Micah the Border Collie
Crayola colouring pencil on white A4 paper; artist: Hannah, subject; Micah the Border Collie. I’ve never met the real Micah, and I doubt I ever will, but yesterday I took his penciled image to fairly nondescript building in Trafford Park, Manchester, handed it over to a woman in scrubs, while, above our heads, a CCTV camera politely reminded me that I was being recorded.
Its impossible not to feel illicit and slightly dodgy when doing anything in Trafford Park, which was once Europe’s biggest industrial estate. It's a place where human beings seem to have been entrapped by buildings, where you can’t help but think of nefarious facilities where dubious folk conduct various strange experiments. In truth, its just offices, warehouses, and factories, but there’s an odd edge of deadness and decay to the place; lots of rust, lots of rubble, lots of faded signs.
Trafford Park was once, apparently, visited by Yuri Gagarin, because one of the facilities here made an essential part of his spaceship. That little nugget of celeb history is entirely in keeping with the vibe of the place, with its occasional hints of Soviet-style Utopian propaganda, like the iron ‘Trafford Park’ sign where a cut-out British Isles is pinned in place by radiating lines shooting out of Manchester, boldly proclaiming that this, right here, is the centre of the whole damn world. Behind that sign are stacks and stacks of shipping containers holding hell-knows-what, and at night I'm sometimes kept awake by the groaning and bleeping vehicles that drop them, lift them, and carry them away. In fact, I can hear those vehicles right now, at 9:30am on the morning of the 2nd October 2020, as I commence this month-long blog. I think of it as the constant noise of the world turning. Sometimes it stops.
Back to Micah. Why am I interested in this dog? I’m starting a new thing, this blog, which will run for one month only with daily posts, mostly as an exercise in writing discipline and to give myself a constant to focus on in what will otherwise be quite a hazy, unfocused period. My intention is to document daily encounters with animals and let those faunal meetings spin me off into various thoughts (and new words, it seems. Faunal is not a word. It should be). I’m always writing about animals - most of my published fiction concerns an animal in some shape or form - because I find them endlessly fascinating subjects. Like the noise of Trafford Park, they are a constant; indeed, they are overwhelmingly present. Here in my study, without turning my head too much, I can see: three guinea pigs, a wolf, a gorilla, a lemur, a flamingo, two different rabbits, two frogs, a cat, a giraffe, two different dogs, two elephants, a badger, and an osprey. Aside from the guinea pigs, these others are images of animals, not the animals themselves (imagine the mess, the noise, the smell, the fights, the glory), but for the purposes of this blog, I’m counting them.
I have this small concern that we never quite think about animals properly. A slightly deeper concern suggests we don’t truly know how to think about animals properly. Below that, another voice says: well that’s the magical, beautiful majesty of animals; we can never, ever know them properly, just like we can never know ourselves properly, now have you met Wittgenstein’s lion? But what surface-level me means is that we flood ourselves with the imagery of animals, gleefully and with great abandon creating all manner of symbols of animals, thereby obscuring and painting over the real essence of them. But that’s only because we absolutely and utterly have to do it, otherwise we confront what I believe is our age-old struggle: that we are animals, and always will be. Such a thought is at the base of all our terrors, but also what makes us wonderful.
We especially do all this with our own pets: we give them human names, we teach them human habits, we assign them human-dictated spaces in our human lives and expect them to mostly adhere to these boundaries. But on the flip of that, we also expect them to defy those boundaries, just a little bit, just as much as can be tolerated and turned into ‘character’. We anthropomorphize, constantly, but we also cartoonify because we think of animals, to a certain extent, as our living and breathing entertainments, here to amuse, delight and fulfill us. This last word, of course, is the most literal, and mostly includes those ones we eat. But I’ll save all that vegan stuff for later in the month.
Most nature writing positions the animals of the out-there wilds as symbols of some wistful lost innocence of humans, like they’re some spiritual brethren who are just waiting for us homo sapiens to give up this madcap quest for apotheosis and re-join them in purity. This blog, I think, will be less interested in the distant creatures of the twilight realm known only to the hardiest or wiliest chroniclers of nature, and will be more concerned with day-to-day happenings of the animals we have right here, right now, in our lives. Given the ongoing virus situation, a lot of these encounters will generate out of my own home and locale, but might well include animals seen in various media, or on the fronts of posters and greetings cards, or, indeed, whatever real things I might encounter in the streets of Stretford, or the fields, hills, and meadows of wherever I manage to go out rambling.
I’ve chosen Micah to start with because he touches on some of the things I’m most concerned with: an animal who is there but also not-there, who is known but also not-known, who encapsulates something of the essence of our relationship with animals more broadly. We adore them. We enshrine them. But who are they?
I don’t, of course, mean to cast aspersions on Micah, his owners, or, indeed, the person who has crafted his image in coloured pencils. They’re all, I’m perfectly sure, absolutely wonderful creatures. The latter - the artist - I know first hand how wonderful she is, because she’s Hannah, my wife. She’s drawn Micah as part of an RSPCA fundraising scheme called ‘Badly Drawn Pets’ where people pay £10 to have their beloved critter drawn by a staff member or volunteer of the Manchester branch. As you can see, Hannah has entirely failed in the ‘badly’ part of her task as this is an absolutely brilliant picture, showing off her hidden talents as an artist with an exceptionally keen eye (which she doesn’t explore enough, as far as I’m concerned).
Hannah has been instrumental in my developing philosophy around animals (and, of course, instrumental in all other aspects of my adult life). Ever since getting our first pet together - our house rabbit Delphi (RIP) - we’ve spent a lot of time, money and energy into confronting how we feel and think about animals across the board. Step-by-step we shifted our eating habits, our buying habits, and our thinking habits, and the process is still ongoing. This daily one-month blog will, I hope, reveal something of that process, be it through rambling passages like this one, or through little tidbits of fiction or, animal-gods forbid, poetry? I say that now, but poetry is highly unlikely. No, there won’t be a single line of poetry.
Well, let’s see. Let Micah be our spirit guide at the start of a wayward quest towards… whatever this will end up being. Animals don’t speak to us, because such a thing is not possible. But we wrap them up in tendrils of communication hoping dearly that they have something important to say. So, I’m going to try and listen.