(Note: I live in the cool highlands of Northern New South Wales, Australia, in a region that is called New England. Hence the reference, which might otherwise confuse US readers.)
It’s a crystal-clear, sharply-cold, bright blue New England winter morning, and I’m walking the 3km to the general store. All around me as I walk, the landscape reveals itself like an illuminated page in an ancient manuscript: parchment-coloured grass, subtle grey-greens and silver of trees and bushes, flashes of stained-glass colour of parrots and rosellas, smoky-blue hills in the distance. There are no cars around this morning, and nobody else around at all.
All at once, there’s a rustle in the long grass on the verges of the road, and I catch a glimpse of silver-grey coat, a twitch of secret movement. Transfixed, I stand and stare; for slowly, slowly, arising as if from a spell, there is a huge male kangaroo, stretching his body up, as if he is metamorphising, shedding one form and entering another. His bright dark eyes look straight at me. When at last he has reached his full height, he stands there for an extraordinary instant, still staring at me, and then, without hurry, turns, and hops away, clearing a fallen tree in one flying bound. I will go back home with the thrilling splendour and weird terror of that moment deep in me; and it will flow out through my fingers, onto the keyboard, on the screen, into the heart of the novel I’m writing, infusing it with a strangeness and a richness that would otherwise not have been so clear and real.
For all of us, in whatever culture we have come from, animals, who live in an eternal world of timeless tradition, are a reminder of that strange otherness, the mysterious, potent, storied yet non-rational world that lies within and beside the ordinary world of busy human activity. All over the globe, and through all times, people have known that world: a world where time passes differently, where things are not explicable in “daylight” terms, a world that has its own secret laws. Medieval people knew that world well; in medieval Wales, for instance, it was named clearly: Annwfn, the Inside Place, the In-world. Aboriginal people knew it well: it was the Dreaming, where animals and men met and morphed.
Now it’s summer. There’s a hot honeyed perfume to the air; the sky is no longer crystal-clear but big, pale, high and wild, and there’s a feeling around that makes us tread warily when we go out to the vegetable garden. Coastal people talk of shark weather; well, in the bush there’s such a thing as snakey weather, too, and you feel it in your bones, and in the prickle of your skin.
The berry fruit and the vegetables have gone crazy in the warm and wet spring weather, and the garden has an Edenic look, though the paddock just outside the garden gate is already acquiring that bleached look so characteristic of New England grassland once the spring flowers have gone. Keeping a wary eye out, I stamp along the path, for instinct tells me there’s a snake’s about …
And there it is, coiled on the warm path: a shining, drowsy length of brown and pale yellow that has created a space of silence and waiting around itself. Like that moment when I saw the kangaroo rising like a metamorphosed man from the grass, I stand, transfixed, the hair rising on the back of my neck. Slowly, the snake uncoils; fluidly as a golden stream, it slips away into the jade-green of the garden understory, and who knows where it went? We will go about carefully for a day or two, and shout at the kids to get back inside at once and put on shoes before they go outside, but we do not go hunting the snake. It has manifested itself in as mysterious and immediate a manner as a creature of destiny; it is to be respected, not trifled with, feared and often hated, but never trivialised.
The road to the shop again, spring. I’ve had a bad night, with a very vivid nightmare. In the nightmare, I am walking along a deserted road; when suddenly, I turn my head, and there is an immense mob of large-horned hairy cattle, rather like Highland cattle, bearing down silently, relentlessly on me, and I know that in seconds I’ll be engulfed …
Now, in waking life, on the deserted road, on a balmy, soft morning, I reach the top of the hill. Suddenly I hear a sound behind me. And there, there, bearing down on me, is a great mob of cattle, not hairy, not horned, it is true, for they are Herefords and Devons with placid faces and round heads, but still with that otherworldly look cattle have, that sense of having just patiently waddled in from some long-ago. There is that saying “time stood still”: and that is just what happened, to me. For an instant, I thought I was done for; but then, as I move aside, trying to be “sensible”, I see that the mob is not alone, but guided by two horsemen, who give me a languid wave as they ride past at the flank of their bovine army.
Cattle, with their languid, powerful gait, their patient endurance, their gentleness yet occasional unpredictable fury, are very much creatures of myth: Krishna’s sacred cow in India, the priceless bulls of Irish sagas, Zeus turning himself into a bull to capture Europa … Perhaps they were even responsible for the beginning of art. I remember years ago, deep in the Pyrenean caves of Niaux, seeing 15,000 year old-charcoal drawings of prehistoric bison, with huge horns, wild hairy flanks and powerful muscles: leaping out of time, bridging it completely with an exhilarating, awesome sense of aliveness and mythological power.