…And their cultural lives, and their intelligence, and their despairs and languages and music and lewd jokes, and their grappling with masks and disguises, and the craven and the heroic among them, and the ways that they perceive and apprehend the world in so many countless ways that we do not know, for all our brilliant science and eager curiosity…
This is what I wanted to explore in Martin Marten, more than anything else.
All my life I have been absorbed by animals of every kind – especially, for some odd reason, the mustelid family (wolverine, otter, badger, marten, fisher, ferret, mink, weasel), a clan of muscular hunters which in general live in the deep woods. As with my other novels, I set out with an idea, and then many stories flooded in to tell themselves; but the most absorbing thread—I thought while writing, and I still think now that the book is appearing on shelves and in store-windows—was a deep and happy imaginative inquiry into the actual lives of animals.
We know so much, but we know so little. We measure and track and tag, we hunt and corral and trap, we pen and fence and cage them; we study them in every way and manner, from their blood composition to their sperm count, from their behaviors over generations to their ability to learn and remember and imagine, and yet we know so very little. We can say, with confidence, that an eagle can see a rabbit’s ear twitch from more than a mile away, but we do not know what it is like to live with such shocking visual clarity – is it oppressive sometimes to see so well? Is it a burden that they occasionally wish to shuck? An owl’s incredible hearing – what is the effect of such aural acuity on character and personality?
And, as the great American writer Barry Lopez has said, what do we really know, beyond our meager factual knowledge, of the lives of animals? Could there not be sages and saints among them, courageous leaders, brilliant criminals? Are there mad ones, poets, dreamers, clowns? Who is to say confidently that this cannot be so?
That’s what I wanted to chase after, mostly with the imagined first year of one particular marten on Oregon’s Mount Hood (Wy’east is the much better and older name given the peak by the First Peoples who lived there for thousands of years) but also with the many other animals who enter the narrative – a tremendous and legendary elk, a wry and thoughtful horse, a savage and sadomasochistic raccoon, a dying bear, a bold young owl, and many more. I wanted to imagine the stunning width and breadth of their experience, their possibilities, their manners of life. We allow and encourage informed imagination about human beings in novels; I can, and have, written about a woman from Tungaru, and sailors deep in the lonely Pacific, and a Salish storyteller, and a man walking back through the war-torn country in which he was once a young soldier, though I have never been soldier, Salish, sailor, or a woman; similarly I wanted to soak myself in every fact and detail I could find about the marten, and then imagine one marten’s thrilling and tense first year, during which he meets a boy of fourteen, also grappling for the first time with independence, and fear, and dim visions of what each might be in the years to come.
If you were so liquid fast afoot that you could leap through the tree canopy fast enough to easily catch and eat fleeing squirrels, what is the shape of your joy? If you knew that enemies who could catch and eat you in a trice were probably near you every other day, how neurotic and sensitive and hair-trigger paranoid would you be? Would a marten living near a small village be curious about human animals occasionally, even if he or she knew full well that such beings always meant danger? If you were essentially a fearless furry muscle weighing two pounds, what would be your sweetest delights, your darkest premonitions, the shapes and songs of your existence?
I am at pains to say that I love science, I admire scientists; I am hugely grateful and thankful to zoologists, naturalists, biologists, and everyone else I talked to and read on the lives and habits of marten in the Pacific Northwest. It may be, as my lovely bride has sometimes said ruefully, that no one has ever read quite so thoroughly in the natural history and habits of marten. But I am convinced, to say it again, that for all we know, we do not know very much; and while it was immense fun to try to imagine the deeper wider lives of animals, I also think that such imaginative ventures are something like speculative science. My conviction is that whatever we are sure cannot possibly be true about animals is probably true in ways we cannot perceive yet, and that perhaps fiction in that direction sparks and stimulates curiosity, which perhaps fuels even more science. Animals do not have languages in quite the way human beings do, apparently; but perhaps they have developed something beyond languages, other sorts and species of languages, could that not be so? We are not aware of animals having what we would call cultures; to me that proves only that we are not aware, not that animals do not have “cultures.” We are, to be blunt, so often arrogant about what isn’t, though we know so little of what actually is. I sometimes think one of the subtle pleasures and workloads of fiction is to connect synapses that have never crossed paths before; if we were really going to wax metaphysical here, perhaps fiction is one good way to cut a path toward new ideas, toward whatever it is that human beings might evolve to. That could be. Who is to say that cannot be? Who is so sure? Not me.
My brother Thomas is fond of the line “whatever you are sure of, don’t be,” which is not only a useful motto by which to steer your personal boat, but widely applicable to every sort of endeavor, including science and literature. I suppose I should have used that line as an epigraph for Martin Marten, but an even better one presented itself – the late great Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska’s: “the unthinkable / is thinkable.”
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland and the author of seventeen books of essays, fiction, poems, and nonfiction, among them the novels Mink River and The Plover. Honors for his work include the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
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