Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: October

Kerri ní Dochartaigh | 3rd October 2020

In October Book of the Month Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman, Rebecca Tamás explores where the human and nonhuman meet, and why this delicate connection just might be the most important relationship of our times. Kerri ní Dochartaigh reviews.

Around a week after I’d finished my first version of this review, on the eve of the Autumn Equinox, my Macbook crashed during an update, wiping everything I’d written for over a year (and naturally – being me – had not backed up anywhere.) And so I began again, on a very old, chronically slow laptop – glad that I’d at least started to make headway once more, and planned to save the thousand words I’d cobbled together again onto a pen, which I’d then transfer onto the new laptop I was awaiting. That backup laptop, for the first time in its long-drawn history, decided of its own accord to stop switching on, and the second review was lost to the world outwith our everyday imaginings, too. The opening of both versions had honed in on the importance of the number seven, in the world we view as other than our everyday…I feel, perhaps, like Strangers, in its own dazzling, ethereal way, was making me go deeper still – deeper yet – that wee bit further: Welcome, it tells me: You are HERE. Now, you have come close enough…

So, as for the bits about the number seven…cycles & oceans, continents & bones, waves & rainbows, hills & planets, wonders & heavens, steps & notes, ages & cows, halls & flames, wives & bridges, ashes & hairs: it comes as no shock to me that Tamás’s affecting, essential new book consists of seven essays. If you are someone that takes offence in the discussion of what one might call the ‘sacred’ – all that is full of mystery & the glistening unknown of existence – the taking of the road most foggy, most hidden, most thin; this may be the part you choose to exit the room. For this is a review of a sacred, otherworldly text, and believe me – there are countless droves of us that are, as the saying goes: Oh, so here for it

This time is a call to action, and this text is an echoing, unstoppable bell. 

In The White Review 24, Tamás wrote of language as holding the power to create – to literally carve into being – real and impactful change. She interwove her own exquisite writings on witches with examinations of other writers that take the world and make it new; make it reveal itself as the magical place it really is. The extract that had the most impact on me was when she took apart a delicate, almost ghostly line from Louis MacNeice’s poem ‘Snow’ about the gap between the known and the unknown in our everyday world: 

I don’t know what happens in, between and around the glinting membrane of the world, the spaces of snow, of glass, of roses, but my body and my mind tell me that there are inhuman voices, light leaking through in shards. 

This collection gives voice to those inhuman voices; lets the light leak through in shards. The number three, (as in: attempts to write this review) translates perfectly when trying to sum up the content of these wondrous essays. These are works on a trinity of things: the human, the non-human, and that fragile dance between both; on this beautiful, burning, aching planet.  We are given, quite simply, a vast sweep of the entire spectrum of being a human living on Earth. From the Diggers to Zen Buddhism, Solstice Swims to friendship, fear & ache to art & cows, the Greenman to Gods, the circus to cockroaches, glaciers to films, from depression to feminism; Ecological Grief to Climate Despair (and the necessary distinctions to be drawn between the two): this is a book on being. 

What does it mean to share a planet with other beings, in this moment of such devastating turmoil? How do we move on from this paralyzing position of presumed helplessness? How to turn anger, fear and loss into their more useful stablemates of action, hope and change? Tamás never once shies away from the critical act of unearthing; of revealing our human nature – the things we both do and refuse to – which have led us as a race to this exact point. History, Ecology, Sociology, Psychology, Biology, Geography and more besides: we are given, in a humble, open manner, the story of our race. Suffering that has gone on for far too long, by people treated as less than human, under the excuse of external factors such as skin colour, place of birth, money, the workings of their body, their sex: there is no beating about any bush here – a mirror is being held up, and we are being forced (so softly) to look deep; very deep down indeed. We are much more alike than we might choose to admit, and this reality ripples outwards – towards every rock and ridge, every tree and sea, every cell inside every single being on this planet. In moving towards an outlook that equates the human with the human, despite supposed differences, we move closer to an outlook that allows the other than human to take its rightful place by our side:

Equality means the same opportunities of life and liberty for people of every race, nationality, sexuality, gender, physicality, age and place. It might also come to mean, a radical equality that includes the nonhuman.

This is a relatively short book, but my oh my does it pack a punch. The essays vary in length but are tied together in their form; all are ‘On’ something in particular (fruit, emotions, the wild unknown of existence to list but a few) – but reach out from their centre to the greater world outside, referencing artists, writers, classical figures and more. This may be written by one inspiring writer but there are multiple voices in resounding chorus here, much like the work of Sinéad Gleeson, Zadie Smith, Durga Chew-Bose and others that have come before. Tamás’s voice is entirely her own however, and although the writing here is so different from the poetry we found in her last book, Witch, I feel traces of each book can be found underneath the surface of the other; a stylistic palimpsest. In the poem ‘Witch Wood’, for example, 

the witch thinks about what it would be like to / fuck woods and not the government…xylem and blood vessel outreach tell mehow it is when there’s a storm / not that different because we all shake but some don’t / have a shelter, 

and I think immediately of the essay in ‘Strangers’ entitled ‘On Pain’ – an exploration of the poetry collection The Cow by Ariana Reines – which deals with themes such as bodies, blood, pain, disease, abuse and more; particularly because of the crossover Tamás draws attention to between what is demanded of women (silence, complicity etc) and what is imposed on cows and witches, historically (to accept their enforced othering, the violent rage of men etc). Women, trees, witches, cows etc, etc, etc: at what point will we allow every being their own right to simply be?

Understandably, for a book about the places wherein the human and nonhuman meet, we encounter a wide variety of creatures throughout. Polar bears surrounded by melting ice, dwindling swallows, an almost folkloric skylark, Mediterranean butterflies, a yellow-eyed fox on a drunken, ‘bad-tempered’ night, an Indian elephant in Budapest; this book is a finely wrought love letter to the kingdom of the non-human animals, amongst other things. The creature that settled in the deepest beneath my skin, though was an insect I was certainly not expecting to feel such inexplicable attraction to. In the essay ‘On Hospitality’, we witness the main character of Clarice Lispector’s ‘The Passion According to G.H’ in a moving, life-altering encounter with a cockroach. I refuse to spoil the joy of reading this take on such a surreal encounter by revealing any details whatsoever, rather I shall simply say that I spent many a happy hour, for quite some time afterwards, googling image after image of cockroaches; gazing upon their forms in a way I never had before, as something ‘viscerally and urgently alive in a space of constant becoming.’  

This book is seeped in the deep, communal ache of the moment we are living through on this planet and maps the journey – over wide sweeps of time and place – that we have gone on to arrive here. For ‘our current crisis is not new, never could be new.’  There is pain here, so much of it, and so much loss – but these are given to us as necessary (perhaps even hope-filled) conditions of being alive in this world so full of decay; so full of the unstoppable cycle of birth & death, birth & death and so on.  All that happens in every wee nook and cranny affects us; is us. The depression of the author’s youth, experiences of overwhelming personal despair, and more – all are shared with us from the inner parts of her being – but we know that she is, as we are, woven into the tapestry of that external world: ‘when the outside is terribly damaged, the inside will be also’. I want to share so many more lines but I want you to read them in context more. Lines like the following need read by every single one of us, perhaps daily: ‘The outside world…is not a painted backdrop to our lives…but makes them, is part of them.’

Or how about this one: ‘the nonhuman will not ‘go away’, because it exists in our very own guts’…I am reminded of an invigorating piece along the same lines by Kathleen Jamie, on how the wild is not just some pristine, emptied landscape – entered into by privileged white males but is in our very make up, in our illnesses and our joy, in that indescribably thin place from which we are hauled – out of our original safe vessel – into the world outside; blue & screaming, newly formed & beautifully fragile. 

On the changes that we might make, the steps we could take to create a fairer, safer world she writes: ‘Such a radically different world may not be as comfortable as what we, in the West, currently experience. It might, however, be a world with many more forms…of joy, of freedom, of pleasure, of community, of self-worth, and of love.’  

What. A. Thought.

On the need to get, quite literally: out of bed, to open our eyes and ears and hearts, to drag ourselves away from despair towards a place where we may actually be able to act, we are told, simply – ‘climate depression is profoundly unlikely to lead to any action which might avert the very worst of ecological collapse.’ 

Yes, yes, yes. 

The essay on grief first broke, and then remade me. These words, specifically, will linger with me long: ‘grief is the price of love…To grieve for the ecosystems, beings and people destroyed by climate change, is to give them the dignity, respect and love which they deserve. It is right that extinctions are met with mourning, that space is made in our emotions for the enormity of the loss.’ 

Oh my. 

‘I won’t say we should find ‘hope’, Tamás tells us, ‘because that is a complicated thing when reasons for hope seem so few’ but, she reminds us, just ‘because something is not likely, that doesn’t render it impossible, or foolish.’

Over lockdown, I spoke with the artist Katie Holten, and was particularly moved by this question she asked me: ‘Do you see any hope in how our story could unfold? I know hope is a difficult word, maybe what we need is courage.’

What do words like ‘hope’ and ‘courage’ mean in these oddly boned, darkening days?

So many of us seem to have read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer over these last months, a gorgeous, wise book which also speaks to the reciprocal nature of existence, how we are all tied to one another with invisible, ancient thread – and of our responsibility towards the earth:

To love a place is not enough.’, Kimmerer tells us. We must go one (many?) steps further: ‘We must find ways to heal it.’ I think of one of the most poignant lines in Strangers – perhaps, in fact, one of the most poignant lines I have ever read: ‘In grief we feel the true pain depth of the wound, but still have room to try and heal it, if we can’and I come away from this book, far from choked with despair, far from drowning in crow-black helplessness – I come away from this book full of a kind of hope I no longer thought could still live in my inner landscape. A kind of hope that gave me the courage to message the author to share that each time I write about her book, I am joined in my home by winged creatures. A kind of hope that, when she responds with the question: ‘What are they trying to tell us?’, I know – to the very core of me, in a way that I had not known before this book – that we are not alone, she and I, in replying: ‘We are listening.’


Stangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman is published next week by Makina Books. Order your copy here (£12.99).