chapter  3
Learning about Disasters from Animals
ByGREG BANKOFF
Pages 14

Nestled on the edge of the Teutoburg Forest on the outskirts of Bielefeld in Northwestern Germany stands the Bauernhaus Museum, whose centerpiece is a late sixteenth-century farmhouse as implied by its name. The structure, in fact, is as much a barn for animals as it is a home for humans in that the quarters for one merge seamlessly with the other. Among the exhibits of the Museum is a plaque explaining what happened in the event of the farmer’s death. In these circumstances, a close member of the family visited each stall in turn to inform the occupant of what had occurred and urge the animal not to desert the farm and accompany the master into the afterlife. The building and its exhibit speak of a time not so long ago when the human and the natural worlds were not considered such discrete realms, separating culture from nature, but of a period when human-animal relations were more elastic. It also lends credence to the notion that alternative, non-mechanistic views of nature abound all around us, even in Western society (cf. Degnen 2009). The plaque with its reminder of the importance in keeping all members of a farming community informed and of enlisting the participation of the animals in any changes to be made emphasizes the ways in which trans-species communication take place. For humans, animals are not only commodities, pets, food, or the embodiment of “nature” as frequently depicted in scientific treatises, but they also have “voice”. They should not only feature in Western scholarship as symbolic resources used to represent human social relations-that is because they are “good to think” with-but because they also have something to “say” (Lévi-Strauss 1963, 89). There is a need, as urged by Matei Candea, “to leave behind symbolic reductionism and focus on animals as participants in society, as agents entangled in actual social relations” (Candea 2010, 253). More than having something to say, they may even have something to teach.