This Empathy Day, let’s not forget all the non-human inhabitants of Planet Earth. The RestOfTheWorldists can’t talk, but someone needs to give them a voice.
This post first appeared on Picture Book Den’s Blogspot.
HALF OUR ANIMALS ARE MISSING!
A few years ago an announcement came out in the news. According to the WWF Living Planet Report, since the 1970s more than half of the wild vertebrate animals on Earth had quietly disappeared. Half of our animals are missing! – how could we have been so careless? And those were the big, visible animals. In a more recent study from Germany, 75% of flying insects – the insects on which everything else depends – were found to have vanished in 25 years. Things are quietly disappearing. Why are they disappearing?
THE LAST WOLF IN ENGLAND
The story of The Last Wolf started with Red Riding Hood. I wondered: what if, instead of taking that basket of goodies to Granny, Red is in the woods because she wants to catch a wolf. But could she actually find a wolf? In England, wolves were probably extinct by 1500, and the last wolf in Scotland may have been killed in 1680. There were once wolves, lynxes and bears, but we’ve lost all our big predators now and become a land of more Wind in the Willows-sized animals.
But walking in the woods can make you remember that the woods could once be dangerous places, where the unwary and unwise could get into trouble. It’s easy to be hidden in woods.Near where I live in Oxford are the wonderful Wytham Woods, which have been studied for over 60 years and where you can walk around and see big old trees full of lumps and crevices, which are also fun to draw. When I was thinking about the story of the Last Wolf I liked walking in Wytham Woods and imagining a wolf was there, and drawing the big old trees.
I collected my favourite picture book trees – which started with these by Jenny Williams:Here are more beautiful picture book trees. This is from John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk illustrated by Sara Ogilvy:and these wonderful wolfish woods are from Emma Chichester Clarke and Michael Morpurgo’s Pinocchio:I kept these at hand for inspiration. Most of my previous picture books have been set indoors in the world of man-made things, so it was exciting to go venturing into the trees.
Here are some sketchbook pages from when I was working out the Last Wolf. I wasn’t sure how to end the story. I did want to begin and end the story with the Good Old Days forest at the beginning and the shrunken woods eaten into by houses at the end, but my wise editor Joe Marriott at Penguin Random House helped me to find a more hopeful ending.
This is all that was last seen of Vaucanson’s Duck.It is thought to have been destroyed in a fire in 1879. The Duck was an extraordinarily lifelike automaton. It could quack and drink and eat duck-food, which it would then transform into duck-poo to the astonishment of everybody around. It looked like a living breathing bird. But the burnt remains of the Duck reveal the cogs and springs and cams which made this illusion of life happen.
ANIMALS AND US
In the usual human view of the world, it is divided into those that talk and those that don’t. This is very useful, because it means that those that talk can farm and eat those that don’t.
It is Rene Descartes I blame for this. Descartes (1596 – 1650) maintained that animals cannot reason and do not feel pain; animals are living organic creatures, but they are automata, like mechanical robots. Descartes held that only humans are conscious, have minds and souls, can learn and have language and therefore only humans are deserving of compassion.
He assumed animals were automata. But this is a big mix-up: automata – machines which create an illusion of inner life, but work by clockwork and cams – can only be made by humans. Only people make machines like this. Nature doesn’t work this way. In the animal world it seems feelings drive behaviour. Feelings give the impulse to act, and determine what that action might be. Feeling scared at a threat brings an impulse to run away. Feeling strong, brave or angry will make you act differently. If something behaves like it has an inner life – then, I argue – it probably does. If my dog behaves like it is scared, it is because it feels scared. If my dog is behaving like it is pleased to see me, then it must be because it feels pleased to see me (I hope!) Rene Descartes drew up the drawbridge, made the world into Us and Them, human and non-human. The non-human can’t talk, so doesn’t have an inner life. And that means they can be owned, eaten and treated as slaves – all very economically useful. Only with the ideas of Charles Darwin did we start to see ourselves in the continuum of the tree of life, and take our place in the unfolding story of evolution.Picture books are a fantastic direct line to empathy and imagination –– where else can you explore what it would feel like to be an egg or a biscuit or a spoon? But also the great thing about picture books is they are an arena where you can make anything you want happen. And one thing I’ve always wanted is to meet is an animal that could talk. But talking animals only really happen in books. The world of children’s books is crammed with talking animals – from Alice in Wonderland to Narnia to Philip Pullman’s daemons to Piers Torday’s Last Wild – talking animals are rife. Books are windows and doors into experiencing being someone else and that someone may be an animal.The legacy of Rene Descartes was to see animals as automata, giving an illusion of inner life, but not really having it. But automata are only possible because they are manmade – nothing in nature works this way. The inner lives of animals are worth imagining, what it must feel like to be them. Some animals end up being food. Would we be able to treat talking animals this way? It would seem a bit rude to eat someone who you could have a conversation with (see the Dish of the Day episode in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) But maybe it is even ruder to eat someone you don’t know at all. An anonymous meat could well have had a terrible life. Maybe it is worth asking the question: Meat – Who did it use to be? Packaging is powerful stuff. It would be useful if meat packets could tell us more about the life of whoever is in the packet, so we could choose the one who had a good life before they were meat.
MORE TREES PLEASE Red Riding Hood is a tale that came out of the terror of the forests – the ancient human struggle for survival against nature and predators. But things aren’t like this anymore – we’ve remade the landscape of our planet and its animals to support nearly 7 billion humans on Earth. It could be time now to change our Us and Them thinking. It always used to have to be ‘Humans first’, because we were small and the Wild was vast. But now the vast majority – some say 98% – of the mass of vertebrate land animals is us and our livestock. Could we give back a bit more space for the Rest of the World? We could include thinking about nature in everything we plan, and try putting a real value on our existing nature especially ancient woodlands. The amazing 4.6 billion year story of life on Earth – the complex long weaving of our life on Earth – is it OK to unravel and simplify this?
We can tackle this by framing everything we do in the context of nature, but also we have to step back a bit – leave more land unclaimed, leave the Antarctic Krill for the Antarctic animals. This needs regulation and legislation, otherwise a tragedy of the commons always happens. The National Planning Policy Statement of 2012 put ‘sustainable development’ (is that not an impossible thing?) at the heart of the planning system. Here’s my dictionary’s definition of ‘sustainable’:
Sustainable adj 1 able to be sustained. 2 able to be maintained at a fixed level without exhausting natural resources or damaging the environment: sustainable development.
So – sustainable development means development at a level which can be continued indefinitely without environmental degradation. If you systematically convert unbuilt-on land into built-on land so the overall balance of land-use changes – this is not sustainable if carried on indefinitely even at a low level.
There’s a new draft National Planning Policy Statement out for consultation right now. We should make sure that putting space for Nature is at the heart of everything we plan. Here’s how you can give feedback. (And also here.)
Trees are multi-level, they make habitats more three dimensional. Trees seem especially important in cities. The challenge is: can we create our buildings in sympathy with trees, plan around big trees, be generous and build with enough space for big trees? Can we value big old trees as special individual entities – to be valued like national treasures, like St Paul’s Cathedral? A big old tree gives vastly more to us than a young sapling. They are not interchangeable. We have to factor in time, put a value on time so it is not affordable to cut down a big tree. It seems that Sheffield City Council’s destruction of their street trees at the moment is demonstrating exactly how not to do things.
MAKING SPACE FOR NATURE
If you give animals space and habitat to live in they bounce back. Rewilding Yellowstone Park with wolves boosted the whole dimensions of biodiversity there, by returning a missing keystone species – changing the behaviour of their prey and enabling woodland to grow back. Pine martins, red kites, beavers are all coming back from the brink in the UK. Rewilding can make more for all of us by restoring a balance of predators and prey and a more complex natural world.
Here’s a useful cut-out-and-keep Wild Verges Award – if you see a particularly lovely roadside verge of cow parsley and wild flowers later in the year you could award it to the council concerned. Or give it to your own garden.
This post first appeared on Picture Book Den’s Blogspot.
My book The Bad Bunnies is all about a magic show, and while I was making it I got really interested in the history of magic and how illusions are made. So that’s what this post is about.
When I was small I used to long for something magical to happen: for the biscuit bear I’d just baked to come to life, to find a mysterious lamp-post or cupboard full of fur coats that would transport me to another world (I was obsessed with Narnia), to make a potion & find it actually worked, for my cat to talk. But I never seemed to find the magic that I was looking for. My cat never spoke a word to me, my potions made nothing happen and all I ever found round the other side of the lamp-post …was the other side of the lamp-post.
But why this yearning to witness magic?
When magic happens in books and films it seems so easy. We’re used to seeing magic whooshing out of Harry Potter’s wand and extraordinary transformations happening onscreen and on the page. And with the dark arts of cameras and drawing and special effects anything is possible. But what about Real Life Magic?
Real-life magic is harder. Real-life magic is really hard work. Real-life magic is putting in more practice than anyone would ever believe to make something seem effortless.Here are some acrobats doing something that looks just about impossible. But I suspect that this feat has been achieved not with magic but with an astonishing amount of practice, skill and hard work. (Plus nerves of steel.)
So one ingredient of magic is a lot of hard work, invisibly hidden away. But magic tricks done by magicians use the way our brains and vision work so that our brains are helping the illusion to happen – our brain is being the magician’s assistant.
And since our brain is being the magician’s assistant, the magician won’t have to distract or misdirect us necessarily, but will want to be directing our attention towards the magical effect…which means we do the magic – in our heads, with our story-telling brains.
Our vision is constantly trying to make a story it can understand about the world – to work out what is going on so we can predict what might happen next, and we know what to do. Optical illusions are a great way to see this in action.Here’s a grey bar on top of a grey gradient. Look at the grey colour on the bar, and what happens if I cover the gradient background, first the top:
And now the bottom:The grey bar that seemed to have such a definite shading from light to dark at first – has gone flat. Which it was all along. Our eyes couldn’t help attempting to construct an image using our ideas of relative light and shade. Here’s an invisible triangle – what can you see? Can you see its edges? Is it really there? To our eyes, a triangle is a better idea of what might happen than a non-triangle.
With optical illusions you can see your eyes and brain at work constructing the world.
The Vanishing Card
Let’s say a magician makes a card disappear and shows you that it had, then produces it out of someone’s ear. He’s shown show both sides of his hand after the disappearance – but you can’t see both sides at the same time, so have you seen there’s no card? Your brain invents a story, and the story you see is the card has vanished. The story is not that the magician has practiced flipping a card round his hand more times than you can imagine so he or she can do it with supernatural unbelievable skill. Remember those acrobats: what they do is incredible, magical – but we know how they did it – an incredible amount of working at it.
When your brain’s story & the evidence don’t match, you either change your view of what’s going on, or call it magic… The fascinating thing about magic is it reveals how our brains work: how we are storytelling all the time, constructing stories, taking shortcuts and filling in the gaps.
Arthur C Clarke famously said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The history of magic really runs parallel with technological innovations. For example, making a ghost appear on stage wasn’t possible until the invention of plate glass – in big sheets. The Pepper’s Ghost Illusion meant hiding a huge sheet of glass in front of the stage, angled to reflect a figure hidden below the stage – when they were illuminated with a strong light they’d magically appear. Nobody watching was expecting to see huge sheets of hidden plate glass – so they didn’t see it – and Pepper’s Ghost was a sensation.But back to books.
Books are masters of disguise – they can be like so many things. A book can be like a door, a museum, a time-machine, a theatre show.
Every reading of a picture book is like putting on a new performance. When I made The Bad Bunnies’ Magic Show I wanted to make a book that was like a theatre performance, and I wanted the reader to be the audience.
At first I wanted the bunnies’ magic tricks to be proper pop-up paper-engineering, because playing around with pop-ups is such a lot of fun. I managed to make a cabinet that could make Lovely Brenda appear and disappear.
But I realised the transformations I wanted to happen would be really complicated to engineer – and the complicatedness of the mechanisms might limit their visual impact. So as often happens – I found that less is more, and just cutting into the page edge with a magical sort of shape could be all the magic I needed.
I also had to make a stage to work out what was behind the curtain!
So, to return to my childhood hunt for real magic – what it would mean to see something truly inexplicable and magic happen? What if my cat did start talking to me?It would mean I’d have to rethink my entire world model…which would be weird and exciting, but alas still hasn’t had to happen.
The Great Randi, Uri Geller and the Spoons
Uri Geller is an illusionist who did a lot of spoon bending, and explained that it was happening through the force of his mind.
James Randi (the Great Randi) was an incredible magician who also put a lot of time into exposing the deceptions of fraudsters and confidence tricksters. Randi studied Geller’s performances, and worked out exactly how he was producing the illusion of a spoon bending to his will. Randi could demonstrate spoon bending exactly like Uri Geller, but when he did it, people said – “Oh that’s just a trick.” “But what about Uri Geller?” they might be asked. The reply would be “Oh no – when he’s doing it, it’s magic.”
To me, magic show the power of our story-telling minds. Storytelling is how our brains are constructing our worlds. Storytelling is how our brains construct our pasts and predict our futures – and decide what to believe.The Bad Bunnies’ Magic Show is published by Simon and Schuster Children’s Books.
You’d think it would be tricky to lose a blue whale, wouldn’t you? But my son Herbie and I managed it.
The whale had been a favourite Christmas present from Herbie’s Auntie Mavis, who had found him at the Natural History Museum Shop in London. He was furry, blue with whitish spots, had kind eyes, and was a good simple shape to hold. He was called Whaley, and as Herbie was only four and usually needed daily backup at school with a cuddly toy from home, Whaley often did support duties. However, one day in January, we arrived home from school and the whale was gone from the bag he’d been resting in. We retraced our steps back to school, sure we’d find Whaley stranded on the roadside somewhere along the way. But not a whisker. We retraced again back home, squinting under cars, behind garden walls, increasingly desperate. Still no sign of a furry cetacean.
But a whale can’t just disappear. Someone must have retrieved our whale. Maybe some small child had picked him up. But they’d need to know who to return him to, so we made posters. They looked like this:
We put our posters up on the streets and in the school, quite hopeful that boy and whale would soon be reunited. But a week went by, and no whales came out of the woodwork. The trail was going cold. We had to start giving up hope.
Then, two weeks after Whaley’s disappearance, there was a muffled whump on the front door.
We had to piece together what must have happened: Whaley, growing a bit restless and needing more whale company, must have travelled back to London, to the Museum where he’d come from. There he’d found a sperm whale friend, wandered round the museum, had the odd snack, and then found the bus back to Oxford with his new chum.
The Sperm Whale was named Sperm Whaley. (Herbie was going through a state-the-obvious phase when inventing names.) And since then, Whaley has been roaming no more…
..that we know about.
P.S.: If you are ever unfortunate/careless enough to lose your whale, it may be helpful to know that the Natural History Museum Shop in London has an extremely efficient online delivery service. . . .
Here are some toys at large in a Natural History Museum at night….
WHAT TO DO IF YOU LOSE YOUR FAVOURITE TOY
2. Go back and check all the places you may have left it—e.g., (a) the garden, (b) the bus, (c) the moon, (d) Jupiter.
3. Don’t panic.
Abduct all the toys you can find and see if they’re yours. NO! NO! NO! Don’t you know that stealing toys is WRONG?
8. No, don’t panic. It will be in the last place you look. Things always are.
There’s been a bit of news this week about the environmental impact of farming animals. So let’s have another look at meat….
…featuring Sketching Weakly’s new Investigative Journalist, Agatha Frizbee. Over to you, Agatha!
I’ve been down the supermarket…
and I’ve been having a good hard look at the Meat Aisle. And it seems to me that it’s quite difficult from the packets to see who your meat was. And we all want to know, don’t we? We want to know that they had a nice life before they became meat.
It’s been raining and the molluscs are on the move, charging up the garden path, swarming up stalks and flinging themselves acrobatically from leaf to leaf as they circle in on Sketching Weakly’s prize Campanula Pendula. Which is now a sad-looking stalk.
…in the carriage where the air-conditioning was broken and the designer hadn’t thought to include any blinds. Trying to draw the reflection of the man in front, he became a hallucinatingly large apparition.
So had a go at some (largely imaginary) trees seen from the window. The train helpfully stopped quite often due to signalling problems near Hayes and Harlington.