David Brooks, The Grass Library. Blackheath, NSW: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2019. ISBN: 9780648202646
The Grass Library traces the author’s tree-change, from inner-Sydney Professor of Australian Literature to his current existence in the upper Blue Mountains: born-again vegan; carer of rescue animals. Paralleling this geographical transition is an ideological one: an attempt to untether himself from conventional ways of thinking about and relating to non-human animals.
As a reader, I come to The Grass Library so habituated to seeing animals in literature as something more than animals — as standing in for something human — that at first I assume when Brooks refers to a sheep, he’s not actually talking about a sheep. (I recall my sister reading Animal Farm at age seven, how at the time we found it cute, that she thought the characters were literal animals; how she cried when Boxer got taken away to the knacker’s). But then, if I am to ascribe metaphor or attach some deeper meaning to the sheep, isn’t that problematic in its own way? Isn’t it bad, to anthropomorphise?
Turns out I don’t need to abandon either way of reading: the animals here are animals full stop and they are revealing of something about us humans. Brooks centres his animal companions, observing them ‘doing things the books say they cannot do’ (52), but simultaneously he does not quash our impulse to anthropomorphise. In fact he considers this impulse central to empathy: thinking ourselves ‘so different from the creatures we live amongst that we cannot know or even hazard how they feel’ is a barbarity; a lie’ (25). In short, Brooks allows physical observed reality and the imaginative/symbolic to co-exist. A cicada carapace clinging to wood, for instance prompts him to draw a series of possible metaphors ‘in that mysterious way the natural world and the human mind sometimes communicate, as if the one has informed the other’ (117). In another section, he meditates on the ‘fences’ we erect in our minds and in language, but then gently coaxes the narrative back to his physical surrounds: ‘meanwhile there were real fences to attend to, and the matter of grass’ (59).
This summer, images circulate of koalas drinking from plastic water bottles; of ringtail possums curled up in firefighters’ helmets, and so Brooks’ preoccupations feel weirdly prescient. My favourite media story is of wombats shepherding other animals into their fireproof burrows. It transpires, though, that the story is inaccurate: the wombats are not actively herding anyone (though their burrows can provide refuge for wildlife during fires). Brooks considers the possibility of animals experiencing grief, love, sacrifice, tragedy, trauma; he describes a ‘refugee’ duck family having ’strayed into a pool of great sadness’ (130). It’s easy to mock the viral wombat story as mere whimsy, but buoyed by Brooks’ words, I wonder whether it might also be seen as an attempt to bring animals’ feelings into alignment with our own; a recognition that consciousness is not the exclusive domain of us humans.
Brooks doesn’t only ascribe the human to the animal world, but vice versa. Part of his intention in writing this book is to redress the strange absence of animals in Australian Literature. Most overtly, this is achieved through the book’s inclusion of portrait photographs of the animals in his care, their solemn eyes gazing out to meet the reader’s. Brooks also acknowledges the animal in us: ‘Humans are language creatures, but we are also creatures, before and under language’ (131). At one point, he has a dream about snakes, and this foreshadows an actual snake appearing on his property ‘in a way I’d once have thought strange but have become so used to that it now seems more like the sporadic operation of a sense we don’t know we have’ (156).
The Grass Library eschews the kind of polemic that can characterise discussions of veganism, stating that ‘this book isn’t about veganism, or guilt … it’s about discovery and wonder’ (10). Such a stance is enacted by the book’s tone, which is contemplative, inquisitive and often lyrical. Brooks is ever-ready to admit the gaps in his knowledge; the spaces of not-knowing. In one moving scene where his partner T rises in the night to bottle-feed a young lamb, he writes: ‘what each felt about the other was a deep thing, almost impossible to fathom’ (148). Mystery permeates. He wonders about Charlie’s (the dog’s) trembling; is it a kind of ‘dusk anxiety’? (19) Henry and Jonathan (the sheep) seem drawn to visit his writing space when he plays music, and he wonders whether it’s a substitute for the ‘music of the herd’ (86). He tries but fails to understand the thought processes and apparent messages of the rats who ultimately outsmart him.
Brooks’ pervasive sense of wonder is important in that it honours animals’ other-ness. He never loses sight of the fact that animals have ‘minds of their own’ (151). At heart, The Grass Library is a story about a man allowing himself to be guided. By animals, certainly, but also by writing. ‘It’s interesting how writing can lead you’ he says at one point ‘… when I sat down today I hadn’t thought of saying any of this’ (177). Writing, for Brooks, is not something that can happen from within an ivory tower: it ‘must work its way through the demands of everyday necessity’ (say, fixing a chicken coop) … ‘writing is already going on in and through such things; they are already a form of writing’ (160). Typically, writing (intellectual, cultured) might be seen as the inverse of anything ‘animal’, but perhaps the act of writing relies on our conscious censoring self getting out of the way, making space for that which we have been conditioned to repress. Novelist Sara Stridsberg describes literature as the only place where people can’t be ‘tamed’; literary language for her is ‘strange, evanescent, perverse, wild, unruly … only there do I feel the pulse of life’.[i] This vision is embodied in Brooks’ writing, which captures the deft meanderings, sideways movements and unexpected leaps of his mind.
A paradox underpins The Grass Library. Brooks has made a home in the world of books; language is his bread and butter. And yet threaded through this memoir is his acknowledgement of language’s limits; how it can box in and taint our thinking. He believes language is ‘stacked against’ animals, ‘conditioning us to keep up the cruelty’ (17), for instance through the hierarchies and binaries (e.g. wild/tame) that privilege human value. Further, he says language divorces us from ‘being as it happens’ (179); words act as ‘substitutes for things themselves in their intensity’ (179). He encourages us to be wary of using thought alone when it comes to animals; the ‘opening to animals is heart-driven and place-driven’ (213). Sigrid Nunez in The Friend (a celebration of human-canine devotion), writes: ‘When people are very young they see animals as equals, even as kin. That humans are different, unique and superior to all other species — this they have to be taught’.[ii] In a way I think Brooks’ mission is to undo this ‘teaching’; to recover the sense of kinship with other species that perhaps all of us once possessed.
[ii] Sigrid Nunez, The Friend, Prentice Hall Press, 2019.
Adele Dumont is the author of No Man is an Island. Her writing has appeared in Griffith Review, The Lifted Brow, and Southerly and she is currently at work on her second memoir.