“Instead of ‘animal,’ I use strange stranger. This stranger isn’t just strange. She, or he, or it—can we tell? how?—is strangely strange. Their strangeness itself is strange. We can never absolutely figure them out. If we could, then all we would have is a ready-made box to put them in, and we would just be looking at the box, not at the strange strangers. They are intrinsically strange. Do we know for sure whether they are sentient or not? Do we know whether they are alive or not? Their strangeness is part of who they are. After all, they might be us. And what could be stranger than what is familiar?”
—Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought
Sea ice on the retreat, birds giving up their age-old migratory patterns, extinctions proceeding at an astonishing rate: as we walk the verge of ecological collapse, what light can writing throw on the terrain around us? How can it illuminate our relationship to the world whose many lives sustain and shape our own existence? What can the lives of nonhumans, particularly those of animals, suggest to us about how to view our selves, each other, and our earth? Through animals, we glimpse a different way of being in the world. We begin to see, by way of their familiar shapes and gazes, something strange and new. The shifts that occur when animal and human regard each other can unsettle how we see ourselves and even give rise to different ways of relating to the others around us.
The return to a way of life that not only respects the natural world but also embraces the possibilities that it offers begins with a recognition of the animal presences that surround us. Like a good tracker, we would do well to examine scat, to note what animals eat and how they live, to study the way a trail traverses a ridgeline without playing havoc through erosion. In these acts of unwavering attention, and in the process of art-making—and even in the process of encountering words or images—we are brought into closer contact with the surrounding world and the animals who populate it.
The poems, prose, and paintings in this issue of About Place Journal focus on the relationship (or lack thereof) between animals and humans and seek to cultivate, in various ways, a feeling of strangeness and estrangement. In probing the blurred lines between species and in seeking to recognize the animal as other and the self as animal, the artists and writers in this issue challenge our received notions of what it means to be human and/or animal, thus opening out new spaces where human and animal can meet. Like their animal counterparts, the pieces in the issue vary wildly from each other. It is our hope that each, in its wholeness, may help to illuminate the ground we have yet to travel, to make the once-familiar seem, suddenly, a different place altogether, and to bring us into greater intimacy with this world and the ways we are bound in reciprocal relationship with it and all of its inhabitants.
Todd Davis is the author of five full-length collections of poetry—Winterkill, In the Kingdom of the Ditch, The Least of These, Some Heaven, and Ripe—as well as of a limited edition chapbook, Household of Water, Moon, and Snow. He edited the nonfiction collection, Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball, and co-edited the anthology Making Poems. His writing has been featured on the radio by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac and by Ted Kooser in his syndicated newspaper column American Life in Poetry. His poems have won the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, the Chautauqua Editors Prize, the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Bronze Award, and have been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry has been published in such noted journals and magazines as American Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Iowa Review, North American Review, Missouri Review, Gettysburg Review, Orion, West Branch, and Poetry Daily. He is a fellow in the Black Earth Institute and teaches environmental studies, creative writing, and American literature at Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona College.
J.L. Conrad is the author of the full-length collection of poems, A Cartography of Birds (Louisiana State University Press), and the limited-edition artist’s book, Species of Light, carried out in collaboration with printmaker Sarah Noble. Her chapbook NOT IF BUT WHEN won Salt Hill’s third annual Dead Lake Chapbook competition and was published in March 2016. Her poems have appeared in Pleiades, Columbia, Third Coast, Beloit Poetry Journal, iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, H_NGM_N, Anti-, Boxcar Poetry Review, The Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, Phoebe, Alligator Juniper and The Cream City Review, among others.
Noah Davis has published poems in Poet Lore, Natural Bridge, Hiram Poetry Review, and Chiron Review, among others. In 2015 Poet Lore and Natural Bridge nominated his work for the Pushcart Prize. He has fiction and nonfiction published or forthcoming in Gray’s Sporting Journal, Kestrel, and Angler’s Journal. He is a senior English major at Seton Hill University.