LGBTQ activist Brigid Brophy). Fifty years after they were inaugurated, neither the movement for the abolition of human slavery, civil rights for African-Americans, nor equality for women appeared to have any prospects for success. But these movements all succeeded and so will ours.
Martin Rowe’s second point is that we are taking, in Lenin’s phrase, “one step forward, two steps back,” as progress in the West is more than offset by regression in the developing world. Again, he is right. More than that, nearly every advance in human technology or human prosperity and every rise in human population has increased both the number of animals who suffer and die at human hands and the intensity of their suffering. This means that we have a long, hard struggle ahead of us, but it does not mean that the struggle is hopeless. We have made significant progress in Europe, North America and Australia, and we can make progress in the rest of the world. As I argue in Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation Is So Hard and How We Can Win It, the North American, European and Australian animal rights movements need to begin paying more attention and devoting more resources to the countries of the eastern and southern hemispheres that are not primarily European in their cultural traditions. Provincialism has become a luxury we cannot afford.
So why does Martin Rowe devote himself to a cause he believes to be hopeless? “[I]t’s precisely because the goal will never be reached that one must keep working toward it,” he tells us. “No prize or glory can attach itself to one’s deeds, because no accomplishment can bring us anywhere near the end.” (Kindle Locations 389-391, italics in original)
While I am certainly not looking for “prize or glory” beyond the prize of animal liberation, Rowe’s dedication to a virtuous cause that he believes to be lost has led me to re-examine my own commitment to activism. Without hope of success, could I summon the courage and energy to remain active in the animals’ cause. I hope so, I think perhaps so, but I really don’t know. And that is a sobering thought. Commitment to an impossible dream requires a rare kind of faith that none of us can be certain of until we are tested.
After this opening, The Polar Bear in the Zoo hunkers down to its serious business: considering the question of why animal rights is such a difficult challenge. In Changing the Game, I raised this same question, but I answered it from a different perspective than Martin Rowe. Where I approached this question from the standpoint of history, economics and social psychology, Rowe approaches it from a more philosophical perspective, examining fundamental questions of what might be called moral epistemology by probing how we construct our relationships to animals. It is our concept of “animal,” as something less considerable than “human” that allows us to exploit animals without regard for their lives or wellbeing. And so, Rowe asks: What do we see when we encounter an animal? What is our concept of “animal” and where does it come from?
Rowe approaches his subject through a discussion of framing. “Framing,” he tells us, “excludes as well as includes, reorients your eye to regard what it wants you to discern and attempts to occlude what it wants you to ignore.” (Kindle Locations 452-454) Most of our frames are created for us by culture, history, and economics. In any scene our frames tend to show us the things that are convenient, profitable or self-justifying for us to see and conceal the things that are discomforting, that would call for sacrifice, or that challenge our favorable view of ourselves. The Polar Bear in the Zoo is an exploration of activism as a series of conscious acts of reframing so that we see what is right and moral for society’s victims rather than what is conventional in our society or advantageous for us.
From this point on, Martin Rowe’s analysis takes the form of a commentary on a photograph from We Animals, a volume of arresting and thought-provoking images by activist photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, shot and selected to explore the many facets of the human-animal relationship.
In the photograph Rowe has chosen, a large, white polar bear is swimming underwater in a tank. Brightly lit by sunlight streaming down from overhead, he is swimming toward a glass observation panel behind which, standing in dim shadow, are a group of school children. The children (or at least all but one, who has turned away from the viewing panel) are watching the bear approach and the bear is looking at the children. But what do their gazes mean? For beyond the physical facts that it records, the photograph is uncommunicative—leaving the facts open to a multitude of interpretations. Why is the bear approaching the children? Why did the children come to see the bear? What does each want from the encounter, mediated as it is by thick safety glass? How do they view one another? The human children are free. The bear is captive. How do children and bear view this disequilibrium? Does Kunik know the children are free? Or does he think that they are captive, just as he is? Is he, perhaps, coming over to comfort them? The photograph does not answer these questions. It shows us the bear’s face, but not the full faces of the children, as the camera is behind and slightly above them, looking over their shoulders toward the approaching bear. The children stand in half-light, while the bear is bathed in a radiant white, almost heavenly, glow. Is the photograph saying that the bear is pure and innocent while the children are learning to assume the guilt of captors? The photograph refuses to translate for us; it will not tell us what it is saying. No matter how intently we stare at it, no matter how long we ponder it, the image of the bear swimming toward the children remains ambiguous and any unequivocal meaning eludes our grasp. As Rowe points out, “[W]e supply our own narrative and interpretative frame to the scene.” (Kindle Locations 852-853) Even if we had external data to help us understand the scene more fully, such as how often the bear swam to the viewing panel to approach visitors, Rowe tells us that:
“[A]ccruing such data wouldn’t close off the imagined relationships that the photograph proposes either internally (between this gaggle of children and the solitary animal, the light and dark, and the water of the pool and the air the children breathe) or externally, between the work of art and the viewer. Nor would it preclude each individual child’s imagined relationship with the animal. We cannot factualize our way out of our projections of what we see. This zoo (which happens to be in Toronto), this animal (whose name happens to have been Kunik), and these children could be anywhere and at any time. What matters is how we read the image: what suppositions we bring about animals, children, “nature,” and zoos to our inspection. (Kindle Locations 856-860, italics added. Rowe says “whose name happens to have been Kunik” because the bear contracted West Nile virus in 2006 and was euthanized.)
The stubborn ambiguity of this photograph corresponds to the ambiguity of our relationships to animals. This ambiguity, Rowe seems to suggest, finds expression in paradox. First there is paradox in our relationships with individual animals, as in the case of a farmer who befriends her dairy cows, knows them by name, rubs their heads affectionately when they come to her call, and then when they are too old and weak to have more babies and give more milk, sends them to slaughter with hardly a second thought. Or a family in which a breadwinner gets a new job in a distant city. While the humans pack up and head for their new home, the dog, who for years had thought she was a member of the family, is “dropped off at the shelter” because it’s inconvenient to take her along. All animals, no matter what our relationship with them may be, are in the final analysis, “living at our whim.” (Kindle Location 712)
Next there is paradox in our relationship to nonhuman animals in general. This is the oft-noted question of why, to use Melanie Joy’s formulation, “we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows.” The answer, Rowe suggests, lies in the different images (that is to say, the different imagined relationships) that we project onto different animals. Thus, we project (imagine) dogs as friends, pigs as food and cows as shoes. And our power over animals is so total that we can reify these imaginings into (supposed) facts and enforce them in the external world so that they determine the quality of the lives and the time and manner of death of actual animals in the external world. We turn animals into what we imagine them to be, whether they accept this transformation or not. That is the essence of our power over animals and the essence of the evil that lies therein: we can impose our self-serving imaginings on their lives (and deaths) and they are helpless to prevent it. The paradoxes in our relationships with and to animals are explained by our ability to change the way we project (imagine) animals to be according to our needs, appetites or conveniences of the moment. When we want love and emotional comforting, a dog is a faithful friend and beloved companion; when we want to free ourselves from an encumbrance, she becomes “just an animal,” a possession, a thing, a commodity that can be easily replaced should the need arise.
This is the situation that Martin Rowe suggests we cannot factualize our way out of. And I agree that we cannot factualize our way out of it entirely—nor am I sure we should want to. Empathy, and therefore compassion, depends on our ability to project ourselves onto others, to imagine ourselves in their place, to “walk a mile in their shoes,” at least in our minds. But I believe that we can–and should–factualize our way out of this situation far enough to assure that our projections have at least a nodding acquaintance with reality as experienced by animals, and are, therefore, a valid and appropriate foundation for our inter-species relationships.
For the past two decades, researchers in the field of cognitive ethology, Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas, Marc Bekoff, Lori Marino, Irene Pepperberg, Theodore Xenophon Barber, Frans de Waal, Con Slobodchikoff, Jonathan Balcombe, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Susan McCarthy, Thomas White, and a host of others have been demonstrating that animals are in very fundamental ways much like us. They are sentient, experiencing many of the same physical and emotional sensations that we do and with the same urgency; they are intelligent, creating and using sophisticated languages containing both semantics and syntax; and they are competent managers of their own lives, creating and transmitting culture within societies that they establish and organize themselves. Cognitive ethology is showing, with scientific rigor, that animals are like us at the deepest levels and different only in ways that are more superficial. Ethologists are factualizing our way out of many of the projections (imaginings) that we have, over the centuries, imposed upon animals. It may still be possible for advocates of human exceptionalism to maintain the old imaginings, but only in the way that reactionary ideologues can continue to imagine that evolution did not occur and global warming is a myth: by ignoring established facts.
In the 1970s and 1980s, academic philosophers and theologians like Peter Singer, Richard Ryder, Andrew Linzey, Stephen R. L. Clarke, and Tom Regan created animal rights almost from scratch. And the dominance within the animal rights movement of rationalist philosophy and ideology endured into the 21st century. Honor is due; we all owe the rationalist philosophers who created and shaped the animals’ movement in its opening decades a great debt of gratitude. But the age of traditional animal rights philosophy is over. Philosophers working in the modernist Enlightenment traditions have made their contributions, and the movement is evolving beyond them. Rationalist animal rights philosophy is rapidly devolving into a cacophony of trivial sectarian quibbles, designed more to secure a PhD or tenure than to advance the cause of animals. With a handful of notable exceptions (primarily ecofeminists like Carol Adams, Josephine Donovan, Greta Gaard, Lori Gruen, Lisa Kemmerer, and the late Marti Kheel; and philosopher-activists like Steven Best, John Hochschartner, pattrice jones, Anthony Nocella, David Nibert, Kim Stallwood, and Bob Torres, who are–each within their own frame of reference–working to create a universal liberation movement that would encompass social justice, animal rights, and restoration of the Earth), animal rights philosophy today resembles nothing so much as the scholasticism of the late Middle Ages or the disputations of Talmudic scholars: More and more bits and bytes are being devoted to subjects of less and less scope and gravity.
Center stage now belongs to cognitive ethologists. And the strategy of the animal rights movement should be to use their findings to show that the ethical principles that guide our relations with other human beings must—as Austrian philosopher Helmut Kaplan has argued—be applied fully and directly to our relations with animals for the simple reason that animals are so fundamentally like us that no other conclusion is possible. In short, I believe that our strategy should be precisely to factualize our way out of the projections (imaginings) that have facilitated and justified the slavery and slaughter of animals since time out of mind. This process will never, as Martin Rowe rightly points out, lead to unassailably certain knowledge, any more than it does in regard to other human beings. A photograph of Diana Nyad swimming toward the children behind the glass would raise, and refuse to answer, the same kinds of questions that the picture of Kunik raises and refuses to answer. But the findings of ethology do establish a high level of certainty for facts that are relevant to fundamental moral issues. In our understanding of animals as with our treatment of them, success comes in quanta of improvement, not in perfection.
Knowledge for its own sake is a false god. We should pursue knowledge for the sake of alleviating suffering and postponing death while promoting happiness and prolonging life. And for that goal, all we need to know is that animals are sentient beings who love life and dread death. Beyond this, the resolution of ambiguities is irrelevant.
Martin Rowe is, of course, fully aware of this. But in The Polar Bear in the Zoo he is pursuing a deeper and more elusive understanding—with a view to attacking animal slavery and slaughter at a deeper and more esoteric level. He wants to introduce us to the encounter not with animal intelligence per se, but with animal consciousness, animal subjectivity, animals as experiencers of their own lives. To borrow a term from German phenomenology, he wants us to encounter the Dasein, the mode of being, the mode of awareness of animals. To borrow a term from Tom Regan, he wants us to encounter animals as the subjects of a life, not in a flat, static, purely rationalistic way, but as a living, multi-dimensional and transformational experience.
Ultimately, as philosopher Thomas Nagel pointed out in his celebrated 1974 essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” the subjectivity of another being, even another human being, is unknowable—precisely because it is subjective. But for Rowe, this unknowability is the transformative essence of the encounter. In this sense, and perhaps not only in this sense, the encounter becomes a kind of mystical experience; it becomes an avatar of the ultimate encounter with the unknowable, the encounter with the transcendent reality that our senses cannot perceive and our minds cannot analyze—whether you call it God or by some other name. As examples of what he means, Rowe cites two instances from the world’s sacred literature: First, Arjuna’s encounter with Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, an experience that transforms Arjuna’s life even as Krishna’s ultimate nature remains unknowable to him and Krishna’s glory nearly shatters him. And second, the New Testament story of the Transfiguration, in which Jesus appears to Peter, James, and John in glorified form, radiating light, with Moses and Elijah standing beside him, while the voice of God announces his divine nature. Like Arjuna before the glory of Krishna, the apostles hide their eyes, unable to bear this encounter with the ultimate mystery.
The encounter with animal consciousness, Rowe implies, is a sacred, mystical experience, revealing to us the intrusion of the transcendent into the mundane world, even though we are not able to apprehend the nature of that transcendence (precisely because it is transcendent). If I may be permitted one last borrowing, the encounter with the animal as subject is a form of approaching what Meister Eckhart styled “the cloud of unknowing.” This is not to say that animals per se are divine in any mythological or totemic sense, but rather that consciousness, Dasein, being the subject of a life is a transcendent and hence divine phenomenon which we can only partly apprehend. This is Rowe’s description of this phenomenon:
“It’s the task of spiritual teachers such as Jesus, the Buddha, Krishna, and others to disabuse our artlessness about what a theophany exacts from us. Like Peter, James, and John in the Transfiguration, we childishly believe we see before us the unveiled and recognizable figure who betokens the expected fulfillment of prophecies. We reach out to express our commonality with this spirit— to put up tents in the case of the disciples or to raise a hand to touch the paw in McArthur’s photo— only to find that a cloud descends or the glass, for all its polish and apparent transparency, is in fact critically opaque, leaving us with the division of our worlds between the light of the figure above and the enshrouded humans below. The photograph of Kunik echoes Paul’s eschatological hope that we might indeed see face to face the other-than-human and know and be known. The glass and the water are our means to see, yet their membranes diffract and distort the light and protect us from the potential annihilation of the epiphany— for it carries a physical, emotional, and spiritual price that we might not be willing to pay.” (Kindle Locations 1147-1155)
And so we turn away, avert our eyes—like one of the children in the photograph—and allow the enslavement, the slaughter, the desecration of living, conscious beings, avatars of transcendence, to continue unabated. It is Martin Rowe’s belief that by allowing ourselves to open up to this encounter with the infinite, mediated through the unknowable consciousness of animals, we can be transformed, as Arjuna and the three apostles were transformed, and begin to practice what Albert Schweitzer termed “reverence for life” (Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben, which literally means, “reverence before (or in front of ) life,” conveying more of the idea of an encounter, of a face to face meeting of consciousnesses than a private attitude toward an abstraction, more of what in another context, Herman Melville called the “shock of recognition”).
The Polar Bear in the Zoo is unique in my experience in the way it unites a mystical sense of the sacred nature of consciousness, of its transcendence and unknowability, with a clear-eyed, feet-firmly-planted-on-the-ground realism and a commitment to animal liberation. And it is precisely this union that places it securely among the most profound and important books yet written on the nature of the human-animal relationship.
Martin Rowe has written two deeply intelligent and sensitive meditations that probe the more profound and difficult issues surrounding social activism in general and animal and environmental activism in particular. His erudition and clear, graceful use of language make reading them an enjoyable as well as a thought-provoking experience. John Erskine said that “Intelligent beings have a moral obligation to behave intelligently.” The Elephants in the Room and The Polar Bear in the Zoo can help all of us in the environmental and animal rights movements—and everyone who should be in these movements, but isn’t—to do just that.