Totem Animals

The fantastic creatures of reality

Rick Bass

To hear Rick Bass read his column aloud, click here.


© Joel Sartore/Getty Images
I often get asked by children what my favorite animal is. Those childhood days of talismanic fervor, and the security to be gotten by holding in one’s heart an emblem of something brave, fierce, powerful, and free—something as invulnerable as the child is vulnerable— seem so long ago as to have occurred in another life. The children ask the question with innocence, leaning forward and waiting for my answer—searching sometimes for a candidate themselves, a proxy that will help guide and protect them—and often I am tempted to talk about a particular species: about the drama and allure, the hard-earned specificity, of any and every living thing.

I’ll remember the boy I was at ten or twelve, who was fascinated with raccoons— nocturnal creatures with humanlike hands, feet, and even masked faces, closer to us in intelligence, and imminently loveable. I had friends who doted on the idea of Siberian tigers—the largest and most powerful of tigers, capable of instilling fear in all the other animals, and so brilliantly orange—so ostentatious and dazzling—that the color alone seemed to announce the creature was a favorite of a God or gods.

There is no end, I hope, to children’s litanies of favorites, with their choices saying so much about what they need and want from the world, and what they fear in the world, as well as what they love. I know, too, that when they ask what my favorite animal is, they are asking, Tell me about yourself, as if such things might speak more directly than do the tangled idioms of adults.

Considering the current wave of worldwide species extinction—which is occurring at an even greater pace than the post-asteroid die-off of the dinosaurs—can be a cause of depression. Estimates are that in the coming century, one species in four will vanish, as if in a do-over of the story of Noah’s Ark, with so little space on the vessel now and the waters rising so fast. No one can even assure us that we ourselves will be allowed to embark on the next phase of the journey.

This world-vanishing, then, can be another thing to worry about, beyond the individual’s ability to control. The best that any of us can do in this regard, I think, is to celebrate the integrity of species other than our own while they are here, and to demand the protection of the habitats that formed them, the clay from which they were sculpted.

What creatures will be left for children’s totem animals in the future? I am thinking now of that one child in each classroom whose favorite animal was a unicorn. Remember how all the rest of us—devotees of giraffes and rhinos, lovers of lions and gorillas—pitied him for not loving an animal in the here and now? What an alarming thought to consider, that we might all some day be so marginalized as to love fantastic creatures of the imagination more than any of the fantastic creatures of reality: that the elephant, beaver, hippo, and tiger might each one day become as mythical as the unicorn.

We generally think of a rich imagination as being an extension of, and improvement upon, reality. What would it mean for us as a species for our imagination— no matter how robust—to instead become a step down from the magnificent reality we currently inhabit? Even if barely, we still live in a very real world filled with wonders such as the tree frogs whose blood freezes to jagged, slushy crystals of ice in winter, or the bears that sleep beneath the ground like tulip bulbs for five months of each year.

Back to that answer about a favorite animal. When asked, I tell children that I don’t have a favorite animal any more, but that I have a favorite landscape—the Yaak Valley of northwest Montana, where I’m fortunate enough to live, up on the Canadian line. It’s a place where not a single species has gone extinct—where every animal that was present at the end of the last Ice Age is still here: wolf, grizzly, lion, eagle, owl, caribou, moose, lynx, wolverine—everything.

I can’t choose, I tell them. They are all interconnected, each has shaped and helped sculpt the other, each is a part of all the others, and I love them all. Each carries a part of the other, each and all are interdependent upon all the others. The children listen quietly, considering such things. I have never met one who has not understood immediately what I am talking about.

To hear Rick Bass read his column aloud, click here.

Rick Bass
is the author of twenty-five books of fiction and nonfiction. He lives with his family in Yaak and Missoula, Montana, where he has long been active in efforts to protect the last roadless lands in the Yaak Valley. His new book Nashville Chrome, about music and the destructiveness of fame, will be published this fall.

Image: Photograph © Joel Sartore/Getty Images

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