Animal City: lessons from the animal kingdom, deep in the heart of a metropolis

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Two or three weeks ago, I went to the London Review Bookshop to see the Devon-based poet Alice Oswald. She was in conversation with Bernard Schwartz who produces 92Y’s Reading Series as Director of its Unterberg Poetry Center: “For nearly 80 years, New York’s 92nd Street Y has been a home to the voices of literature, hosting in its famed Reading Series the greatest literary artists of the 20th century and recording for posterity their appearances as part of its vast audio archive” (LRB events).

The great literary artist who was being discussed that night was Ted Hughes. I had noticed the event and booked the tickets but I hadn’t fully registered we would be listening to long audio clips of Hughes himself. As well as the gift of hearing his rich, lyrical voice and his reading of his own poems, we were treated to the introductions he gave them at the time.


The first recording we heard that evening is the one that has haunted my thinking and my senses since. In describing how his seminal poem, The Thought Fox, came into being, Hughes told the New York audience of a few decades ago how he had conflated three fox experiences from his own life. One of these had come to him as a dream when he was at university as an undergraduate. At the time, Hughes was meant to be writing an essay on Dr Johnson but the night before it was due he was still unable to put pen to paper so had given up and gone to bed. A fox on its hind legs, the size of a man, appeared to Hughes in his sleep. The fox laid one of its paws – in the shape of a charred human hand – on Hughes’s blank essay paper and pronounced, ‘You have to stop this’.

The next day, Hughes made the decision to leave the university; the essay on Johnson remained unwritten. Soon, Hughes’s poems were gaining more and more attention and his first collection was published in 1957. The prize-winning The Hawk in the Rain included The Thought Fox, just one of several other poems in the book that imagined the real and symbolic lives of animals.


The other day I was walking in Nunhead Cemetery. I was talking with someone who had been describing his dilemma of wanting to express himself in his truest, deepest sense as an artist while worrying about whether his work would be taken seriously.  At that moment we heard a woodpecker. We paused and looked up in to the tall trees, trying to spot the bird busy pecking.

My companion hadn’t heard a woodpecker before. I was struck by how utterly right everything felt in that moment: the conversation, perfectly punctuated by the beauty of the sound, and new to the person I was with. I thought of the integrity of the bird above us, intent on its work, regardless of us human walkers below.


Just then, an image popped into my head, a picture of a rhinoceros. Amidst my happy surprise at its shape appearing in my mind at that moment, I wondered at its wonderful, comical appearance which seemed fitting, somehow. I voiced to my companion the unexpected yet delightful picture and described what I understood of its appearance there and then in an English cemetery in early spring. Given the unique physical form of the rhinoceros, it seemed a message of reinforcement of how extraordinary each and every one of us is. To me it served as a timely reminder that the only true thing we can do is follow our hearts in our own way, however that may be interpreted by others.

A few days later I was listening to a talk by meditation teacher Jack Kornfield called, The Joy of Virtue. To support his point about the central importance of virtue, Kornfield related some words ascribed to the Buddha, ‘Be like the lion, not frightened by noise; be like the wind, not caught in the web; be like the lotus, not stained by mud; find your own way like the rhinoceros, you will know which way to go’. Kornfield went on to say, “The rhino is this great creature…but also it doesn’t follow the crowd, it follows what it knows more deeply inside…And so you begin to listen…to embody and nourish the things you care about”.

The rhino reference jumped out at me. I don’t think of them very often. For a small moment while listening to the audio talk, I marvelled at the timing of the image that had come in to my mind, apparently from nowhere, on the recent walk. I marvelled at the many ways animals teach us how to be.

Sheep Pig Goat

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Last week I went to an event in Peckham, a neighbourhood in South East London which has recently come top of a poll of the best places to live in the city. This isn’t why I went. A friend had told me about a free event, one of several that was being held there, called Sheep Pig Goat, commissioned as part of ‘Making Nature’ at the Wellcome Collection. The particular event I went to involved sheep and goats but not pigs who were having a rest day. All the animals were being supported and monitored by their owners, the whole animal and human gang down from an organic farm in Wales.

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Part of the event involved us watching four goats going about their business in a large pen. Their business included licking a wooden chair, testing with their mouths the handles on two doors that led to their main accommodation, and nibbling the clothes of a woman who was part of the creative research studio when they were joined by her in the enclosure. For two out of the four goats, their business also involved repeatedly jumping up, arching their backs and then locking horns playfully, a beautiful hircine choreography.

We had been instructed to sit still and make as little noise as possible. We weren’t spectators at a circus, or visiting a zoo, and I felt reassured by the presence of the farmers, but I nonetheless still felt some edge of discomfort about the set up. At the same time, though, I had a sense of privilege and experienced real joy at being giving the opportunity to sit and watch these quirky creatures so closely. I revelled in their sense of curiosity and playfulness. They were mesmerising to look at: pretty, fun, utterly engaging.

Benefits of browsing

Later I talked with Alan McElligott, a Senior Lecturer in Animal Behaviour. He explained that goats are browsers whereas sheep are grazers. The latter tend to keep their heads down, stick together and keep munching; browsers forage, explore and are happy to wander a little away from the herd in their bid to see what might be on offer around the next corner, over by the tree, down by the stream.

To me, this information explained much about the goats’ character which seemed so open and inquisitive in comparison to the sheep, who we watched afterwards, and therefore more communicative and responsive. And I could identify with their continual search for the best possible titbit, their constant endeavour to see what the next discovery would turn up, their easy willingness to saunter away from the crowd.


These days I often find myself thinking about whether I’m doing enough: how I can make a difference; what I can do; how I can make a meaningful contribution. There’s a lot to be done. It can feel overwhelming. In another of Kornfield’s talks, entitled The Generous Heart, he mentions an Oscar-nominated short documentary called 4.1 Miles. The film follows a Greek captain and his crew as they save refugees off the island of Lesbos who have travelled the 4.1 miles from Turkey in packed boats, often forced to set sail regardless of bad weather.

The situation has changed somewhat since the film was made, due to Balkan border closures and the controversial EU-Turkey deal, but in 2015 – 2016, 600,000 refugees crossed from Turkey to Lesbos. The director of the film, Daphne Matziaraki, noted at the time of filming:

“There were just four Greek coastguard boats, with four-five crew on them, and one helicopter from the European border patrol – and that was it…The scale of the emergency was so big that I would expect tonnes of helicopters and ambulances and big boats rescuing these people”.

Kornfield went on to draw this illustration in his talk:

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito”.

Geese, a lizard and a 14-legged arthropod

Yesterday a friend wrote me an email from the foothills of the Himalayas, describing the formation of geese that had flown by earlier: “a long V of geese flying high above us this morning as they prepare for their long-push high-altitude crossing of the Himalayas”.

Later I went to a yoga class where we mimicked the movement lizards and centipedes make. It was harder than it might sound and a valuable yogic experience. For the centipede we worked together, crouching down and holding the ankles of the person in front. It required communication, effort and co-ordination to make it work. For a short while, we became Team Centipede as we traversed the studio floor together.

Animal focus

Communication, effort and co-ordination. Curiosity and integrity. These, it seems to me, form a strong base to work from in fathoming out how to make a difference, and in staying focussed, inspired and hopeful for the long haul.

I’m very happy as I go about my business in the city – and elsewhere – for images of foxes, goats and rhinos, geese, woodpeckers and centipedes to populate my mind, fill my senses, inhabit my dreams. And I don’t even mind hearing the occasional buzz of a nocturnal mosquito for the reminder it will now bring – just as long as it doesn’t get too close.

One thought on “Animal City: lessons from the animal kingdom, deep in the heart of a metropolis

  1. Your articles just keep getting better and better in terms of their depth and breadth of content. I really like the choice of images too, particularly the first one. That exhibition about animals is still on at the Wellcome Building.

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