“You do not have to be good./You do not have to walk on your knees/for a hundred miles through the desert repenting./You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.” --Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
Is it natural and instinctive, then, for humans to love (non-human) animals, even though too often that instinct is smothered? Such a natural love seems reasonable, given humankind’s reputation in some circles for innate goodness. Then again, the second part – about suppressed instincts – also seems true. (Just think about the newspaper stories of people who abuse animals – cock fights to Michael Vick’s dog fights to setting dogs and cats on fire, to drowning kittens. . .)
These first five lines from the poem remind me of a slogan I’ve learned and liked from the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance (NJ-ARA.org): “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” In other words, don’t wait to be perfect or till you can do it all before reaching out; instead, reaching out contributes to whatever perfection humans might be capable of.
Even though Mary Oliver may have been writing about admitting love for other humans, I’d like to think she was trying to summon our better selves, to remind us of our kinship w/ animals and to treat them in the right, humane way. That humans sometimes have dominance over animals is just a quirk of fate and doesn’t ever make us better than them.