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Nature General

The Bedside Book of Beasts

A Wildlife Miscellany

by (author) Graeme Gibson

Doubleday Canada
Initial publish date
Oct 2009
General, Plants & Animals, Folklore & Mythology
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2009
    List Price

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This stunning companion to the internationally bestselling Bedside Book of Birds explores the relationship between predators and their prey.

The intricate, complex connection between the hunter and the hunted has defined animal life on Earth throughout time. In The Bedside Book of Beasts, Graeme Gibson gathers from all eras and cultures works of art and literature that capture the power, grace, and inventiveness of both predators and their natural prey. Here are myths, fables, poetry, generous excerpts from nature and travel writing, journals, sacred texts, and works of fiction. There are vivid descriptions of noteworthy predators — including the big cats, bears, wolves — but also the small but voracious praying mantis. Gibson also brings to life the experiences, strategies, and emotions of vulnerable prey, and paints intriguing portraits of such legendary evil beasts as the Minotaur, Grendel, and the Biblical Leviathan. All of this is enhanced by a breathtaking array of art, both traditional and contemporary, as well as scientific, religious, and mythological drawings, paintings, and woodcuts.

In The Bedside Book of Beasts Gibson evokes a profound sense of the eternal, often unsettling, connection between the human animal and the free, untamed beasts of the wilderness.

About the author

Graeme Gibson is the acclaimed author of Five Legs, Communion, Perpetual Motion, and Gentleman Death. He is a long-time cultural activist, and co-founder of the Writer's Union of Canada and the Writers' Trust. He is a past president of PEN Canada and the recipient of both the Harbourfront Festival Prize and the Toronto Arts Award, and is a Member of the Order of Canada. He lives in Toronto.

Graeme Gibson's profile page

Excerpt: The Bedside Book of Beasts: A Wildlife Miscellany (by (author) Graeme Gibson)

Echoes of a Working Eden
Language without Words
A typical four square mile patch of rainforest will contain the following species (not individuals)–1,500 flowering plants, 750 trees, 125 mammals, 400 birds, 100 reptiles, 60 amphibians, 150 butterflies and probably over 50,000 of insects.
Clive Ponting

A big cat runs down an antelope in what has become television nature-programming’s equivalent of a car chase: with atavistic emotions we watch the beast charge past apparently luckier members of the herd, who trot skittishly about until their companion is killed in a convulsion of dust. Whereupon they resume grazing. Why didn’t the cat turn on one of these others, who were closer than the victim and hadn’t yet broken into full flight? And why did the survivors seem so unconcerned?

True predators have at best an uncertain time of it. Because even top carnivores only make a kill in about one of ten attempts, they cannot afford to be injured, for a weakened hunter is at a critical disadvantage. Most predators, therefore, try to find prey that is old or young, sick or injured. In short, they look for animals that are afraid. In return, prey that is vulnerable knows it is a likely target. Understandably this makes the weakened individual more nervous than its fellows when a predator appears. Nervous behaviour identifies the suitable prey. Here I am, it says. Over here . . .
In The Hunting Animal Franklin Russell describes a cheetah’s strategy: it begins with the cat resting on a slight rise, contemplating a herd of hartebeest. She scarcely moves, except perhaps for a lazy twitching at the end of her tail. Although the hartebeest bunch together, with the large males in front, they don’t seem to pay much attention until the cat takes a loping run around the herd and returns to stare at them more intently from her vantage point. This manoeuvre unsettles some, but most continue to graze until she does it again. Perhaps, after another of these leisurely runs, there’s a stirring among the hartebeest, and one of them loses its nerve. Because it is old or young, injured or ill, it knows the cheetah’s performance has been intended to flush it out–and has succeeded.

The hard logic of such encounters emerged during what George Santayana called the long “even flow and luscious monotony of organic life.” As a result, all players in the drama know the script and their roles. It isn’t just the weakened animal or the predator
that understands; the healthy ones do as well, and rest in the faith that one of their number will offer itself as scapegoat.

The biological implication of these encounters highlights one of the key elements in animal evolution. By taking the least vital and effective individual, predators relentlessly strengthen the prey’s genetic pool. Faster, smarter prey, in their turn, cause the failure and ultimate death of weakened predators. As George Schaller says in The Marvels of Animal Behavior, “There is a continual evolutionary race between predator and prey, a race with no winner. Constant predation, weeding out the stolid and the slow, produces alert and fleet prey.”

In contrast, from the time we humans learned to kill from a distance–with relative imputiny–we have almost invariably focused on the most impressive individuals. Instead of weeding out “the stolid and slow,” we choose the healthiest animals, those with the greatest amount of fat or biggest antlers. In doing so we are routinely selecting out the most genetically valuable members of the group, thus compromising a whole population’s vitality.

Sometimes, of course, the prey fights back. There’s a remarkable video on the Internet of a buffalo herd challenging a pride of lions that has seized one of its calves in Kruger National Park. Soon after one of the lions is hurled high in the air by a big male buffalo, the others are driven off by the rest of the herd.

In an ornithological park in the Camargue in south-western France I saw a more modest but equally stirring example of group defence. A Black kite (Milvus migrans), which is a medium-sized bird of prey, drifted low over a wet sand islet where Black-winged stilts, Mediterranean gulls, Avocets and Common terns were feeding and resting. Led by the terns, and then the stilts, they rose up in an explosion of noisy avian adrenalin and collectively mobbed the intruder. Most pursuers only buzzed the retreating raptor, but some of the stilts appeared to hit its wings and back with considerable force, and they didn’t cease in their pestering until the kite had been driven off.

Despite Social Darwinist assumptions about “survival of the fittest” and “nature red in tooth and claw,” it seems clear that evolution is not driven by competition; nor are wild animals intentionally cruel. Instead, as John A. Livingston–along with a good many others–insists, the factor (in nature) “that appears to . . . be more important than any other is compliance. I can very comfortably interpret ecologic interdependence as co-operation.”

For most social animals the “will to comply” stabilizes a group and prevents its internal disintegration. An excellent and well-studied example can be found amongst wolves. If a young wolf precipitously challenges the alpha male and discovers he isn’t up to the challenge, that he’s going to lose, he ritually capitulates by offering the most vulnerable part of his throat–or else sprawls on his back like a puppy. And that’s an end to it. Obviously compliance must go both ways: the young pretender abjectly submits, and the alpha wolf must spare him.

Had the will to comply not governed this exchange, one or both of the pack’s strongest males would have been seriously injured and the group’s authority deeply compromised.

Compliance also seems to inform relations between species. Working among the people of the Kalahari in the 1950s, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas discovered that an ancient truce existed between lions and the Bushmen; each basically left the other alone. After some puzzlement, she arrived at the following explanation:

. . . the people, who were not combative with each other, were also not combative with animals. People hunted, of course, but hunting isn’t a form of combat–or at least it wasn’t to the hunter-gatherers. Hunting was merely a method of obtaining food and clothing. Most animals, as a rule, avoid conflict when they can because conflicts cause injuries, and injuries impair survival. For most of our time on earth, our kind, too, had to abide by the practical considerations that govern other animals. And the Bushmen in the 1950s lived in the old way, by the old rules.

In their Spirit of the Wild Dog, Lesley J. Rogers and Gisela Kaplan describe a startling partnership that involves coyotes and badgers hunting co-operatively. The coyote’s acute sense of smell detects a rabbit, and the badger digs with its formidable claws into the unfortunate creature’s burrow: when the panicked rodent finally emerges, it is killed by the waiting coyote, whereupon the two hunters share the meal.

In common with all living things, we humans emerged within the leisurely passage of evolutionary time. But then bipedalism freed our hands, and our opposable thumbs encouraged sophisticated tool-making. This, coupled with the remarkable complexity of our growing language skills, led to the development of our remarkable brains, which–unfortunately, given the reality of our animal origins–live inside us like alien beings. Astonishingly, it has almost persuaded us that we have no debt to nature, that we owe it neither allegiance nor respect, let alone reverence.

The artificiality of our civilization is causing great damage not only to the earth, but to us as well. As George Grant says in Technology and Empire, “When one contemplates the conquest of nature by technology one must remember that that conquest had to include our own bodies. Calvinism provided the determined and organized men and women who could rule the mastered world. The punishment they inflicted on nonhuman nature they had first inflicted on themselves.”

Thomas Mann’s protagonist in Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, believes that “He who really loves the world shapes himself to please it . . .” Although the operative word here is love, the key principle of adaptation is also present. Living forms that have survived and prospered have done so because they adapted; in other words, they shaped themselves to nature–and in doing so perhaps even pleased it.

However, in The Failure of Technology–which he wrote during Hitler’s rise to power–Friedrich Georg Jünger warns that our “intellect is a tool for the exploitation of nature.” If so, if our vaunted reason is one of our technologies, then it will surely undermine any attempt to “please nature.”

The resultant conflict between Krull’s love and Jünger’s intellect–or heart and brain–explains why virtually all nature-based religions–Shinto, for example–tend to avoid dogma, and have various emotional and/or spiritual strategies for subduing the intellect.

“The heart has its reasons,” wrote Pascal, “that reason cannot know.” While Reason may help us develop strategies for mending the earth and ourselves, it will not open us to the process and possibilities that will help us reconnect with the animal inside us, which is to say with our biological reality. Until we do that, the mind will continue to spin its wheels.


Editorial Reviews

Praise for The Bedside Book of Birds:

“The most spectacular bird book of the year…. Astoundingly beautiful…featur[ing] some of the most sublime writings to be found on the subject…. The beauty of the writing and the illustrations contained in The Bedside Book of Birds is matched by the beauty of the physical book itself.”
The Globe and Mail

“A gorgeous, illustrated collection of bird sightings in literature…. The Bedside Book of Birds is a superb gift, a compulsive must-have, for the bird-lover, the storyteller, and the anthropologist in the family.”
Calgary Herald

Other titles by Graeme Gibson