Trinity University Press

Jane Goodall-Eric S. Greene

Meditating on the Border

Eric S. Greene

    A boy of three sat in his den when a neighbor appeared with a black and white puppy. As we grew together, Silky brought life into focus with his critical canine lens on cultural norms and the value of age, gender, and species. Echoing Jane Goodall’s observations of chimpanzees, my fascination with this dog opened my mind to his life, his experience of the built environments of home and neighborhood, and of restrictive rules and practices.

    As Jane revealed the complexities of chimpanzee societies in the jungle, she blurred the boundaries of “human” and “animal,” “society” and “wilderness.” Wilderness can be a state-of-mind, an anodyne and antidote to society. Otherwise, it’s less a place and more a posture towards the natural world.

    Jane’s journey to African forests, rather than an immersion, exemplifies a release from the circumscriptions of everyday social life and a priori conclusions. Likewise, we may also experience ourselves as part of nature and learn from animals in their natural habitat, essential for locating unparalleled insights about life on Earth.

    The embrace of and resistance to Jane’s work interested me most. I wondered how much more difficult it would be for people to understand a dog and all his or her capacities. Perceived as “pet,” dogs are not considered as fantastical as chimpanzees. Domesticated animals are stereotyped as members of a lesser order than that of their wild cousins and ancestors, and ferality is simply incongruous.

    Beyond any great chain of being, we have the Great Divide between human and animal. Despite established taxonomy, humans are not considered animals, and animals are perceived to lack qualities that humans greedily and ascribe to themselves. Jane contested anthropocentrism and loosened the grip of anthropomorphisms based on assumptions that only humans use tools, have emotions, and figure things out. Yet conservatism reified anthropocentrism for a while longer: Great apes were regarded less as “animal” and more as “cousin”--our human circle widened to accommodate knuckle-walking and brachiating at the border.

    Meanwhile Silky became family and a cherished part of my identity and daily affections. I was just shy of 19 when his time here ended. It was a time when a dog was considered “just a dog” and not worthy of grief. Subsequently, my love and grief became political statements: challenging the prevailing worldviews of animals, our relationships with them, notions of grief, and grieving for an animal. Society insisted on difference. I knew continuity. Such are the transcendental moments that bring each of us to our personal wilderness.

    Mercifully, Jane’s work rained back into my life with stories of Flo and her eight-year-old son, Flint (born a few months after me). Upon the death of Flo’s youngest child, Flint made continuous demands for his mother’s attention. Weakened from her bereavement and then illness, Flo could not redirect him. Eventually, they comforted each other until Flo’s death a few years later. Overwhelmed with sorrow, Flint lasted just three weeks more. There it was--the full blossom of grief.

    Jane raised many questions about this relationship. Others made perfunctory judgments against Flo and her parenting, rather than considering the multidimensionality of this relationship and of Flint’s grief, showing an imperialist impulse to judge other species by one’s own standards. Autopsy results suggested Flint might have also succumbed to illness. Nevertheless, younger chimps, also weaned, died shortly after their mothers’ deaths. Tragic. Yet I found a sense of peace and affirmation in the evidence that other animals experience complex emotions, and not just intermittently. Animals live in a world of emotion.

    These were the early 1980s. I began pioneering a new transdisciplinary field, modeled after women’s studies and other interdisciplinary fields, to critically reassess academic thought vis-à-vis developing theoretical groundings with which to explore how humans perceive, represent, and relate to other animals and their individual subjectivities (including their discernment of us), while redressing ethical logics used in their oppressions. It would also investigate how the animal concept structures human relationships.

    The field needed a credible name. My main criteria were that it frame this new paradigm without reinforcing the historical human-animal divide (ironically, others have since adopted those names), and it must highlight the culture concept. Simple and elegant, animals and culture studies (ACS) asserted that humans are animals and other animals may be cultural (and culture need not be regarded as the pinnacle of life but an aspect of life). It also proposed the possibility that interspecies relationships may lead to unique trans-species cultures (as with a dog and his young man).

    I was 27 when I created the ACS program at Miami-Dade College in 1990. Jane was 26 when she began her fieldwork in Africa. A long and winding road has brought me back to family, to grief, and once again, Jane is there. As I explore family identity and dynamics by developing a new think tank, Family Spirals™ and its Families with Animals division, I look forward to complementing her work with the Roots & Shoots Program.

    Eric S. Greene pioneered the first academic programs in animals and culture studies. He is currently developing an international think tank, Family Spirals™, which includes a focus on interspecies families.