The Unknowable Animal

Wendell Berry’s daughter Mary once said to her father, “I hope there is an animal somewhere that nobody has ever seen.  And I hope nobody ever sees it.”  He then wrote for her this poem, “To the Unseeable Animal.”

Being, whose flesh dissolves
at our glance, knower
of the secret sums and measures,
you are always here,
dwelling in the oldest sycamores,
visiting the faithful springs
when they are dark and the foxes
have crept to their edges.
I have come upon pools
in streams, places overgrown
with the woods’ shadow,
where I knew you had rested,
watching the little fish
hang still in the flow;
as I approached they seemed
particles of your clear mind
disappearing among the rocks.
I have waked deep in the woods
in the early morning, sure
that while I slept
your gaze passed over me.
That we do not know you
is your perfection
and our hope.  The darkness
keeps us near you.

Something about the idea of an unknowable animal reminds me of  Thoreau’s “bottomless ponds.”  He said, “While men believe in the infinite, some ponds will be thought to be bottomless.”  Elsewhere he wrote, the pond “is the earth’s eye: looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”

I suppose the connection here is that the invisible animal knows “the secret sums and measures.”  Of what?  They could be of anything.  Perhaps the measure of the forest, the land, the ponds, the universe itself.  But in Thoreau’s pond we measure the depths of our own nature.  I wonder if these ideas creep us out:  that an invisible animal has gazed over us, watched us, and knows us perhaps better than we know ourselves.  Or that the earth’s eye can hold our own depths or shallows.  How deep are we?  How shallow?  The earth knows, even if we do not.

As I write this it has been only two days since the Boston Marathon bombings and the news media is speculating (as we all are) over who the bomber was.  Some terrorist experts suggest they may never discover the bomber’s identity.  Like Mary Berry’s  animal, this “being” may never be known.  And how will we live with that? Does it creep us out to think that this event will ever contain a dark mystery?  Some people will undoubtedly be outraged that they cannot get revenge.  “An eye for an eye, etc.”  Except we have been told that revenge is the old law and we have moved beyond it. For those who desire to forgive their enemies, the bomber’s identity need not be known.  We could imagine this person (age, gender, looks, motives, pains, desires, faults, neuroses) and say, “We forgive.”

Like the animal, like the pond, the Boston tragedy calls for us to look into our own nature, the human nature we share with everyone, and find what dwells there.  Revenge? Forgiveness?  Understanding? Justice? Compassion?  Cruelty?  Whether we like it or not, there is an unseeable animal and a bottomless pond in each of us.  Perhaps our task in life is to understand that mystery to the fullest extent, to find out who we are.  And if we do not—at least not enough to satisfy us—then to live with and honor that mystery.  The mysterious unknowable in us and the mysterious unknowable in others.

We are still reeling from the Newtown massacre, still wondering what was in the depths of the young man who brought death that day to so many children and adults, including himself.   We will most likely never know.  It will remain a dark mystery.

And where are those who have died?  Walt Whitman would say, “They are alive and well somewhere.”  But where?  The unknowable animal and the bottomless pond remind me of the universe.  I’m not sure what astronomers and physicists are saying these days about the size of the universe, whether it has an edge, or an end, or goes on forever. But I find it hard to imagine that it is not infinite, that it, like those who have died, goes on “alive and well somewhere.”  If it is limited and has an edge, I cannot imagine that there is not something beyond that edge.  Even if that something is nothing.  To me that great nothing would have to dwell somewhere.  Or what I might label “Somewhere” with a capital “s.”  Can you imagine nothing existing nowhere?  In my imagination this “nowhere” is dark, or else so bright that I cannot see anything (and of course there is nothing there to see).

I recently came across an e.e. cummings poem in which he wrote “nowhere” with a capital “n” and so it was “Nowhere.” For some reason I kept reading it “Now here.”  I wonder if cummings hoped that would happen.  He had a penchant for scrambling letters and words so that you stumble over new perspectives as you read.  Like you might stumble over objects in the dark.  Or find the souls of the departed “alive and well somewhere”—where you thought there was nowhere and nothing. 

So getting back to the nothingness beyond the edge of the universe, I suppose if it is not blindingly bright, it would be dark.  Wendell Berry’s animal visits the “faithful springs when they are dark.” It rests “in the woods’ shadow.”  Its “gaze passed over” him while he slept in the woods at night.  Finally he admits,“The darkness keeps us near you.”

We look into our own ponds to see what depths or shallows lurk there, what darkness.  And if we too are bottomless, we will never know the sum or measure of what we are.  We may never really know what motivates us to bring death to others or ourselves.  We may never know the sources of revenge or forgiveness.  Somehow that darkness in which we cannot see may be, as Berry might say, humanity’s perfection and our personal hope.