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All Animals That Are Not White Men

Claude Lévi-Strauss observed, “cooking food is a metaphor for the human transformation of nature into culture.” Cooking is the thing that separates us from other animals, but it can also be the thing that brings us together. Cooking and its relationship to domestication and the taming of the wild initiate our long history of manipulating the natural world to suit our desires.

Domestication is a process of changing plants or animals to make them more useful to humans. The domestication of nature through taming or training is an effort to produce desired traits: beauty, behavior, or appearance. It can cultivate a population of organisms that may become dependent and lose their ability to survive in the wild. Domestication refers to a whole population; taming may involve just an individual. Cooking is just one example of taking organic material and transforming it into a cultural product. The act of harnessing nature and turning it into something aesthetically pleasing is as common as topiary, ornamental gardens, elaborate confectionery, and the training of horses or other “animals.” The idea of being close to nature is very seductive to us. We are drawn to the exoticism of the other, the wildness, the unknown, and chaos. Perhaps this explains our need to tame wildness. However, while we want to commune with it, we do not want to be subject to its whim.

According to eco-feminist and scholar Caroline Merchant, this taming of “the chaos of nature into order destroyed a great deal of the earth’s cultural and biotic diversity.” Of course, we later tried to repair the situation by creating the great parks and conservation projects of the nineteenth century, “but these movements ostracized those ‘others’ of different classes and colors that did not fit into the story.”

Wittgenstein wrote “if a lion could talk we could not understand him,” perhaps implying that we do not have the ability to comprehend the alternate universe that exists in the mind of a nonhuman animal (Other, stranger). I have found in the years spent working with wild animals that the only certainty is uncertainty. Without fail, the animals subverted every plan I had for them. I try to remain aware of my anthropomorphic assumptions, but I think these experiences have made me realize that our language is indeed very different, and it is worth engaging and learning to embrace the chaos of plans gone awry. Especially since increasingly we share the same spaces and need to start to relinquish our territoriality.

I, myself, am drawn to the allure of taming nature by way of flour, sugar, and eggs into cake.  I am fascinated by the vast number of cookbooks and recipes dating back to the ancient Egyptians for performing this task. While I am working in the kitchen to make food for all the animals I feed, we are surveying each other from a distance, wondering who is taming whom.


Dana Sherwood

Dana Sherwood is an artist living in New York and working with animals worldwide.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2015

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