an explication of the longings behind this blog
There’s a fascinating little world that emerges when a donkey meets a bridge. Or to be more specific, when a donkey meets a human that wants him to cross a bridge together. Known to most who spend time with donkeys is the curious fact that many donkeys just really don’t like crossing over bridges; especially bridges with water flowing beneath them. Try it yourself – you’ll be rambling along with a donkey in fine form, going forward together, yet when you come up to a footbridge, your furry-eared friend will suddenly dig in her front legs and progress no further.
No amount of pulling, pushing, or cajoling will budge your companion; once a 400-500 pound donkey locks his front legs and makes a decision, it’s almost impossible to physically impose forward motion through normal force.
For many, forcing compliance by beating with a stick or whip has been the go-to solution for this inter-species impasse –- resolution through imposition of one’s singular will over another through brutality and the violent overriding of the donkey’s own innate instincts, its own relationship to bridges and water, and its own power of self-preservation. This is partly the reason for the donkey’s reputation for being stupid and stubborn. Stupid because the donkey doesn’t appear to be intelligent enough to understand and comply with your will, like when unpleasant tourists try to communicate with locals by shouting at them; as if louder and harder somehow will cut across the fact that the sounds themselves carry no meaning. Stubborn because even if the donkey does understand, she won’t conform and act out your singular desires and needs over and above her own.
In actuality, donkeys are incredibly intelligent and sensitive beings, imbued with an intense sense of curiosity and contemplation, their bodies fine-tuned for parsing out the most minute details in their environment. Their memory is also remarkable, as donkeys are known to recognize two and four-legged friends even after twenty years apart. As animals that are hunted by other animals, their survival has depended on their ability to track and log potential threats over thousands of generations, accumulating an archive of environmental relationships that are passed down through their embodied epigenetic memories. In donkey behaviours and protocols live not only the bodies of their ancestors, but also the lands that sustained their ancestors. Though I haven’t come across an explanation for donkeys’ dislike of bridges anywhere, my sense is that their ancestral lands offer a clue to this particular behaviour. Originally evolving in the stark deserts of what is now Egypt and the North-East of Africa, donkeys would have seldom encountered regular and steady streams of water. And then like in most deserts, when it does rain it pours, and the land is too dry to absorb the downpour. As the water has no place to go, it will dance wildly across the parched earth, moving in unpredictable floods and furies, sweeping away whatever is in its path.
In his sublimely beautiful elegy to water - The Secret Knowledge of Water - author Craig Childs describes how in the deserts of the South-West United States, more people die from drowning in flash floods than they do from dehydration. There, many make the fatal mistake of assuming that storms off in the far distance will have no effect on them as they carry on trekking under clear skies through canyons and dry river beds, unaware of the massive wall of water rushing towards them at fantastic speed with nothing to slow down its surge. Perhaps for reasons such as this, donkeys evolved to avoid attempting to ford running water, preferring to stay safer upon higher and dryer ground, waiting out sporadic periods of flash flooding. This would be a completely different experience than that of horses, which evolved in grass-covered steppe landsscapes that would not be prone to such types of flooding. And although they both belong to the equine family of mammals, donkeys are not simply small horses, but a totally different species with a totally different habitat, history, disposition, and social structure.
Where horses are hierarchical and tend to congregate in close herds, donkey herds are egalitarian and they disperse themselves over great distances in order to alleviate the strain on their desert habitat. Where there is an alpha horse in a herd that all the others follow, donkeys tend to have one or two best friends that they prefer hanging out with, with no single alpha donkey. In domesticating horses, you need to ‘break’ the lead horse, yourself becoming the alpha, whom the rest of the herd will subsequently follow. Such is a politics of dominance and compliance; perfectly suited to a large dense horse herd that needs to move quickly and efficiently as one unit when coming under threat.
The natural synergy between hierarchical horse socialization and human military capacities and technologies is one of the fundamental ingredients for the development and rise of the earliest empires of ancient Mesopotamia and the gradual proliferation of civilization.
In The Horse, the Wheel and Language, David Anthony traces horse-drawn military chariots back to at least 3500 BCE, placing this vital technology at the very centre of the expanding city-states from which Western civilization is derived. Similarly, the domestication of donkeys for transport between 4600-4000 BCE allowed for the first ever large-scale trade regime between Egypt and Assyria, with donkeys so revered in the ancient world that they received royal ceremonial burials.
The ancient covenantal dance between humans, horses and donkeys plays a key role in the historical tides of power and territory, and the parallel hierarchical social structures of horse herds and armies is a powerful example of how inter-species collaboration and understanding can facilitate swift change and massive upheavals. Unlike horses however, with donkeys there is no alpha to ‘break,’ as the widely dispersed desert herds had no need to move quickly as one unit, and therefore no need for a regimented hierarchical social structure. Subsequently, in order to get donkeys to follow your lead, trying to identify and break the alpha is a hopelessly lost cause. Trying to ‘break’ a donkey and become the lead donkey would be incomprehensible to them as a strategy or a form of communicating power or territory, since they’re not looking to an alpha to dictate their collective behaviour and choices. Not that many don’t try. Given these histories, however, the scene of a human trying to get a donkey to submit by force becomes both tragedy and comedy, as the donkey could never comprehend that this human is attempting to become the alpha donkey in the herd, while the human just pushes on even harder, cursing the donkey for its stubborn resistance and lack of respect and understanding for this performance of power and dominance.
Which brings us back full circle to the donkey and the bridge.
How do you get a donkey to cross a bridge without the option of breaking the lead donkey and having the rest follow your lead, or without beating it into a cowering shell of itself?
From what was taught to me in my time working with rescued donkeys in New Mexico, and from all my research into the matter, the answer that comes through is the relational, collaborative negotiation of difference.
In The Wisdom of Donkeys, Andy Merriweather’s memoir of trekking through the south of France with his donkey, the author is confronted with just this very conundrum as his donkey Gribouille pulls up short at a foot bridge and absolutely refuses to budge. Exasperated, devoid of other options to get around the stream, and unable to progress any further, Merriweather spends hours trying to get his companion to dial-down his ancestral instincts. It finally takes Merriweather walking slowly back and forth over the bridge literally dozens of times in front of Gribouille to convince him that it’s safe; his own body providing the model from which Gribouille can integrate this experience and eventually carry on. As a map for the negotiation of power, territory, difference, and ancestry, this scenario has been working itself on me for many moons, teaching mysterious understandings that continue to compost their way through me.
An echo of this scene plays out in the 2017 Spanish/Scottish documentary Donkeyote in which the film follows the director’s uncle Manolo as he ambles through Andalucía with his own donkey, Gorrión. In this scene, Manolo crosses a small footbridge over to a rest area where he’s decided to enjoy his lunch. Gorrión, however, will not follow him, and the familiar struggle ensues, in which Gorrión needs to slowly be convinced that it’s safe to cross over. What one may witness in watching this scene is that Gorrión is not simply being difficult or stubborn just for the sake of it – you can tell from his eyes and his posture that a significant part of him wants to follow his friend Manolo over the bridge, And yet this much older part of him - his ancestral knowledge - keeps him rooted in place, his body caught between an ancient voice of caution and protection and the beckoning of his beloved human companion.
The past and the present are wrestling with each other over a bridge in the bodies of these two beings, the equally intense longings for collective survival and continuity grappling with the longing for personal companionship and belonging.
It’s a tension I believe most of us are playing out, with or without knowing it. We are the place where these two great longings meet; the longing for protection and security and fixity (expressed as trauma) imbued in us by our evolutionary and ancestral histories alongside the longing to integrate the new and inspiring (expressed as art); to sing with the voice of that which quivers our bellies and rattles our teeth; the impulses of creation itself striving to feel the sun upon its raw face.
Might there be a way to understand trauma and art as two different harmonic registers of the same vibrating string; their frequencies integral to the underlying structure of vibrant reality? Can we understand these pounding and throbbing rhythms of existential longing for fixity and creation as the genesis of that which manifests as our very bodies?
If you were to ask me what I hope to give voice to with this blog project, I would answer that everything I mean to express is already alive in the confluence of contemplating this moment – the triptych of the donkey, the bridge, and the human. The words that I hope will accrue here are born of many longings: Longing to abandon the old tired frame that insists that all relations be understood as a binary of power-over and victim-under. Longing for relying increasingly less on guilt, shame, blame, or annihilation as coping mechanisms for the pain that arises from trying to keep one foot back, high and dry above the wine-dark rivulets of life. Longing to increasingly live with the understanding that ancient hands and ancient lands are ever present in our days, and living as if one’s rational, individual will is perhaps not the be-all and end-all of a life lived well. Longing for works of redemption and justice that come from the full-throated singing of that which is inside us that we most push down and try to make small. Longing to gestate a space where non-human voices and collaborators are given the respect and hospitality from which - gods willing - they might share their mysteries and wisdom. Longing to build an archive of allegations, rumours, and stories that have already been shared with me, or will reveal themselves to me in their own way, in their own time and rhythm.
Welcome, reader. Let our days be filled with bridges, and streams, and both human and non-human companions who know the value of both.
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