Michelle Kuen Suet Fung
In Cantonese, the number nine (九) connotes both permanence (久) and dog (狗), the former auspicious and the latter insulting and derogatory. This double play on the number echoes the duality that goes through my mind when I ponder human–animal relationships. Except for a small niche of vegetarians and animal rights activists, most humans have no problem marveling at the wonders of a dolphin’s graceful dive at the aquarium, then heading to a steak house.
In this mixed-media drawing, I depict the eye sockets of nine animal groups that the World Wildlife Fund categorizes as critically endangered: rhino (Diceros bicornis, Rhinoceros sondaicus, and Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus), leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis), vaquita (Phocoena sinus), saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli, Gorilla beringei graueri, Gorilla beringei beringei, and Gorilla gorilla gorilla), orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus, Pongo abelii, Pongo pygmaeus, and Pongo abelii), tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni, Panthera tigris amoyensis, and Panthera tigris sumatrae), and hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). Instead of being a spectator or consumer of these animals, the reader is compelled to confront them eye to eye—an equal and often unsettling exchange.
In April 2016, I was part of a collaborative residency that toured nine communities in Southeast Alaska to investigate climate change in the area while fostering dialogue and exchange within the communities we visited. The experience shattered my egocentric view of a harmonious relationship with nature. While the developed world revolves around human greed and tries to make green improvements to our problematic industrialized world, indigenous philosophies require little modification. Humbled and awed, I learned about the delicate and exemplary way that these indigenous people weave themselves into the web of nature. Here the golden rules that operate within industrialized worlds are awkward, out of place. For instance, in Alaska a bowl of salad can contribute more to global warming than red meat, after taking into account the fossil fuels used for transportation. This same feeling of displacement crept up as I read Carolyn Fornoff’s powerful essay.
Most humans alive today are distant from nonhuman animals, except for domesticated pets and dead flesh packaged as calories. Nahual offers an alternative way to think of our relationship with animals, one that is less arrogant, less certain, and more humble.