David Brooks, The grass library (#BookReview)

Book coverOK, 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.

David Brooks
The grass library
[Blackheath]: Brandl & Schlesinger
ISBN: 9780648202646

(Review copy courtesy Brandl & Schlesinger)

Bidda Jones and Julian Davies, Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports

Bidda Jones and Julian Davies, BacklashWhen co-author and publisher Julian Davies sent me Backlash to review, he described it as “our latest and perhaps most ambitious book so far – non-fiction”. Hmm, I thought, that’s quite something from the publisher of some very interesting and, it seems to me, ambitious books. But now, having read Backlash, I understand what he meant. For a start, Backlash comes straight from the heart of its writers, but more than this, it is ambitious in that its goals and messages reach beyond the specific issue of live exports and animal welfare, as important as those are.

It’s unlikely, if you’re Australian, that you didn’t see or hear about the 2011 Four Corners television episode on the live export of animals to Indonesia, A Bloody Business*. While the actual audience on the night was, Jones and Davies say, comparatively small, the impact – in the short-term in particular – was huge. This book tells the wider story – how the program came about and what happened afterwards. In doing so, it explores the ramifications of the trade, weighs economic expediency against ethical considerations, exposes the democratic processes by which decisions are made, and asks us to think about what it all says about us as a people. As the subtitle says, it’s about “conflict of values”. Live export might be the subject of this particular story but, for Jones and Davies, it exemplifies something bigger, something to do with the sort of society we wish to be and how we might get there. For this reason, as for any, Backlash is a valuable read.

What I didn’t know, or didn’t remember, when I started reading the book is that co-author and zoologist Bidda Jones, head of science and policy at RSPCA Australia, along with Lyn White, animal activist and now campaign director for Animals Australia, were the people who took the issue to Four Corners. It was Jones’ research and White’s video footage which convinced Four Corners to do the story. After the broadcast, politician Barnaby Joyce asked Jones and White why they hadn’t taken the story to him and his Opposition colleagues. The reason was simple, they had tried approaching politicians but had failed to garner any interest. So, to the media it was.

There is no fancy writing here. The book uses plain, direct language as befits its aims. There is little use of flashy rhetorical devices to sway opinion. The authors focus instead on fact and logic to present their case. The book is carefully structured. It starts with an introduction which sets out the book’s aims and explains that although both authors contributed to the book it has been written in Bidda’s first person voice. Chapter 2 briefly recounts their experience of watching the Four Corners program. The book then moves back in time and, over several chapters, chronicles how the program came about: the research (which included Lyn White’s filming trip to Indonesia), the lobbying, and the strategic planning. We then return, at Chapter 16, to the screening of the program and a description of its content. The rest of the book discusses the show’s aftermath. They detail the main cases for and against live export of animals, the initial widespread strong reaction which resulted in the government imposing a short-term ban on live export to Indonesia, and the backlash against this decision which resulted in live export being restored. Since then, they argue (though others argue differently), no real progress has been achieved in improving the welfare of animals. It’s a distressing and depressing story about the failure of our duty of care to animals.

The book is not, as they admit in the Introduction, “an unbiased examination of the different sides of the live export debate”, that is, they decisively argue the animal welfare case, just as Bill McKibben in Oil and honey starts from the basis that he is a climate change activist. However, they also argue that they don’t take “an inflexible ideological position”. They recognise that ours is a “pluralistic society” with many different stakeholders. I understand this to mean that they are vegetarians** who would prefer no animals be killed for food, but they recognise that there are many people who do wish to eat meat. Their position, then, is not to stop animal farming altogether, but to ensure that the welfare of the animals involved is given the priority it should in a civilised society.

Achieving better animal welfare, though, is easier said than done. In chapter after chapter, they demonstrate how “money speaks and is heard”, how bureaucratic processes are manipulated, how changes in political personnel subvert plans, how public policy is too often formed under the influence of power-plays and egos rather than logic and reason. And so, despite a huge public outcry and clear public concern, in the end economic arguments outweighed ethical considerations. The few recommendations made to improve animal welfare conditions were either watered down (such as mandatory stunning pre-slaughter made “a recommendation” not “mandatory”), were not given a proper regulatory framework, and/or got lost in the bureaucracy.

By now, you are probably wondering if the book is all about nay-saying, but it’s not. Jones and Davies propose a range of options, starting with improving the welfare of animals involved in live export. This means improving the selection of animals to be exported, improving the transport conditions under which they are exported, and then improving their treatment and slaughter at the other end. Better, though, they argue, would be to stop live export altogether and focus on the meat trade. This is what New Zealand decided to do in 2007 when it ceased live export out of concern for animal welfare and for its reputation as a country which cared about animal welfare. The problem is that ceasing live export requires longterm planning (including the rebuilding of abattoirs in northern Australia) but contemporary Australian politics is epitomised by “short-termism” underpinned by “a built-in avoidance of complex issues”. I don’t think many of us would argue with their statement that:

Altering the land management practices of pastoralists over millions of hectares requires a long-term outlook and courageous decision-making – rare qualities in today’s political climate.

And so, issues like animal welfare concerns, environmental degradation and insecure export markets are ignored in favour of short-term economic gains.

At the beginning of the book, Jones and Davies state that

a central premise of this book is that a well-governed society develops ways to reconcile economics and welfare so that both suffer as little as possible.

They stay true to this throughout demonstrating that it is possible to balance economic considerations with ethical concerns. (Just look at New Zealand for a start!) Australians, Jones and Davies believe, have shown that they (we) do not condone “entrenched cruelty” to animals, but so far people power has not won out. This story has a way to go yet …


* You can watch the program online (in Australia at least) but warning, it it VERY unpleasant viewing.
** Please see Bidda’s comment below clarifying that they are not vegetarians, as I thought I’d read.

Bidda Jones and Julian Davies
Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd Publishers, 2016
ISBN: 9780994516503

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd Publishers)

Anna Krien, Us and them: On the importance of animals (Review)

Krien Us and them

Quarterly essay cover (Courtesy: Black Inc)

I’ll admit it right up front, I am not a vegetarian or a vegan. I like to eat meat. I wear leather shoes. I like to think, though, that the source of these products has had a comfortable life and a quick, stress-free death. But I’m kidding myself, I know. And Anna Krien’s essay, Us and them, about the relationship between humans and animals, doesn’t reassure me.

In roughly 25,000 words, Krien, whose Into the woods I reviewed a couple of years ago, explores the complex relationship we humans have with our living, breathing co-inhabitants on this earth of ours. She exposes the underbelly of this relationship but resists simplistically declaiming the abuses and proclaiming that there is an easy solution. We all know there isn’t. As she says in the first section:

I’m not weighing up whether our treatment of animals is just, because it isn’t. That age-old debate is a farce – deep down we all know it.

The real question is, just how much of this injustice are we prepared to live with.

To try to answer this question she confronts the tension that exists in our relationship with “them” which is, as she puts it, the tension between seeing them as “beings” versus “objects”. She asks:

How to ensure that the butcher, the scientist, the farmer recognise that the creature in their care is a being, even as all the while they [and, I would say, by extension we] continue to use it as an object?

This is a well-structured essay. After an introductory section in which she sets the scene and poses her question, Krien explores the issues thematically, through the sorts of “encounters we have with animals”: Killing; Testing; Hunting,

These are, obviously, the encounters which are the most problematic. She spends little time on our positive and generally more mutually beneficial* encounters, such as in their roles as pets, guide dogs, and companion animals. That’s fair enough, given the serious questions she wanted to confront, but it’s a bit of a shame, nonetheless.

I like Krien’s writing. It’s well-researched, informative, and presents unpleasant facts with a light touch. She’s neither didactic nor conclusive but rather writes as one going on a journey with us. And she asks hard questions, such as these ones in the killing section:

  • Should Australia remain in the live animal trade and by so doing help other countries improve their animal welfare practices?
  • What does it say about our priorities when we have a World Society for the Protection of Animals but not one to protect women?
  • How do we explain the fact that more Australians empathised with the cows (being sent to Indonesia) than with people (such as those Indonesians for whom the cattle trade  means work and food, let alone the asylum-seekers plying the same seas as the cows)?

She explores the complexities of testing and here again disabused me of my head-in-the-sand hopes. I was surprised to read that the number of animals being used in research and teaching is increasing not decreasing. And again, the difficult questions. Is some testing acceptable, necessary even, and others not? And if so, on what basis do we decide? Why is there a disjunction between what scientists do in animal testing and believe is ethical, and what laypeople think?

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 Badge

Australian Women Writers Challenge (Design: Book'dout - Shelleyrae)

In her section on hunting, the focus is not so much on recreational hunting but on the hunting of animal pests – some native, such as dingoes, and some feral. She talks about apex predators, and the environmental impact of removing them. When the top predator goes, the ecological balance is severely disturbed. The loss of dingoes, for example, can be directly related to the extinction of small mammals. One solution to protecting farm animals that doesn’t involve killing dingoes is to use guardian animals like maremmas and alpacas. Hmm, methinks, introduced species aren’t always a good option – think camels, think cane toads – but so far so good it seems.

Late in the essay, Anna Krien writes that many scientists describe our current geological era as the Anthropocene, recognising the significant (negative) impact human activities are having on the earth. She follows this with biologist Edward O. Wilson‘s suggestion that what comes next will be “the Age of Loneliness” typified by “a planet with us and not much else”. I don’t want to think about what that would be like. There’s no easy answer to all this but, as Krien says, we must “acknowledge the questions” and continue the discussion. To do anything else is to deny that not only are animals are “important” in themselves but, to put it selfishly, they are important in multitudinous ways to us.

Anna Krien
“Us and them: On the importance of animals”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 45
Collingwood: Black Inc, March 2012
ISBN: 9781863955607

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)

* Though I’m aware I’m making a human-centric assumption here!