Gentle and Fierce
by Vanessa Berry
Published July 2021
When I first sat down with Vanessa Berry’s collection of essays, Gentle and Fierce, we were in the midst of another destabilising Covid wave. One of the images from her collection that stayed with me was the latticework of letters on Sylvia Plath’s grave, which Berry visited in Yorkshire. The notes, left on Plath’s grave by admirers, had been eaten by snails. One handwritten co-contribution reads Sylvia, know that your words live on, even though you are gone, with the words ‘even though’ interrupted by ‘a string of irregular, squarish holes with curled edges, the work of snails’. While a slow-moving gastropod differs from a rapidly replicating virus, I could not help but think of the gaps the virus has created, not just through death, but in supply chains, leadership, our patience. And while a virus is not an animal, insect, or gastropod, it has forced us to pay attention to the fact that the nonhuman world has intentions of its own. Berry’s collection of essays likewise compels its readers to attend to the presence of our nonhuman companions.
The essay ‘Compound Eye’ opens the volume, speaking to the ways that animals and insects encourage us to observe the world from different vantage points. Berry uses the simile of an insect’s compound eye to explain how ‘the eye that sees through time observes how the past braids into the present and how it shapes what is to come’, for it ‘perceives all directions at once’. With this eye, Berry contemplates ‘how memories curl and twist around details and moments, observing how they connect up and constellate.’ She sees how animals – animate, inanimate, textual and symbolic – have shaped her life, from the teddy bears of her childhood, to the ‘shadowy and nocturnal’ creatures, like bats and ravens, that drew her as a teenager, to the animals that, like the adult Berry, ‘have the city as a home’.
These essays, each centred upon a specific creature, are like the collection of animal figurines in the essay ‘The Ceramic Zoo.’ Berry’s animal figurines, which ‘reflect a charismatic, tamed version of animal life,’ take up a shelf on Berry’s bookcase, wearing coats of dust. She picks up the ceramic otter and rinses it under the kitchen sink, ‘so it gleams as its real counterpart might, fur slick with water, emerging from a river.’ It is a figurine made by Beswick, a company which produced ‘wild, farm and storybook animals’ for display on mantelpieces and in china cabinets. Berry places the washed otter on her desk, where it prompts her recollections of an endeavour to see an otter at the Berlin Zoo. She had visited the city a decade earlier, tracing the steps of Walter Benjamin through his memoir Berlin Childhood Around 1900. Like Berry, Benjamin’s interactions with animals – or at least when he visited the otter’s enclosure ‘in a neglected corner’ of the zoo – prompted him to ‘perceive time differently, to experience past, present and future all at once.’ He only glimpses the otter when it surfaces and, ‘at home on wet days, hidden inside the house while the rain streamed down the windows, he felt a sense of accord with the otter, connected to it by the flow of water through the city.’ Berry does not find the otters, so instead she watches the seal show and polar bears. After her visit, she places the entry ticket in her copy of Berlin Childhood. On opening the book at her desk on a hot Australian day, the otter figurine beside her, and its ceramic counterparts on a nearby shelf, she turns to the page marked by the ticket and re-reads how Benjamin ‘listened to the rain, and with it imagined his connection to the otter, and the city alive all around him.’
Echoing the way that writing transports us across time and place, Berry often muses on the different selves that make up her present self. The woman kneeling at Plath’s grave ‘is not alone.’ She is accompanied by a teenage self hovering ‘like a ghost, absorbing the voice of The Bell Jar as if it were oxygen.’ Another, later self is also there, ‘reading through Plath biographies and letters as if they might contain a remedy’ for a longstanding illness that occupied a number of her teenage years. Yet another self reads a Plath poem to a new love as they sit on the jetty. These selves coalesce in the present self who kneels at Plath’s grave. It scribbles a note (which, like its counterparts, will be consumed by snails), ‘Somewhere in the back of my eye is a tiny version of you, bright as a pinhead, helping me to see.’ Plath, like the insect’s compound eye, allows Berry to experience other words and worlds.
Berry notes that ‘much of [her] living has been done vicariously’ through reading. Books are her ‘supplementary life, accompanied by [her]secondary family, made up of the writers who have guided [her]’ and the literature she reads also canvasses creatures. At an op-shop, she finds the Cat Catalog: The Ultimate Cat Book for two dollars. In it, Berry reads ‘articles on cats across cultures, in art and literature, cat shows, cat genetics, acupuncture for cats, the politics of strays, psychic cats and a calico cat needlepoint pattern.’ When a stray black cat pays a visit as she sits on her doorstep, it sprawls on the pebblecrete and blinks slowly with pale green eyes. Berry ‘blinks slowly in return. The Cat Catalog has taught [her] that this is how cats express affection.’ I smiled at this interaction, charmed by Berry’s attempts to communicate with such an inscrutable animal.
Berry moves between Australia, Britain and Europe in these essays, both on physical journeys and through literature and objects. She leaves her own trails for the reader to decipher, not unlike the scribbles of caterpillars that chew through bark. As a child, Berry ‘imagined that [she] had the ability to read these markings as if they were words’, revealing a desire to connect and learn from the natural world from a young age.
The animals that feature in Berry’s pages are largely domestic: beetles excavating a crack between a pavement and a gate, millipedes in the bathtub, a turtle in the middle of a grassy park, that stray black cat sprawling on the pebblecrete. Most, if not all, of the essays, reveal interaction with the domestic animals in confined or interior settings such as houses, museums or zoos. When she does venture beyond urban settings, it is to other, confined locations, such as the island of Ōkunoshima in Japan. The island is a rabbit sanctuary, visited by tourists who bring carrots and lettuce to feed them.
The essay ‘Frank the Bear’ also represents an animal in an interior, Frank being a taxidermied Kodiak bear in a university’s teaching collection in a museum. Frank has been preserved in a standing posture inside a tall glass case. As a child, Berry visited Frank with her grandfather, a laboratory technician in the physics department. As a teacher in creative writing at the same university, Berry recalls Frank, and ventures in search of him. She visits the museum several times over the course of a year, enjoying the ‘clandestine atmosphere, the company of preserved animals and the slow movements of the lung fish in their tank.’ These fish are living fossils, a ‘link between fish and air-breathing animals.’ They, too, are boxed in, ‘grey and unstirring’ at the bottom of their tank. Eventually, Berry ventures down a corridor she hasn’t yet explored, and finds Frank. Once again, time folds in on itself, or in this case, is ‘moving backwards’. When Berry sees Frank she is ‘a child again.’
The adult Berry reads the information panel: Frank had died at Taronga Zoo in 1978 and was given to the university to be taxidermied. He was named for the professor who founded the School of Biological Sciences, but to Berry his name suggests Frankenstein’s monster, made of ‘wood, foam and plaster, glass eyes, adhesive, and the skin of a bear’ as well as ‘the labour of the scientists and technician who assembled him’, the ‘Alaska wilderness where Kodiak bears live’, ‘his years in zoos that led him to this strange afterlife’, and, I would add, Berry’s own musings and writing, which bring Frank before the reader. Yet writing itself is another enclosure, for animals, as it is also for humans who do not have unfettered access to the power of their own representation. When Berry finds Frank she puts her hand on his glass cabinet, ‘watching for the twitch of recognition from inside, as impossible as such a response has always been.’ This serves as a reminder that, however much some humans long to communicate with animals, they remain to us projections, spectres of our own longings.
The proliferation of confined and domesticated animals in Berry’s pages – houses, zoos, aquariums, words, objects and symbolism — stems from Berry’s position as a writer focussed upon the local. Her first work, Strawberry Hills Forever (2007), a collection of stories, features locations such as the Camperdown Velodrome and the Olympia Milk Bar. Ninety9 (2013), a memoir of adolescence, reflects on music and teenage life in the suburbs at the end of the millennium. Mirror Sydney: An Atlas of Reflection (2017), explores the city’s marginal places at a time of rapid change and development. She is a naturalist in an urban environment, and her gentle meditations contrast with the idea of heroic bush bashers. Her attention is something that can be cultivated by people who cannot easily access the bush, for example who are unable drive or own a car, or people without the mobility needed to walk over rough terrain (recently a blind acquaintance, on making an enquiry to a bushwalking group about a lift to the starting point, was told that she needn’t bother joining them). Such a practice of observation is critical to developing a sense of our ecology, especially when one must seek out creeks, plants, bird and animal life beneath or amidst carparks, shopping centres, pavements and roads.
‘The Curragh’ presents a surprising inversion of the contrast between native and domesticated animals. It, too, is set in a confined location, on the Isle of Man, where ‘the dominant feature is enclosure’, with hedgerows lining the road, squares of fields beyond them. Guided by a man nicknamed ‘Dog’, Berry ventures into the Ballaugh Curragh, a marshland. After treading over boardwalks and among tangled tree roots she sees the familiar ‘three dots of its eyes and nose, crowned by pointed ears’. It is a wallaby, a descendent of a number that escaped from a wildlife park in the 1970s. They thrived in the sheltered environment and are now regularly seen grazing among the Curragh. ‘It is a familiar thing to see them despite the inky, still landscape,’ Berry writes. ‘I know the pace of their movements, how their postures go between upright alertness and leaning down to graze.’
The blurred distinction between Australian and European animals and locales also feature in ‘Rabbit Island’, the essay about Ōkunoshima. Without predators, the rabbits on the island are tame and assertive, clustering around Berry for the two cellophane-wrapped carrots she has brought. In Australia, she notes, ‘rabbits are an introduced pest species responsible for environmental degradation on a grand scale, and so for [her] to be surrounded by them is something of a dystopian scene.’ These moments of unsettlement – seeing something native in another country, and experiencing a destructive force contained on an isolated land mass – seem to encapsulate the tension between untamed and restrained, domesticated and undomesticated, that pervades Berry’s pages.
Berry offers a range of applications for the words ‘gentle’ and ‘fierce’ in her opening essay, ‘Compound Eye.’ Gentleness, ‘with its quiet power, is a hidden strength.’ It resists ‘the privileging of command above compassion’, and it is ‘a quiet voice, a persistent whisper, calm and consoling.’ Ferocity, by contrast, is ‘the voice that calls out, intending to be heard.’ It is also ‘an armour, a forceful expression of resolve and protection.’ It is to know ‘the intensity of the edges of feeling.’ While compassion permeates this volume through Berry’s thoughtfulness, and her attention to animals, insects and gastropods, the occasions on which she manifests intense emotion are fewer.
In ‘Fly Away Bird’, in which she recounts her loss following the death of her close friend Helen at thirty-five after, Berry writes, ‘a year of suffering that stripped my heart.’ Longing for her friend, Berry seeks ‘to make connections between the living world and Helen’s spirit.’ She notices magpies in particular and, in the weeks after Helen’s death, a magpie visits daily to eat berries from a bush outside her window. Berry, hearing it rustling outside, wonders ‘if Helen had sent this companion to lighten my heart’, even as ‘the pragmatic part of [her] suppressed this idea: it was spring and the berries were ripe.’
This essay is suffused with wishes, with the desire for a loved one to be back among the living. Berry visits a headland that, she writes, ‘holds my memories of our shadow selves, walking this same path I now walk alone.’ She watches magpies on the headland, noting that the birds have good memories, which includes ‘their ability to recognise human faces, and through repeated interactions, identify individuals as sympathetic or threatening.’ Poignantly, she hopes that the birds ‘might remember Helen and me there.’ She adopts her friend’s way of talking to birds, ‘whistling two descending notes through her teeth.’ Whenever she visits the headland she whistles in greeting, calling out for her friend, perhaps hoping that Helen will hear. The encounter reminds me of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, when, after death, an animal or human life passes into the new body of the same, or a different, species. It is an old Western myth, reaching back to Plato, evoking the intense connections between human and nonhuman animals.
That the intensity of this connection still prevails is evident in the loss of life in the 2019-2020 bushfires. Berry notes how the increasing numbers of animal deaths – first 480 million, then one billion – ‘bulged’ out of the television with each revision. She describes a graphic loss of life: ‘Dead livestock were piled by the roadside. Shorelines were thick with drifts of dead birds which had been swept out to sea with the clouds from the firestorm.’ Here, ferocity, in the sense of ‘intensity’, is clear. Our ecology is calling to us, bespeaking an imbalance.
Experiencing the fires from the city, Berry describes a now-familiar trope: she stretches out her hand and ‘a tiny frail leaf, burnt to a grey skeleton, landed on [her] palm, the ghost of something once green and alive.’ Kirsten Tranter refers to the ‘fragments of burnt forest’ falling in the city in her essay ‘Black Flowers: Mourning in Ashes’ in Fire, Flood, Plague (2020), describing it as ‘black snow.’ Richard Flanagan, in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (2020), describes his Tasmanian protagonist Anna waking each morning to find ash ‘speckling her Airbnb sheets, the fires that rained on the island’s old city tiny carbonised fragments of ancient fern and myrtle leaf, perfect negatives that on her touching vanished into a sooty smear.’ Likewise, when Berry touches the leaf, it crumbles to dust. In a strange, but not unconnected, way, the increasing loss of plant and animal life is yoked to the loss of human life in the pandemic. As environmental philosopher Thom van Dooren has written, zoonotic diseases such as Covid-19, SARS, Ebola, avian influenza and HIV are on the rise. We are destroying animals’ homes, forcing them into closer proximity to humans, and the intensification of farming practices has led to less genetic diversity, which means that strains such as avian influenza can take hold of populations of factory-farmed chickens more quickly.
Berry references such destruction when she looks at an image of a dead tiger cub on a screen. The cub’s mother was killed by poachers in Sumatra before it could be born. The tigers’ forest habitat is being replaced by plantations for palm oil, paper and rubber. Berry, looking around, sees these substances ‘seethe’ around her: ‘the pantry dribbling palm oil, the papers dusty and yellowing on the shelves. The rubber soles of shoes sit heavy in the depths of the wardrobe. Outside, car tyres crackle over the road.’ This, too, was an affecting connection: the liveliness of animals reduced to the mundane.
Perhaps this is why I found myself yearning for more depictions of the undomesticated, and why Berry’s longing for her friend, conveyed through free-spirited birds, moved me so deeply. If the only animals we know are domesticated animals, or animals in zoos and museums, or as dainty figurines, does this not indicate that our ecosystems and, by extension, us humans, are imperilled?
My anxieties aside, this quiet, meditative book was a balm amidst the chaos erupting at the beginning of 2022. When the daily Covid counts, in qualifying deaths with ‘underlying medical conditions’, seek to impress upon us that only the fittest will survive, Berry’s commitment to ‘telling stories of connections with others, human and nonhuman’ is a salve. The longer I spent with these essays, the more I enjoyed the connections Berry creates between humans and nonhuman animals in real life, their diffusion into products for human consumption, and their symbolism. It is an artful way of showing how we are webbed into their ecosystems, and they into ours, and that we ignore this at our peril. As Berry relates, ‘Through paying attention to animals and their constant presence comes a heightened awareness that we inhabit a shared world.’
Flanagan, Richard. The Living Sea of Waking Dreams. Penguin Random House, 2020.
Tranter, Kirsten. ‘Black Flowers’, in Fire, Flood, Plague: Australian Writers Respond to 2020, ed. Sophie Cunningham. Penguin Random House, 2020.