In the book of the earth it is written: nothing can die.
—Mary Oliver, “Ghosts,” New and Selected Poems, Vol.1
We often imagine human life as bounded and autonomous. We imagine ourselves encountering other animals as if we come from elsewhere–our own uniquely human source. In fact, we’ve always lived alongside other animals. We have always already been fully entangled in, and therefore, shaped by, complicated ecologies of survival and flourishing. As these relationships change or take place at a distance, connections persist in the form of traces: remainders, reminders, and after-effects of connection.
We, humans, like to think of ourselves as above the rest of terrestrial life. We focus our attention on activities—art, politics, technological advancement—that we see as distinctly human, wholly separate from nonhuman animal life. Yet, all these “human” things came about by way of our relationships with nonhumans. All our “distinctly human” accomplishments are not, in fact, the single-handed work of one species. Upon closer investigation, numerous things that we call our own are deeply dependent on other species. Every distinctly human thing has been marked by the track of otherness.
The “Beastly Traces” project follows these “tracks” to see how we are connected to one very important species, Bos taurus, the domestic cow. What we know today as the cow was once a wild animal living largely free of human influence in the forests and marshes of Africa and Eurasia. As the wild “aurochs” became the enclosed “cattle,” a massive transformation of human life also took place. The human-cattle relationship, now a global phenomenon, has had a profound influence on our life as evidenced by the traces that remain. Following examples of these traces — through sites as far removed from each other as written language, religious imagination, bio-medicine, and political spectacle — we can recognize how contact with cattle life has a shaping force on our own.
The “Beastly Traces” project, came together as a challenge to our long-held beliefs about humanness and as a record of my own journey through the archive of animal otherness. Following the hoofprints of aurochs and cattle — one, an extinct wild species, the other, a species vastly over-farmed in industrialized animal-agriculture — it is also a reckoning with death, violence, and loss. Traces of beasts will continue within our human lives whether we acknowledge them or not. This project is intended to make known a few of the figures that are hidden behind signs as ordinary as the alphabet. It is an invitation to listen to animal cries that would otherwise go unheard in the soundscape of 21st-century life. Through this work, I hope to make a persuasive case for empathy and compassion for other animals. Our connection to other species is not secondary to who we are as humans. In knowing and feeling with another animal we make a pathway to the center of our own being.
Read the full dissertation here:
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