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Review: The Bedside Book of Beasts, by Graeme Gibson

As long as humans have been self-aware, which is to say human, our attempts to "frame the fearful symmetry" of wild beasts have been highly complex. Our ideas of animals have tended to reveal at least as much about ourselves, about our psychology, history, politics and faith, as about our fellow creatures.

James Fowler Rusling, a relation of mine on my mother's side, published memoirs of his tour of the U.S. West in 1866. An officer with the Union in the Civil War, and a Methodist of Yorkshire/Lincolnshire extraction, Rusling chronicles the Plains around the height of the bison hunt (read "extirpation").

That this period coincides exactly with and parallels the United States' worst suppression of its aboriginal people is, I think, now understood. Rusling himself is coolly aware of the association: "What with our repeating-rifles and revolvers for Indians, and a brace of fowling-pieces for game, our ambulances were travelling arsenals."

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Born a decade after Rusling's memoirs appeared was Marc Chagall. A distant cousin of mine through my Vitebsk-area ancestry, the talented artist grew up in the Jewish culture that for many millennia had viewed hunters such as Nimrod and Esau with suspicion, and Noah-who-saved-the-animals as a saint, but had seen Abel's animal sacrifices as laudable, even while Cain's killing of Abel was murder.

The gentile population surrounding the young artist was also an inspiration to Chagall. The bulk of the peasantry of Lithuania, of which the area was a part for most of the Middle Ages, retained paganism at least into the 15th century. Relics of animist practice were in evidence among some rural Lithuanians as recently as the mid-20th century, and perhaps some exist even today.

Gibson has assembled a lively and representative variety of writing from different ages

In a different way than in Rusling's world, Chagall sees human and animal as overlapping. Indeed, many of his animals, as in his illustrations of The Fables of La Fontaine, have as much humanity as his people. In his charming lithograph of a lion tamer, the lions appear amused and indulgent, as if they are trying patiently to train the hopeless human.

While Chagall and Rusling do not appear in Graeme Gibson's book, just such a mix of art and literature, of geographical range and of attitudes toward wild animals, simultaneously complementary and contradictory, are typical of Gibson's delightful miscellany.

This handsome compendium, which includes art, poetry, essays, stories and science writing, is very much a companion piece to the 2005 Bedside Book of Birds, and shares its best and worst qualities - though the best predominate by far. As with the earlier miscellany, one finds Gibson's short introductions to the loosely structured chapters the best of the book: highly personal and personable, insightful and moral in the best sense of the word. Gibson's generous and clear writing ties together the loosely organized sections, and makes one mourn his long-standing retirement as a novelist.

Apart from his introductions to chapters on animals as reflecting desire, death and difference, Gibson has assembled a lively and representative variety of writing from different ages and cultures. Religious writings and sculptures from several thousand years ago appear next to Jared Diamond and contemporary wildlife photographers; Hesiod is a neighbour of Hesse.

Much thought and care also went into the design of the book and the choice of art. The type is refreshingly large and easy to absorb, as befits a bedtime read, and with its numerous colour illustrations, the book comes across as whatever you might call a children's bedtime book for adults.

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Some of the more remarkable passages chronicle a sort of love that predators show their prey, and instances where humans, though attacked by bears or large cats, feel no pain. Others show how close humans can be to a wild state, or what we have lost by willfully distancing ourselves from nature.

The less successful passages stray from the topic of mammals to dragons, sharks, griffins, frogs, insects and dinosaurs. I found the same minor flaw in his Bedside Book of Birds, where several passages on angels and other non-avians distracted from an already amorphous topic.

Over all, the effect of Gibson's editorial choices is to emphasize the link between animals and the human anima: or, to move from Jung to Freud, the id. Insofar as there is one, the book's gist is essentially the opening phrase of the last excerpt, from Polish writer Zbigniew Herbert: "Man destroyed the order of nature by his thought and labour."

But, more so than in the Birds collection, Gibson here also pushes a message. His agenda is broadly environmental without being anti-hunting or anti-carnivore. He reminds us that habitat loss is what kills our furry cousins, not eating them, or competing with them for prey. He also points to research on the positive effects on physical and mental health of exposure to nature.

Above all, what Gibson advocates is that we put an end to (or at least be aware of) that most human trait of hypocrisy, and that we remember both how close and far we are from taloned creation. Dip into this book right before bed and your dreams will be a little more animal, and therefore a little more human.

A.J. Levin is a Winnipeg-based writer and nature lover, and the author of the poetry book Monks' Fruit.

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