OK, I’m going to show my hand here. I love animals – and hate animal cruelty – but I am not vegan. More to the point though, I am cautious about animal rights activists because they can sometimes act out the very violence and cruelty on humans that they condemn for non-human animals. I was, therefore, a little wary when I was offered for review David Brooks’ book, The grass library. However, Brooks, a poet/novelist/essayist/academic/one-time co-editor of Southerly, has enough cred that I decided to take a chance. I’m glad I did – just as I was glad to have read, three years ago, Bidda Jones and Julian Davies’ more targeted animal rights book Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports (my review).
The publisher’s letter accompanying my review copy quoted the Sydney Morning Herald’s description of Brooks as “one of Australia’s most skilled, unusual and versatile writers”. It is the combination of this writing skill, with the thoughts contained within, that makes The grass library such an engaging and provocative read.
Although there is no doubt about the author’s commitment to his cause, The grass library is not an in-your-face polemical book. Instead, it is a thoughtful work in which Brooks, now a committed vegan and animal rights advocate – advocate being, perhaps, a more appropriate word than activist – works through his practical, philosophical and ethical position. And he does so in a way that encourages us to think along, and to wonder about and question our own thoughts, practices and values.
The book is part-memoir, part-reflection. It starts with Brooks’ partner, simply called T in the book, pronouncing that she can’t eat meat anymore. “We’re turning vegetarian”, she says. A week later, that becomes vegan. And so, a big change occurs in their lives, one that takes oyster- and cheese-loving Brooks not too long, in fact, to get used to. Brooks writes, heralding the book’s real subject-matter:
But this book isn’t about veganism, or guilt. If I’d permitted myself a more eighteenth-century subtitle it might have been “An account of three years pf philosophical and un-philosophical transactions with animals in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales”, but ultimately and more simply it’s about discovery and wonder: wonder and wondering.
After a couple of false starts, Brooks and T find themselves, in 2012, living on a small farm in the Blue Mountains, with their recently adopted dog Charlie, and, soon after, two rescue sheep, Henry and Jonathan. Not long after that, a new-born lamb, Orpheus Pumpkin, joins them, and by the end of the book, ram Jason brings the number to four. These sheep and Charlie form the book’s backbone and become (or, should I say in the spirit of the book, are) characters in their own right. Other non-human animals appear too, some briefly, including cicadas, ducklings, a snake, and rats.
What I most enjoyed about this book is the calm, non-histrionic way in which Brooks introduces and ponders on a range of random-sounding but coherent-as-the-book-progresses ideas, such as “dusk anxiety” and “herd music”. “Dusk anxiety” is introduced early on through a twitching that Charlie was exhibiting at that time of day. It’s a sort of mood-change or discombobulation that some humans (and, Brooks believes, some non-human animals like Charlie) feel at that strange twilight, half-and-half time of day. Sounds valid to me. However, it also provides Brooks an opportunity to raise the issue of anthropomorphism. His argument is that anthropomorphism is not a bad thing, that in fact, it is central to empathy. The barbarity we engage in against animals is made possible, he argues, by denying this empathy, by believing “that we are so different from the creatures we live amongst that we cannot know or even hazard how they feel.” To read this book, then, you need to understand (if not accept) this fundamental world-view. Brooks may not know what the non-human animals he writes of feel, but he writes with the assumption that they do feel (and that we may know what they feel).
Another significant idea underpinning the book is that of the binary way we view animals. This idea is one of the most confronting or, at least, challenging in the book:
There are so many old, rusty binaries involved here. […]
We categorise animals, and behave towards them – accord or refuse them protection or sanctuary – depending on whether we see them as wild or tame, feral or domesticated, native or exotic, rare or common, endangered or of least concern, pet or pest, livestock or otherwise …
In most of these cases, he says, one side of the binary will be given a higher “value” (in human terms), with, often, a justification to kill the opposing side. For each animal concerned though it is his/her life!
It’s not for nothing, I think, that the next chapter talks about rats at their farm!
This discussion of binaries is part of a major thread in the book, which is language, and how it “trips” us up, how it “will restrict us, hold us back, if we don’t learn to use it with greater care and respect”. Language is all too often speciesist, he argues. Grammar – the use of “it” for a non-human animal, for example – is violent, for example, or, at least, has the potential for violence.
It’s a book, then, that makes the brain hurt – albeit in a gentle, encouraging way. However, there is beauty in the book too, such as the chapter on “herd music”. This chapter starts in his writing room, his “grass library”, and is inspired by the appearance outside his room of the two sheep when (and only when) he plays music. He ponders this. They are herd animals, but being just two rescue sheep, they have no herd and are thus deprived of, he posits, the music of the herd:
… if music it can be called (but how else to call it?): the sound of hooves shifting in the grass or tapping on stone, the occasional bleat of a lamb, response of its mother, grunt or growl or call of a ewe or a ram, the sound of snipping at grass-blades, coughs, throat-clearings, nudgings, strokings, as one sheep passes another, regurgitations, ruminant chewings, fartings, belches, sounds nearer and further off, all in all a constant, rolling concert, approximated—very distantly resembled, in a bizarre, post-something way— by the muted rhythmical under-music of whatever it is that I might be playing on the stereo system in my cabin, an aural equivalent of warmth, the ghost of companionship.
I share this because I loved this, but also because it provides some insight into the way Brooks thinks (or wonders.)
I can’t say I agree with all that Brooks writes. For example, as vegans, he and T didn’t want to feed their rescue lamb lactose-based lamb powder, so they seek non-animal products like almond milk (which doesn’t, for the record, work). But, but, I say, lambs grow on milk! And then, of course, there are those binaries. Philosophically I take his point, but practically? I need to think about this more.
The grass library, then, can be a confronting read because it challenges us to reconsider some fundamental perspectives and assumptions. However, it is not a difficult read, because not only is it generous, but it is also peppered with engaging stories about life in the mountains and the non-human animals with whom Brooks and T. live. I recommend it.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.
The grass library
[Blackheath]: Brandl & Schlesinger
(Review copy courtesy Brandl & Schlesinger)