I spent some of my childhood in rural Oxfordshire, not far from Wittenham Clumps, a pre-roman, iron-age fort comprising two grassy hills, the taller of which had a copse of beech trees on top. Some distance beyond was the River Thames with a broad weir, 18th century lock and a medieval watermill which to this day pounds the dark water beneath its large oak wheel. As a child I loved to explore the countryside, cycling, clambering, eating blackberries from the hedgerows, sometimes throwing myself down in the middle of a vast wheat field or, in winter, walking across an expanse of untrodden snow.

On one such occasion, I came across a rabbit dying from what I later understood to be myxomatosis, a disease deliberately introduced into nature by practical-minded humans to control the rabbit population. I knew none of this at the time, just that the little creature was in terrible distress, breathing quickly and heavily, it’s badly swollen eyes oozing pus, it’s furry body soaked in sweat and covered in superating tumors. I was afraid to touch it; I think it was too sick to feel any fear of me. I sat in the ditch with the dying creature for a long time.

Now this will sound melodramatic – but I will say it anyway: crouching in that ditch it was as if I had somehow become the rabbit, and the rabbit’s pain had ‘entered’ into me. (Nonsense! Such identification with – or empathy for – an animal, is unlikely in a boy of 10, and this whole story must simply be the colouring of memory!) But the intensity of the experience was, I believe, quite mystical. It was as if the animal’s suffering – once contained by the ‘wier’ of it’s solitary pain, now spread out like a river, flooding through invisible waterways and into me. In voodoo, in the tribe-totems of the native americans, in shamanic trance, in animist and other traditional beliefs systems, we can unite with the spirit of an animal, or the animal may enter us. 

Dama is … a joint where the living, the ancestors, and the animals of the bush meet to transact the deeper relationality of Dogon mythical thought… One’s animal kikinu (spiritual principles) can manifest in one’s eyes, and a skilled expert can determine one’s animal, or totemic, ancestor. The interrelationships of inner ancestral and animal dimensions are principles of personhood important during the Dogon maturing process… masks came from yénéu, the spirits of the bush and its animals … One of the cardinal beliefs in the traditional religious heritage of Africa is the interconnectedness of all that exists … for this reason certain objects in nature, such as animals and trees, feature in the spirituality of traditional Africa and are treated with reverance. Human faculties of consciousness, will, and purpose are attributed to objects with life, and thus communication between humans and other forms of life is possible.”

From “A Communion of subjects: Animals in religion, science and ethics” by  Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton

Of course, to the scientifically-minded among us, this is all nonsense. So was this then perhaps merely an over-active childhood imagination, or a stress-induced, psychotic experience of sorts?  The disorientation, intensity of feeling coupled with a sense of unreality and the disruption of normal time, suggest this might be the case. Yes, that must be it.

I stayed with the rabbit and only left some time after it had stopped breathing. My shoes and shorts were wet and muddy from the ditch which was used to bring water along the course of the hedgerows and into the fields. Returning home, I was met with my father’s anger and a telling-off from my mother because I had been gone so long. Somehow I had lost all sense of time in that ditch – I could have been there for a moment, a day, longer even. I didn’t try to explain, I couldn’t explain and there was no need to explain. Returning home after dark, I distinctly recall a sense of complete calm. Though just a boy, I understood at some level of my child-consciousness that I had experienced the sacred.

 I was born in 1963, the Chinese year of the Water Rabbit.

“Animals share with us the privilege of having a soul.”  ~ Pythagoras

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