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Interview with Ms Sharon Kirsch, regarding her book, What Species of Creatures: Animal Relations From the New World.

Sharon KirschWhat Species of Creatures cover

Interviewer: Cathy S. Mosley


Question 1: What sparked the idea for "What Species of Creatures?"

Like many of your readers, I imagine, I'm distressed by the plight of animals today--in particular, their struggle for integrity when even the so-called wild lands aren't free of human influence. So although the book spans the seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries, the impetus was the here and now. I began to wonder, Did the first Europeans to explore and populate North America react to caribou, muskrats, grey jays and white bears as we do, or were their encounters more vivid? And did the attitudes they exported from the Old World inform where we are today? These questions and concerns inspired my search for animal descriptions and anecdotes in the chronicles of French and English Canada. Ultimately, I was hoping to find revelations in the novelty of the European experience.

That's the intellectual and research background, but the book isn't without inventive aspects. Imaginatively, What Species of Creatures began with the urge to create a modern-day morality tale or fable. The first two chapters I wrote took their inspiration from aphorisms of my own making: "No one would hire a hummingbird," and "The fox is a formidable opponent." Although I originally envisioned six chapters, each one devoted to a single species, I later embraced a generality of animals--and so came about the chapter on human-animal companionships ("Homo sapiens Is Wild at Heart"),  and the one on consumption of animals ("No Great Ragout"). The ?rst assumes the form of an argument, but with a twist, and the second borrows elements from the sermon. As I neared the end of the writing process, I changed tack once again, concentrating in the final two chapters on a single historical personality, and his or her experience of indigenous animals, from the porcupine or "hedgehog" to the "Recollect" or cedar waxwing. I'll elaborate on these chapters in my response to question 5.

Question 2: You begin with Homo Sapiens expanding outward, and finding their "niche" by discovering they are fine killers. However, you make it clear from the beginning that you are focusing on the point of view, which is something that we don't give much consideration, that humans are animals. What encouraged you to chose that as your focus for the book?

Many of the historical chroniclers of animals were intent on classifying "beasts," as they sometimes called them, and from a twenty-first century perspective, the organizing principles were faulty and occasionally hilarious. For example, beavers, because they're aquatic, were often classified as fish, and frogs as reptiles (the category of amphibians did not yet exist). As well, the commercial interests of the time had their own methods of divvying up a single species; in the parlance of the fur trade, a "half beaver" represented a young animal and a "made beaver" a full- grown dead animal in its prime. "Man," as we humans were designated, sometimes features in the catalogues or hierarchies of beasts, but often in contrast to the other animals--and almost invariably, the more closely a beast resembles Man, the higher its ranking. I should point out, though, that assertions of continuity between Man and other animals weren't unknown. In one model, apes were thought to be degenerate men.

What Species of Creatures was inspired by some of these genres like the list and the catalogue while at the same time flattening the hierarchy underlying them. That humans occupy a place among the animals has never troubled me personally. In fact, I find it counterintuitive for anyone who has lived with animals or observed them closely to think otherwise; animals are alert, nimble, and clearly have their own extraordinary faculties and forms of cognition. However, as you note, this point of view is marginal in Western culture, and our failure to acknowledge kinship with other animals carries grave consequences for them and for us. But I should be careful to point out that What Species of Creatures is neither a moral treatise nor a glib indictment of Homo sapiens. The book brings together humour and pathos in illustrating the plight of humans and other animals.

Question 3: The book covers quite a range of the new animals that the Europeans came upon in the new world, and in particular there are many references to bear, beaver, and fox. These are understandable, since they all provided food and clothing, and two provided wealth. You, however, also included the hummingbird. What made you chose to include this beautifully elusive bird?

The simplest answer is that the early chroniclers wrote profusely, and often exquisitely, about this species, which was unfamiliar to them from Europe. They declared the hummingbird's body to be "no larger than the tip of a child's finger" (Sieur de Dièreville), and its legs and feet to be "as small as the lines in handwriting" (Gabriel Sagard). The pioneer Frances Beavan went so far as to call the ruby-throated hummingbird "a flower with wings." I was eager to resurrect the poetic prose of these early writers, many of whom have fallen into obscurity.

A more complex answer is that the "fly-bird," as it was sometimes called, shares a parallel fate to the human personalities who roam the book. Like the missionaries and adventurers who crossed the Atlantic, the hummingbirds that summer in the boreal forest are long-distance migrants. This chapter, "The Smallest Bird in the World Perhaps," captures the extremes of avian and human experience--the transformations that beset birds and men when they embrace risk and venture into uncharted territory.

And finally, as you yourself note, the hummingbird differs from bears, beavers, minks, muskrats, and foxes in providing neither food nor pelts nor any source of wealth. I was interested in how the chroniclers celebrated this bird purely for its wondrous traits. To encounter this attitude in an age like ours, when beauty rarely trumps utility, can be especially gratifying.

Question 4: In the book there are snippets concerning several fascinating explorers, and various wanderers, and these do serve well in illustrating many of your points. How did you come to chose them? Are there some you wish you had room to mention?

My approach to the sources was selective and led primarily by language, which differentiates What Species of Creatures from an academic work. Essentially, I chose the animal writings I found especially evocative or richly anecdotal--the most vivid, comical, or melancholy. It didn't surprise me that the majority of those chronicles dated back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the European experience in Canada was fresh and the English language itself barely standardized. I discovered a rawness and intensity in the early writings that recalled my reading of Middle English literature, the area in which I received an academic training. Many of the illustrations I selected for the book share those naive properties. Because they're the work of impassioned amateurs rather than professional artists, a few even verge on cartoons.

Several of the personalities in the book are well known in Canada or internationally. Samuel Hearne, an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company, enjoys the distinction of having been the first European in North America to trek to the Arctic Ocean. His 1771 expedition to the Copper Mine River even featured on a Canadian stamp--a sure sign of celebrity. Yet he's perhaps less familiar as an amateur naturalist, and that's the aspect of his character and writings I expose. Elizabeth Simcoe, the first lady of Upper Canada, is similarly renowned, whereas the fur trader James Isham is more obscure (both are discussed in the response to question 5). Perhaps most familiar to the non-Canadian reader would be the Baron de Lahontan and his influential travelogue, New Voyages to North America (1703).

Ideally, I would have liked women to assume a greater role in What Species of Creatures. The penultimate of the six chapters, "The Texture of Elizabeth Simcoe," is distinctly female, but women are otherwise fairly scarce. The writer and naturalist Catharine Parr Traill would have made for an obvious choice had I concentrated more on the nineteenth century. Yet because of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century bias of the book, Parr Traill is mentioned only in passing. And of course, stories of Native women abound in the early literature of North America, but my book restricts itself to the European experience.

Question 5: You have a wonderful ability to move between viewpoints, and offer interesting juxtapositions. What inspired you to include the educational dialogue between mother and daughter, and the "An ABC of Animals?"

Both chapters you mention address themes of identity. In our culture, we tend to define personal development according to traditional milestones: school graduation, first job, marriage, children, and so on. "The Texture of Elizabeth Simcoe" and "An ABC of Animals" waver from this view by investigating how place, and more specifically, nature, shape character.

 In 1791 Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe, an accomplished diarist, watercolourist and amateur naturalist, travelled to Quebec with her husband, Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe. For twenty-nine years, Elizabeth had lived in a great house in southern England attended by servants. Then abruptly, here she is in Lower and Upper Canada (Quebec and Ontario), sleeping in a canvas house, fraternizing with rattlesnakes and raccoons, dining on passenger pigeon and black squirrel, and mailing dead bats to her daughters in England. Clearly the New World transformed her, but in ways that remain elusive. Her ephemeral traits brought to mind the butterfly--an insect Elizabeth herself wrote about and represented in a wash on paper (reproduced in the book). Meanwhile, I'd been reading period children's books about animals and had come across many vivid accounts of the metamorphosis from larva to butterfly. Occasionally these featured in "didactic conversations," fictionalized dialogues for children that impart religious and moral teachings, along with social mores. Since Elizabeth bore ten children, I decided to create a series of dialogues between an unidentified mother and daughter that are interspersed throughout the primary narrative. These conversations centre on the metamorphosis from larva to butterfly and the young girl's efforts to grasp the intangible by drawing on the specifics of her own experience. I wrote the dialogues in something of a eighteenth-century idiom, incorporating snatches of text from period sources.

As for James Isham, the principal character in "An ABC of Animals," he can almost be considered a different species from Elizabeth Simcoe. He's a figure of the first half of the eighteenth century, born in England but a longtime resident of the New World to which he travelled as a fur trader for the Hudson's Bay Company. Throughout his years in northwestern Canada, he collected stuffed birds and "beasts." As well, he was a prolific creator of lists, or "vocabularies," many of which consisted of translations from mixed Cree dialects into English. The lists "Of Beasts & Things Relating to Beast," "Of Fish," and "Of Mankind"  became the starting point for this chapter. Quite simply, I was mesmerized by Isham's eccentric manner of writing, spelling, and categorizing humans and animals alike. In "Of Mankind," for example, he introduces the concept of "a Canoe Mate" or Che maw gan, and elsewhere he alludes to a "Bundle of Beaver" or Aur ti witt. With Isham as my mentor, I crafted my own list of beasts, following the familiar literary genre of the ABC and creating entries for the single animal that typically evades description: Man or Homo sapiens. To remain true to the ABC style, this chapter is the most pictorial of all, with six illustrations, one a diagram of beaver hunting by Isham himself. The narrative darts back and forth between entries on animals like the carcajou or wolverine and skunk or "stinking beast"  and passages detailing Isham's own life and writings. These distinct parts reinforce each other through similarities in language or theme, with the effect of an incantation or prose poem.



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