Reviewed by Jane Tompkins
I thought I was an animal lover until I read Linda Hogan’s The Radiant Lives of Animals. It contains poems, indigenous people’s stories, essays, and personal reminiscences centering on the author’s relationship to nature in the Colorado mountains where she lives, and to the animals that live there with her.
If I’m right, this is Hogan’s nineteenth book. She began publishing in
1978— novels, essays, poetry, and non-fiction— but her overall contribution to society goes beyond that. Besides being a writer and an animal lover, she is an activist for native peoples and for the environment, a mother and grandmother, a tribal leader, professor, wildlife rehabilitator, gardener, and friend. All of her experience is brought to bear in her writing, which is at once mystical, lyrical, and down to earth, infused with a devotion and
humility that make it feel more like an offering on the altar of creation than a commercial publication.
The present book came to me as if it had been programmed to appear at just the right moment. In my long process of coming into a deeper awareness of nature, Hogan’s account of her relationships with animals felt like the next step. She has broadened and deepened my sense of the natural world and opened my eyes to the essence of animals as they are in themselves, not as they are to me or to modern American culture.
Hers are not misty-eyed descriptions of cuddly sheep grazing in the pasture and fawns gamboling in the
meadow. Her encounters with animals arise from practical experience and/or necessity and include pain and hard work. Hogan is not on safari or taking a guided walk in the woods; in addition to being an acute observer of the creatures that live near her home, she cares for her own animals, two horses and a burro whom she rescued. She’s interested in what it feels like to heft feed sacks and rake manure, and listens intently to the sound the wind makes in tall grass while she works. At the same time, she’s responsive to
the feeling and thoughts of her equine companions, doesn’t use a bridle or her heels to guide a horse when riding, because she knows that horses are always aware of your intentions and don’t need prodding.
This is a book to be not so much read as re-read. In re-reading, its meaning and intention become clearer. The whole volume is an incantation that communicates in words, but its words are only the outward symbols the spirit uses to convey truths that exist at another level. She speaks not merely to the analytic brain but to the heart and soul. The more you read, the deeper the enchantment goes. Her purpose is to allow the reader to feel the sense of the wholeness and completeness in life that she herself has felt. To re-read the book
is to enter into an experience of healing.
Not only that. Its underlying message invites us to see how profoundly our minds have been conditioned by the traditions of Western culture— rationalism, mind-body dualism, alienation from nature—-that have kept us from developing other ways of understanding ourselves and our place in the universe. She awakens in us the ability to perceive dimensions of experience that go beyond the strictly cognitive. Among other things, she asks us to recognize that humans are not the center of the world, nor its most important inhabitants. Rather, we belong to the earth and exist on the same plane as all other living creatures, whom she calls our
brothers and sisters, neither more nor less valuable than they.
Hogan can respond to the radiance of animals because her vision of reality hasn’t blinded her to the non-material aspects of experience, and doesn’t exclude sentient and intuitive responses to the world. In an early chapter called “Re-minding,” she suggests that nothing less than a transformation of our habits of perception and evaluation is needed before we, too, can enter into the luminousness of nature and the beings that surround us, and—this is my extrapolation—before we can discover how, when, and where to remedy the
damage we’ve done to the planet.
Many distinguished writers have given the book high praise, among them Louise Erdrich, Paula Gunn Allen, Jim Harrison, Joy Harjo, Tony Hillerman, and Terry Tempest Williams, and rightly so. The book contains
much more than appears at first glance, revealing layers beneath layers of meaning and feeling as one gradually penetrates its depths. It rewards a slow and contemplative absorption. We are its beneficiaries.~