Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Walk in the Animal Kingdom by Jerry Dennis

It took me over two weeks to read Jerry Dennis’s A Walk in the Animal Kingdom: Essays on Animals Wild and Tame. That may not seem long to most readers, but I read very quickly and I usually devour books in gulps.  A Walk in the Animal Kingdom, however, made me slow down. It made me stop to look out the window, to put on boots and head into the woods, and to recall moments with beloved pets and curious children.

When I read a book, I stick small Post-It flags on pages that I love or want to remember. I can almost determine my joy in a book by the number of flags within it. When I finished Animal Kingdom there were almost as many flags as there were chapters. Flags marked passages like “Noticing our own and other people’s responses to nature is paramount because part of our work is to cultivate a state of sustained wonder as we seek clues to why we’re on this fecund planet and how we should conduct ourselves during our stay. If some of the clues come from the behavior of ants in a colony or trout in a creek, so be it. Our job is to seek knowledge wherever we can.” In a nutshell, A Walk in the Animal Kingdom is a book that will help you cultivate that state of sustained wonder as you observe
and live on this remarkable planet.

Books I love usually take me places I’ve been and help me recall people I cherish. Animal Kingdom continually placed me in the kitchen of the house where I lived when my children were younger and there was always a dog underfoot and critters to watch in the woods beyond our backyard. I heard my son’s voice and saw him cradling this yet unwritten book as he’d interrupt me to ask if I knew that humans have “binocular vision” so we can focus on distant objects because we’re predators. “Ma,” he’d say, “did you know that humans are predators?” He’d then tell me about prey animals with their eyes set back on their skulls allowing them 360-degree vision. Just as I was chopping onions for dinner, he’d return to ask if I knew that migrating birds follow north-south roads because they’re convenient and that pheasants and other gallinaceous (he’d stop to ask how to pronounce that term) birds go to roads and their shoulders to seek gravel, which their gizzards require to aid digestion. He’d tell me that songbirds take dust baths in the sand and drink from puddles in gravel roads. He’d then glance outside and ask if he should refill our birdbath.

Jerry Dennis makes facts sing. Most of us know of the collective nouns designating groups of animals like a “gaggle” of geese and we’ve seen and enjoyed listings of them. In Animal Kingdom, we learn that “these words go back centuries to a time when the aristocratic classes of Europe cultivated mannerisms and ways of speaking that could separate them from the common herd.” He tells us that “rattling off those terms was a fashionable mark of erudition.” He even shares some humorous ones I’d never heard like an “impertinence” of peddlers and a “melody” of harpists. Sharing these facts show his feeling that “our lives are made of moments that cluster together, like flocks. If we step back far enough we can sometimes see a pattern, and sometimes it’s beautiful.”

This book is eminently accessible because Dennis uses self-deprecating humor to depict his own foibles as he enlightens us to their counterparts in the wilder animal world. As he copes with growing older, he shares his wisdom, “I keep finding strange hairs sprouting from my ears. Like everyone, I try to find comfort where I can. It helps to cultivate a cheerful attitude, to spend a lot of time outdoors, to hang out with young humans and old dogs. Old dogs are especially therapeutic. I love their serene disregard of all things temporary and frivolous, the way their loyalties grow solid and rich and unconventional, the way they can doze for hours in the sun, their legs kicking as if dreaming of puppyhood and rabbit chases. Wake an old dog gently, lure him with a hand tapped invitingly on your knee, and he pries himself up, groaning and stiff. He always comes to you, tail wagging, ready for one more game.”

A Walk in the Animal Kingdom is graced by the exquisitely intricate drawings of acclaimed artist Glenn Wolff who has illustrated over thirty books and hundreds of articles in publications including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. These drawings embed the wonder of the natural world into the reader in a visceral manner that allows the book to bypass the intellect and enter the soul.

Summing it Up: A Walk in the Animal Kingdom is a book you savor. You keep it on your coffee table and read a chapter at a time. If you’ve wondered why we both adore animals (our pets) and fear them (snakes) this book will answer your questions and renew your childhood curiosity, Both the perfect gift for the inquisitive kid and the learned adult, Dennis’s book packed with keen observations and magical, eloquent words that are complemented by Wolff’s intricate drawings form a package you’ll continually unwrap with delight. Buy this book for every animal lover you know.

Rating:  5 stars  
Category: Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Nonfiction, Super Nutrition

Publication date: July 1, 2015

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