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Colophon: Where Do Fanatics Come From?

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

_D3_7358Despite being a part of the generation that in World War II defeated fascism, Eric Hoffer was never a member of U.S. armed forces. Rejected as an enlistee when he was 40, the Bronx-born, working-class Hoffer turned to laboring as a longshoreman along the docks of San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Always considering himself more a reader than a writer, Hoffer nevertheless distinguished himself with his first book, garnering acclaim with the 1951 publication of what scholars and laymen alike continue to regard as a classic.

In The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Hoffer focused on explicating the collective psychologies underpinning Nazism and Stalinism, the two dictatorial movements that had risen to prominence, and very nearly to world domination, during the prime of his life. Others, of course, had wrestled with how nearly half of humanity could ever have been led down totalitarianism’s senselessly destructive path. However, no one had yet explored the issue with the incisiveness, lucidity, and wit that Hoffer’s prose offered. Hoffer had an abiding respect for the common people and yet discovered that they continued to allow themselves, with alarming predictability, to be blindly misled.

While generally in favor of religion, Hoffer nonetheless professed lifelong atheism. He was wary of the descent into fanaticism that, now, has become a hallmark of extremist sectarian and terrorist movements. Fanaticism facilitates abandoning one’s fundamental humanity or, as Hoffer wrote: “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”

Wild Moose Chase

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In search of Vermont’s most mysterious creature

I tumbled headlong down the hillside once, twice, three times before landing in a heap of snow beside Ky Koitzsch, a wildlife biologist from in Waitsfield, Vermont and also my guide as we trekked along a remote ridgeline in the Green Mountains, east of Granville, Vermont, in search of moose.

“The avalanche method,” I explained, as I struggled to extract my splayed cross-country skis from nearly three feet of powder. “It works almost as well as skiing when the hill is this steep.”

After untangling my limbs, I reattached my skis. Ky waited all of five seconds before setting out again along the moose tracks, not noticing the difficulty with which I was clambering after him. He had eyes only for the hoof prints that curved out before us, disappearing into a dense thicket of decapitated firs.

“Tracks!” called Ky from twenty yards ahead. “Here are our first moose tracks.” He pointed into the snow with his pole. “They’re not fresh—probably two days old or so, judging by the amount of snow that’s blown into them.” The tracks were widely spaced and diagonally staggered.

He then skied a few yards and, leaning over, put his head a few inches from an indentation in the snow.

“Here’s a good one!” He drew me to his side with an animated hand gesture. “You see how this side is deeper?” He didn’t give me a chance to respond. “You can tell the direction the moose is traveling based on the uneven depth of the print. When the moose walks, it puts most of its weight on the front of its hoof, just like we do. So the deeper side of the print with point in the direction the animal is moving.”

He rolled his balled fist through the snow, mimicking the movement of a moose on the hoof. “We’ll follow these for now. They should lead us to some fresher tracks.”

Our trek took us still higher into the Green Mountains and further from the national park access road that had deposited us into these snowy woods. Ky was confident that we’d find fresher tracks before the day was out—if not an actual moose.

“Come look at this, Conor,” Ky said without looking up from the trunk he was scrutinizing. “This is a great example of bark stripping. You can see marks from the moose’s teeth. Moose only have bottom incisors, so the scraping will always be angled upwards.”

I ran my hand along the grooved surface, thankful for the momentary respite from our energetic jaunt.

Other than tracks, trees display the most prominent signs of moose. During the winter months, moose in the Vermont woods rely on woody twigs for food, and evidence of moose munching on trees could be seen almost everywhere Ky and I turned. The tree Ky pointed to was a striped maple, one of the many varieties that moose will eat during the winter.

“The food moose eat in the summer is buried now,” Ky said. “Now, instead of greens like leaves and aquatic vegetation, the moose will browse on mostly woody twigs and bark. Around here, I find that during the winter, they eat mostly striped maple, balsam fir, hobblebush, and occasionally cherry and birch.”

Moose derives from the Algonquin word “moz”—meaning “twig eater.” And moose certainly live up to their name. The animals consume staggering amounts of vegetation. A typical moose will eat sixty pounds of vegetation in a day. All of which is digested in a moose’s massive, four-chambered stomach.

We stopped in a meadow about thirty yards away from a striped maple tree that a hungry moose had stripped of its bark.

“These,” he said, gesturing to the meadow of firs surrounding us, “have been chowed! Notice that none of these firs are more than five feet tall—moose stunt their growth by coming back and eating here for multiple years.”

“Do you think they’re fresh?” I asked.

He ripped a branch off the closest fir tree. “Look at this,” he said, handing me the branch.

I glanced at it, then back at him. I could tell the end had been chewed off, but didn’t know what else I was looking for.

“Notice the color of the bark,” he told me. “You can tell from the brown color of the inner wood that this moose passed through at least two days ago. If this bite had been taken any more recently, the inner wood would still be yellow or even green.”

We moved through several meadows that had been trampled by browsing moose. Ky followed one pair of tracks for a little bit before picking up a new one—and then a newer one.

“Ah, here we go. Check this out. You can tell this is a moose rub based on the height.”

I studied the patch of trunk he was discussing. Starting at about three feet off the ground (and then spanning another four or so feet) the tree’s bark had been rubbed away, leaving stringy bits of wood hanging at the top and bottom edges.

“This bark wasn’t eaten, it was rubbed off by the moose’s antlers. You could tell that the bark on that striped maple we saw before had been eaten because of the incisor grooves and the clean edges,” Ky said. “But you can tell this fir was rubbed because there are no incisor grooves.”

He removed a glove, running his bare hand along the trunk. “See?” he said. “Totally smooth. Also, the edges of the bark are stringy and frayed when antlers rub them.”

“Keep your eye out,” he said.

As fast as we were moving, Ky reminded me that we couldn’t hope to match the speed of a moose travelling through the woods. I found it hard to imagine animals as large as moose moving swiftly through the labyrinth of brambles and fallen trees that were clawing us from all angles.

“Look at this!” Ky said, “This is great! A fresh moose bed—it can’t be much more than a few hours old!”

We stood before a rounded depression in the snow—a bowl a moose’s body had created. At its center was a heap of what looked like tiny chocolate eggs. A few inches beyond, it appeared someone had spilled a dozen highlighter markers. I couldn’t take my eyes off the fluorescent urine and the pile of droppings.

“Pick one up,” Ky said. “We’ll see how long ago the moose was here.”

I picked up a small piece of scat. It was an egg-shaped pellet, not much bigger than a marble.

“Is it warm?”

“No,” I said, squeezing the pellet. “It’s not frozen though.”

Ky picked up another pellet from the heap, rolling it between his fingers. It broke open like an Easter egg.

“Sawdust.” Ky showed me the digested bits of wood. “That’s really all it is. Now if we were looking at coyote scat—or any other carnivore, for that matter—it might have been uglier. This is basically just cellulose.”

We started following these new tracks, which Ky estimated were made about an hour earlier.

“I’ll bet she heard us,” he whispered. “We can’t be far behind her now. As we ski, try to be as quiet as you can.”

We spent ten minutes in vigorous pursuit. The tracks reached an open meadow and pivoted sharply, turning uphill. Then they turned back downhill. Or were they a different set of tracks? I slowed down, unsure.

“It looks like she went higher up into the mountains,” Ky said, pausing. “I’m thinking we should probably head back. We’ve had this cow moving pretty fast for awhile now, and she’ll already be pretty warm in weather like this. We really ought to let her be. She’s probably struggling as it is.”

“Of course,” I said, trying not to sound disappointed.

 This essay is an abridged version of a longer story and video produced for the winter term course Writing the Adventure.

Old Chapel: Arts Scene

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Middlebury dance finalThe arts have a rich history at Middlebury, playing a fundamental role in the life and culture of the College. We talked to President Liebowitz about the importance of the arts, its evolution inside and outside the curriculum, and its future in higher education.

Let’s start broadly: What is the role of the arts in a liberal arts education?
It’s an integral part of a liberal arts education. To be liberally educated you have to have an understanding, an appreciation, and a critique, in some way, of the arts. The arts are an embodiment of the human endeavor, a product of creativity, and an expression of one’s relationship to oneself, to other people, and to the environment. The arts are central to our educational mission.

Students come to a liberal arts college like Middlebury for both the breadth and the depth of what we offer. If you’re a chemistry major or a political science major, you’ll take 18 to 20 courses outside your chosen field of study. You’ll be exposed to various ways of thinking, creating, and appreciating. This broad education includes the arts.

The College recently received a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation to support a multiyear project to bring emerging artists in dance to collaborate with Middlebury faculty and students in other disciplines. This seems to be a groundbreaking effort.
I’m very excited about this. “Movement Matters” will address the question of how human bodies can shape—both literally and metaphorically—our political and physical worlds. Christal Brown, an assistant professor and chair of the dance program, will direct the project, and she’s done an amazing job. She’s an incredible ambassador and spokesperson for the performing arts becoming more central in the lives of our students, faculty, and staff.

To be honest, I think students are already there. With this project, I think faculty and staff will be the ones being pushed to think beyond the traditional boundaries of a liberal arts education. As faculty advisers, we always encourage students to broaden their experiences by taking courses outside their areas of endeavor. But this project goes further. It will compel faculty to think about how art meshes with their disciplinary teaching.  It’s a wonderful reinforcement of the liberal arts ideal.

During your time at Middlebury, have you seen an increase in student interest in the arts?
I believe there’s greater student demand to engage in artistic endeavors. There’s always been great interest in the arts curriculum here, and this student body has consistently been a bit more arts oriented than other student bodies I’ve encountered in the academy.

I’m seeing an expansion of interest outside the curriculum. We have amazingly creative students working on, say, playwriting in the Old Stone Mill or pottery on Adirondack View. Both spaces fall under the auspices of PCI, our Programs on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts, and they’re serving as creative laboratories for students who want to experiment outside the classroom.

Now, there’s healthy debate among some faculty as to whether we should be facilitating this experimentation outside of the curriculum. Some arts faculty feel students should understand the fundamentals of what they’re doing, rather than just attempting it. I understand their thinking, but another perspective is unquestionably compelling. Peter Hamlin, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Music, says that among his composition students, those who have composed music experimentally in the Old Stone Mill have arrived in his class having already learned, to an appreciable, if not complete, extent what works and what doesn’t work, and he senses a constructive confidence as they discuss their creative endeavors.

Like in other disciplines, in the arts, there’s theory and there’s practice. How valuable are the opportunities students have to engage in these “real world” programs like the Potomac Theatre Project in New York or the Town Hall Theater in town?
Extremely valuable. Let’s look at the Potomac Theatre Project (PTP). Since Cheryl Faraone and Richard Romagnoli founded PTP (with Jim Petosa) in the mid 1980s, scores of Middlebury students have been involved with this professional acting company, working alongside equity actors, learning the art of acting as well as set and costume design, in ways really hard to replicate in the traditional classroom or theater program. And since PTP moved to New York and off-Broadway seven years ago, the experience has gotten that much richer. Our undergraduate theatre program already is amazing; access to PTP makes it, in my view, remarkable.

As well, our partnership with the Town Hall Theatre not only supports a local cultural institution but also expands our students’ opportunities. (For more on this partnership, see p. 32) During the school year, students act, co-direct, and stage productions in collaboration with community actors and performers. Each January, THT also houses our winter-term musical, which typically plays to full houses every night. And in the summer, our Language Schools students perform in the space, as the arts constitute an important part of the learning process and Language School mission. We have flexibility in our accessible venues, and we also place unique artistic offerings right in town.

There are two other programs emblematic of both the thirst for, and success of, the arts for our students. During fall break, senior majors in architecture studies will visit cities—recent locations have been Montreal and Boston—where they will view and study important architectural works. They’ll meet with the architects of those projects, when possible, and also visit architectural firms, both large and small, to see first-hand what it means to work in this field; this kind of exposure to the profession is difficult to obtain in the Champlain Valley.

Another extraordinary opportunity is the Museum Assistance Program (MAP). Students learn how to be docents of a collection—they learn how to show, talk about, and teach art. But they are also learning to speak intelligently to audiences and to carry themselves in professional ways. They’re acquiring interpersonal and intellectual skills that will help them in any profession.

There’s also a fund that allows winter term students to…
They purchase art for the museum! Yes, that’s another wonderful opportunity. Through the generous gift of an alumna, the students research art, they learn about art acquisition, and they learn about the marketplace. It’s an incredible experience, and they get to work alongside the donor to the fund, an art gallery owner, who comes to campus and provides advice and expertise. Another fund, given by parents of a recent graduate, provides residences for visiting musicians. When these professional musicians come to campus, they spend a little time on campus and work with students, giving the students a feel for performing or composing at a professional level. These experiences are invaluable.

The College recently received a generous gift of a Steinway concert grand piano, and part of the donor agreement was that this piano be made available to the entire community.
It’s a beautiful gift to the College, and this aspect of the gift especially so. We have far more musical talent than what we regularly hear about. When the piano arrived, this became abundantly clear. You wrote about it in the magazine—we had sign-up opportunities for people to come into the concert hall and play. The list filled up immediately. And interest has continued, as it has with people getting to play other pianos. If anything, we’re many pianos short in terms of demand on campus!  A gift of 10, 20, and maybe 30 pianos for practice and leisurely playing would probably still not meet our campus demand; one can hope!

Middlebury has celebrated music for a long time. We have a concert series in its 95th year, and recently I looked at the entire lineup of performers who have come to campus during this period. Both the evolution and the continuity in this music series is remarkable. Middlebury cares about music, and this Steinway is symbolic of that commitment to the art form.  It has all the more meaning by coming to us as a gift from parents whose son excelled here in music and the performing arts.

There are well-documented economic pressures on higher education. Where do the arts fall in these discussions of cost and relevance?
It’s a real question, specifically one of cost.  To circle back to the beginning of our conversation: the arts are essential to a liberal arts education. Appreciating the arts doesn’t end when one graduates. Rather, if we are successful in educating our students in the liberal arts tradition, that appreciation becomes a lifelong endeavor.  Learning about artistic forms allows one to appreciate life. We’d be delinquent if we didn’t recognize the arts’ place in our students’ educations.

Does this mean always having the most expensive things? No. It means always making artistic endeavors a part of students’ educational experiences. Students must be exposed to, and inspired by, the arts—by what they see and hear and learn. Middlebury has long been committed to this philosophy, and I believe we’ll not only retain this commitment but strengthen it in the years ahead.

Pursuits: On the Road

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

PursuitsWebPhysician Bob Friedman ’68 was visiting a large house on Cape Cod, checking in on a wealthy patient who had high blood pressure. “Are you exercising regularly?” he asked. Of course, the patient said—even though laundry festooned the treadmill in his living room. “What about salt? Are you careful with that?” Dr. Friedman continued. Yes, the patient replied; just then, his wife threw open a cabinet to reveal three big bags of potato chips.

“Here he told me he was careful with salt, and he’s got all these potato chips in there,” Friedman laughs. As a Medicare evaluator, Friedman goes house to house visiting patients, just like an old-fashioned doctor making house calls. In an age where managed care and computerized medicine are wresting control from doctors and shortening appointment times, Friedman has the luxury of seeing people in their homes—and making critical recommendations about their health.

“If doctors meet patients at home, they have the chance to see lots of things they’d never see at the office,” says Friedman. “I sit down with them for an hour and by the time we’re done, they’re showing me pictures of their family.”

Friedman ran a small practice for 34 years in Middleboro, Massachusetts, before joining a large group health plan last year. “It was not a good fit for me,” says Friedman, who found himself increasingly frustrated navigating new systems, which were inhibiting his ability to communicate well with his patients. “Using the computer system was like texting while doctoring,” he says.

“The daily frustration became so overwhelming that after three months I left.” He spent the next three months volunteering for a local hospice and putting in many hours on his bike. Then a corporate recruiter called, asking if he’d be interested in a job at CenseoHealth. The Texas-based company works with Medicare and supplemental private insurance companies to monitor elderly patients and provide preventative care that could avoid costly procedures later.

Now each morning he packs a lunch, shoulders his black leather doctor’s bag, and dons the white doctor’s coat he bought on Amazon.com. Then he’s off, seeing up to five patients a day—anywhere from Cape Cod to Central Massachusetts. He checks their height, weight, and blood pressure, goes over their medications, examines their homes for falling risks, and makes sure they’re up to date on mammograms and flu shots, all the while setting them at ease with his steady patter.

“I have a whole repertoire of jokes,” Friedman says, estimating that he’s made 500 house calls since September 2013. Growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts, he was used to seeing his father’s patients at the medical practice his father ran  in their home. Now Friedman has developed his own bedside manner, talking quickly and peppering his conversation with anecdotes. There was the time he had to walk through Beacon Hill in 90-degree heat, dragging his scale; the man he met in a trailer park who ended up being an accomplished poet; the person on Cape Cod who filled his house with plane and ship models, including a huge replica of the Titanic.

Friedman says that while many of his house calls are routine, more than once they’ve been life saving. On one visit, for instance, he met a 97-year-old woman who played Beethoven on the piano for him. She then mentioned she was waking every morning at 3:00 with night sweats. Friedman discovered that her primary care physician had wrongly prescribed her diabetes medicine. “She
could’ve gone into a diabetic coma.”

If Friedman is successful, it’s because he gets to treat his patients as whole people rather than as collections of symptoms. “I never had an hour to spend with patients,” he says. “Now I feel like I get to know them really well.”

The Foreign Student

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A journalist embarks on a voyage into the unknown.

I started studying French two years ago. I was 36, and it had dawned on me that there was something embarrassing about the fact that I was monolingual. Perhaps this was about class, as I had gone from my working-class Baltimore roots to the literary world of New York. Perhaps it was about New York itself, where in a 30-minute subway ride you can easily hear five different people speaking five different languages. Perhaps it was my wife, who’d fallen in love with Paris and demanded that I visit, sure that I would fall in love, too. Or perhaps it was just me, feeling a little too settled and looking for something radical to shake up the routine. I had no idea how radical the experience would actually be.

The thing about studying a foreign language is that it really is a foreign language, which is to say that it’s a dizzying array of words to be memorized, rules for how those words should be assembled, and customs for when those assembled words should be deployed. And those customs sometimes bend back on themselves—the polite form of a personal pronoun can be both self-deprecating and threatening. You have to recognize the context. This is the reason why I speak of the process of “studying” French and not the impossibility of “learning” it. I am a native English speaker and a writer. A large part of the joy of my vocation comes from understanding that it’s impossible to “learn” the English language, if only because the language refuses to sit still. I acknowledge that the French tend to be more conservative in this regard, but the point still stands due to the sheer size of the language.

What I quickly learned was that saying I am going to “study” French was like saying I am going to sail to China. The language is so vast that one can, all at once, feel both great progress being made and a great distance still to go. Sailing from California to Hawaii is far and difficult to achieve; getting to China is farther—and harder—still.

I faced this dynamic several times this summer while studying French at Middlebury. The College’s 11 Language Schools are the gold standard for those seeking to go beyond their mother tongues.
Middlebury insists that you not speak your native language for the entirety of your stay, communicating solely in the language that you are studying. For me this meant seven weeks of all French; no English.

The effect of this was to turn every single encounter, large or small, into a mental Pilates class. This is true, not simply because of the difficulty of the language, but because of what that difficulty does to the ego. The kind of students attracted to the language tended to be people who were educated and smart. And yet to learn French, most of us were reduced to the mental equivalent of three-year-olds. The result was a constant mental exercise, not simply in recalling the language, but embracing the fact that whatever we might say would almost certainly be wrong. The onslaught was forceful and unremitting—the most basic requests became an exercise in one’s capacity to endure humiliation.

And I think this was Middlebury’s greatest reward, and also the greatest reward in studying another language. Many of us were from worlds where we were constantly complimented on our intelligence. But acquiring a foreign language—at least as an adult—requires you to part with all of those compliments and the assumptions you make about yourself. That is the place where true learning can occur, in that uncomfortable spot where your “smartness” cannot save you. I came to Middlebury to continue to study French. But what quickly became clear was that I was, in fact, studying how to study.

A Planet Without Apes

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Peter Walsh ’82 believes that wild gorillas and chimpanzees face ecological extinction unless we radically rethink conventional conservation strategies.

A deadly virus sweeps uncontrolled across Africa, leaving thousands dead. The scenario is now bleakly familiar, but this particular Ebola outbreak—in 2006—wasn’t nightly on our television screens, nor did it galvanize the international community. Why?  Because its victims weren’t humans, but gorillas.

The virus didn’t quite wipe out the western gorilla populations found in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and both the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. But diseases and poaching have left these animals in catastrophic decline, and the World Wildlife Fund has classed them as “critically endangered.”  The question becomes: how to save them?  Perhaps, says one expert, vaccinations are the answer.

The opinion isn’t popular, since conservationists have traditionally favored a more hands-off approach. However, Peter Walsh, lecturer in primate quantitative ecology at the University of Cambridge, is challenging the orthodoxy. “Some people in the primatology community hate me,” he says. “My criticisms are fairly blunt. But being popular is not my objective in life.”

Walsh knows about unconventionality. After graduating from Middlebury with a BA in history in 1982, he spent several years “bumming around.”  He drifted to California, cutting lawns and working as a busboy and in a shoe store. He took community college classes in basic math and science and realized his aptitude in these disciplines. And after seeing a job posting for a field assistant on a project studying prairie dogs in South Dakota, he applied, got the job, and was hooked. Now he advocates using rigorous scientific reasoning to gain insights into animal populations.

His work has led him to some of the world’s most distinguished universities—he received his PhD at Yale, was a group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, and currently lectures at Cambridge—and to the depths of the African jungle.

Today, Walsh is sitting in his Cambridge office, readying himself for his next trip to the Republic of Congo. “Ten hours in a 4×4 just to get to the site,” he says. Huge photographs of gorillas decorate his walls. On his office bookcase, he has a pygmy crossbow, complete with a quiver of black-tipped arrows.

Walsh was among the first to identify the threat Ebola poses to the gorilla population (and, by extension, the threat it poses to the humans who live near the animals and hunt them for meat).
Nature published his groundbreaking study, in which he identified Ebola as killing 5,000 gorillas. Now, eight years later, a new epidemic is causing havoc across West Africa.

At the time of this writing, the virus has killed 3,800 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria—with another 8,000 confirmed or highly likely cases. Walsh believes we need bold thinking to save both humans and gorillas. It’s time, he says, to concentrate on what’s effective right here, right now.

He says the hands-off, “Garden of Eden”-style approach to saving gorillas hasn’t worked. “They are in precipitous decline. But primatologists say we can’t disrupt the balance of nature, that vaccines are the agents of the devil. That the gorillas would be so stressed out by the process of daring that their immune systems would be suppressed, or they’d freak out and kill people.

“Well, I can tell you one result of our captive gorilla study: they did not freak out. To get that study off the ground, I wrote to hundreds of people explaining that vaccination was not dangerous. I had to make rigorous scientific arguments to counter irrational, hysterical, emotional ones.”

This first-ever trial of a measles vaccine in habituated gorillas took Walsh years to set up. Funded by Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft, the study is being prepared for publication.

He also recently coauthored a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that examines the first Ebola vaccine trial on captive chimpanzees held at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana. The study found the vaccine safe. But the National Institutes of Health, which runs the primate center, has decided to shut the center down, saying that chimpanzee research is now “largely unnecessary.”

Walsh, though, remains undaunted. He’s now looking to the private sector, which shares his willingness to take risks. Currently, he’s working with German philanthropist Sabine Plattner and prominent conservationist Magdalena Bermejo on a new project that uses telemetry to track western gorilla populations, which move far more quickly and further than their mountain gorilla cousins.

Now it takes up to five years to find a group of lowland gorillas and acclimate them to tolerating visitors. But if these populations, situated in the Republic of Congo, can be efficiently tracked and vaccinated against communicable human diseases, they can be habituated to tourists much more rapidly. Responsible tourism—run by businesses but advised by conservationists—will help locals find live gorillas more valuable than dead ones. And it’s this kind of project, Walsh says, that will save these animals.

But he believes the conservation establishment needs to wake up if gorillas are to survive beyond the 21st century. “Conservation has this learned-helplessness thing,” he says. “This is the way it’s always been. You’re not going to be able to change things. You can’t do that. I understand Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs now—and their thinking that if you want to do something, you should just go ahead and do it, shut your ears, and be willing to fail. Eventually, you’ll succeed.”

Animal Tales

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Here are a few things to know about Antonia Losano and her relationship with animals. She loves dogs, cats, and otters. She’s terrified of horses and mice. She thinks bats are creepy. She says that the fox couple that lives near her house are adorable, but admits to mixed feelings when one morning she saw the two trotting through her yard with a freshly killed rabbit dangling from one of the fox’s jaws. ¶ And she loves to tell you that animals are “everywhere, not just outside.” They are a part of our language (“he’s a fox,” “what a cute chick”); they’re part of our social identity (the geopolitical “Russian Bear”); and above all they are a part of our literature. Losano, an associate professor of English and American literatures, teaches a course called Animals in Literature, and here she offers a few of her favorite animal literary references. (With an assist from her husband, Dan Brayton, also an associate professor of English and American literatures, who gives us his take on the Whale in Moby-Dick.)

rabbit1The white rabbit from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass
“ ‘Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting!’ ”
He’s so very un-rabbit like. We think of rabbits as fuzzy and cozy and cuddly, and he’s absolutely not. The White Rabbit signals to us that not all is normal in Alice’s brain.

Mr. and Mrs. Mallard the ducks from Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings
“When they reached the pond and swam across to the little island, there was Mr. Mallard waiting for them, just as he had promised.”
I study romance and courtship plots, and I’m continually struck by how often literature, especially children’s literature, relies on birds—ducks, turtledoves—to serve as stand-ins for monogamous love. There seems to be a desperate desire to say: “Look at those ducks, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, raising their children. Aren’t they an iconic heterosexual couple, married with children, devoted to each other and family?” It’s as if we need these examples—pictures of marital bliss—to say “it’s normal to mate for life.”

Mr. Fox, the fox from Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox
“ ‘I therefore invite you all,’ Mr. Fox went on, ‘to stay here with me for ever.’ ”
Traditionally, we think of foxes as sly and clever, a depiction that dates back to the Middle Ages with the fable Chanticleer and the Fox. (Chaucer memorably captured this same tale in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.  Barbara Cooney has also used it in her 20th-century children’s book, Chanticleer and the Fox.) But Dahl’s fox is a bit different. Dahl managed to preserve all of the fox’s slyness while also making him lovable. Dahl’s fox, at his core, is a patriarch who cares for his family and friends; his slyness is in service to the greater good.

Napoleon the pig from George Orwell’s Animal Farm
“ ‘Four legs good, two legs better! All Animals Are Equal. But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.’ ”
The word “pig” has undeniably negative connotations, and Napoleon is a particularly piggish, a pig. Yet he is a pig who, by the novel’s end, is indistinguishable from humans. For a while, you can fool yourself that he’s just a pig, but the moral of Orwell’s allegory is that there’s something inherently destructive in the human search for power. We may be tempted to say that power is “dehumanizing,” but Orwell suggests otherwise.

bearThe bear from William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale
“Exit, pursued by a bear.”
What’s great is that the bear is famous for not really being there. It’s fleeting. present just in this one moment, this one stage direction. Scholars have argued over whether a real bear performed the role, as there were performing bears during this time, or whether a man in a bear costume played it. Bears have an iconic status as an animal that could surprise you in the woods—they’re large, they can be frightening—so to be pursued by a bear would be a classic nightmare. Yet Shakespeare turns the nightmare into something almost comic.

The wolf from Angela Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves.”
“The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing.”
Wolves are a fantasy of the familiar made strange; they’re like dogs, but they’re not dogs. Perhaps this is why they make such good heroes in supernatural romance fiction; part of our erotic makeup desires something as familiar as a domestic pet, but wild like a wolf. Angela Carter retells the “Little Red Riding Hood” fairy tale, but here Red, isn’t frightened by the wolf with his big eyes and his big teeth. Instead of running away, she throws off her clothes and begins to undress him.

The cockroach from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis
“He was a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone.”
Part of what Kafka is saying is in our present corporate culture we’re all bugs anyway. Gregor is a company man, a traveling salesman, who is a slave to routine, rising at the same time every day, catching the same train, following the same patterns. When he wakes up as a cockroach, he doesn’t particularly notice. He’s concerned that he can’t get out of bed, but the fact that he’s s a bug is less important than the fact that he’ll miss his train to work.

MOBY1The whale from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick
So utterly lost was Flask [the third mate of the Pequod] to all sense of reverence for the many marvels of their majestic bulk and mystic ways; and so dead to anything like an apprehension of any possible danger from encountering them; that in his poor opinion, the wondrous whale was but a species of magnified mouse, or at least water-rat, requiring only a little circumvention and some small application of time and trouble in order to kill and boil.”
The White Whale in Moby-Dick symbolizes our desperate quest to conquer what we don’t know; in the course of the novel it also comes to symbolize how little we do know—about whales, the ocean, the biophysical environment, and ourselves. Melville was a profoundly liberal thinker (small “l”) whose narrative of a lost-soul mariner (Ishmael), a monomaniacal whaling captain (Ahab), and a noble savage harpooneer (Queequeg) is in fact a relentlessly critical scrutiny of the limitations of our systems of knowledge. In the story, whales begin as fearsome beasts and evolve into emblems of what we don’t know about ourselves—they become us, our humanity.

Buck the dog from Jack London’s The Call of the Wild
“And each time the joyful bark that trembled in Buck’s throat was twisted into a savage growl.”
In the first part of the novel, Buck is a complacent domestic tyrant. He’s king of the castle, but has done nothing to earn that position. When he’s stolen and shipped off to the Yukon and forced to become part of a sled pack team, Buck must do something that domestic dogs don’t typically have to do—test his mettle in the “real world.” First he has to fight for survival in the harsh winter; then he has to fight to become alpha male in the pack. It’s a brutal and violent stage of his life (and of the book). Then he meets Thornton, a man who can inspire loyalty, and the tale becomes a human/animal love story. Yet when Thornton dies, Buck reverts to the wild, literally running with the wolves. In this one character, we see all the possible options that a dog can be.

The geese from the Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese.”
“Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air / are heading home again.”
Oliver offers us an exquisite image of wildness, mystery, and the inevitable cycles of life. Geese are harbingers of spring and fall. Here in Middlebury, it’s a part of our annual ritual. The geese have left; snow is coming. For Oliver, geese mean that and much more: they are “harsh and exciting—/over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

Black Beauty the horse from Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty
“Why don’t they cut their own children’s ears into points to make them look sharp?”
When Sewell wrote Black Beauty, people had radically different relationships to horses than they do today. In 19th-century London, horses were more populous than people. Horses were work animals, They were the primary method of transportation. Everyone was intimately acquainted with horses then, and this book captures those lives. Today, horses are very expensive pets.

Aesop’s Fables
I can’t pick just one to illustrate the significance of these fables—it’s the very collection that’s so revealing. Why do we have these moral fables, really the first children’s tales that teach us how to be good—and almost all the characters are all animals? Why can’t we teach our children how to behave by telling stories about humans? I think it’s because we need the animals to provide distance from ourselves. And it works. Psychologists have conducted research that shows children do learn morals from
animal stories. From animal tales.