Proud as a Lion. Sly as a Fox. Cold as a Fish. Meek as a Mouse. Free as a Bird. Gentle as a Lamb. Blind as a Bat. Monkey Around. Play Possum. Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. Our ideas about animals are at the base of thousands of metaphors and similes in human language. Animal metaphors pre-date any technology and are among the oldest elements of human language. Animals are our first mirror. Their reflections show us the connections and separations between all the species that share the Earth.
Mirror Shards began with my interest in the role animal symbols, metaphors and similes take in how we build empathy. Empathy begins when we are able to imagine what it’s like to be someone or something else. Language helps us to build this bridge. The earliest myths, fables and religious tales blur the walls between us; they are replete with talking animals, people who could talk to animals, or human/animal hybrids.
Often, we look at animals see love, pride, anger, sorrow, cunning…the entire encyclopedia of “human” qualities, in a circular series of observations and interpretations. Let’s take “pride” as an example. We say lions are proud. We say, he is proud as a lion. The compound idea of human/lion-pride is imposed back on the lion, where it shapes what we think lions are. This “pride” is tangled up with lion ferocity, with an roar, with harems of lionesses gathered at his feet. A very male and embattled pride, and different from, say, quiet pride. The reflection forms a concept of pride that could not exist on its own.
Metaphors themselves are building blocks of empathy. They’re everywhere in kids’ books; transcending the self is almost inseparable from learning to read. When Little Girl thinks she is a puppy-dog, or Little Boy identifies with the she-cub in a storybook, they step outside of the limits of individual selfhood and imagine other lives. Kids’ books offer a formative safe space to enter into imagined realities of another creature’ emotions and needs.
This transformative experience draws its power from the very impossibility of many of its characters. Possum Girl wears a dress, plays with dolls, goes to school, and does human-girl stuff. but she rides to school by clutching her mother’s back. She goes to sleep at night hanging upside down from a branch in her bedroom. When a little boy reads this story he may identify more with her than a little human girl. A human character makes him aware of all the ways that a boy is different from a girl, as well as differences of gender, race and age. But a successful hybrid character creates an open and unstable space, an impossible creature that demands that the reader suspend a larger portion of the imagination, which can result in a greater span of boundary coming down.
Concepts that complicate and destabilize the boundaries between human and nonhuman animal open up the space of yearning to be part of the world he have lost. Are losing. Animal identities offer a release from ourselves, and unexpected experiences and perceptions in real and fantastic worlds.
In Mirror Shards, animal costumes act as shamanistic constructs. They allow the subject to merging with another, in body and mind. Each animal is one that has a strong presence as a metaphor, in English, and various other languages.
My deepest, ultimate concern in Mirror Shards is for the animals. A world is lost with each lost species. Every living species. We have become immune to the tragic stories in animal documentaries on Animal Planet and National Geographic. Mirror Shards is a plea for the protection of our broken mirror, for our cycle of reflection, as we shatter the world of the animals themselves.