The children’s book writer Theodor Seuss Geisel, who wrote under the pseudonym “Dr Seuss”, had other pseudonyms too. In one of his lesser known books I Wish that I Had Duck Feet, he goes by Theo. LeSieg (LeSieg is Geisel backwards).
I began reading I Wish that I Had Duck Feet to my kids before I had actually previewed it, and was appalled by the end of the book, how the story turns, and how it ends. I didn’t know Theo. LeSieg was another name for Dr. Seuss, so I didn’t have my irony hat on. I even said to myself, “wow, that is sort of the antithesis to Dr Seuss!”
If I could ask him, I would inquire if he really thought young kids could grasp this kind of extreme irony.
In the book, there is a little boy who wishes he had duck feet, and then antlers, and then a whale spout, then a tiger tail, and then an elephant trunk for a nose. In each case he imagines, the boy arrives at the conclusion that either his mother, or society, would end up rejecting him. Then, he dreams about having the duck feet, antlers, whale spout, tiger tail and elephant nose all at once, and on that page, there is an illustration of him being mocked by proper folk, and arrested by police on the street. He begins to realize that none of these wild accoutrements have any place in his world. So at the end of the book, he has nothing of the wild left, and a crowd of well-adjusted, civil folk are beaming at him with pride, and approval. The very last page is of him walking away from a trash can, full of wild things.
Knowing a bit about Dr Seuss, I can’t possibly believe he would have written this book as a lesson to teach children to be tame and proper. It’s almost like a code for the opposite.
This week, my husband Ian, listened to one of my favourite recordings of mythologist Martin Shaw, telling the story of the Fox Woman, so we've been having wonderful conversations about the story.
Here is an excerpt telling of the Fox Woman Dreaming story, from Dr Martin Shaw’s essay Turning our Heads from the Pelt:
Once upon a time there was a lonely hunter. One day, exhausted, returning to his hut over the snow, he saw smoke coming from his chimney. When he entered the shack, he found a warm fire, a hot meal on the table, and his threadbare clothes washed and dried. There was no one to be found.
The next day, he doubled back early from hunting. Sure enough, there was again smoke from the chimney, and he caught the scent of cooking. When he cautiously opened the door, he found a fox pelt hanging from a peg, and woman with long red hair and green eyes adding herbs to a pot of meat. He knew in the way that hunters know that she was fox-woman-dreaming, that she had walked clean out of the Otherworld. “I am going to be the woman of this house” she told him.
The hunters life changed. There was laughter in the hut, someone to share in the labour of crafting a life, and, in the warm dark when they made love, it seemed the edges of the hut dissolved in the vast green acres of the forest and the stars.
Over time, the pelt started to give off its wild, pungent smell. A small price you would think, but the hunter started to complain. The hunter could detect it on his pillow, his clothes, even on his own skin. His complaints grew in number until one night the woman nodded once across their small table, her eyes glittering. In the morning she, and the pelt, and the scent, was gone.
It is said that to this day the hunter waits by the door of his hut, gazing over snow, lonely for even a glimpse of his old love.
For me, because I am a daughter of the Christian household, I can’t help but often look through that lens. Meaning… when I hear the Fox Woman Dreaming story, I often think of the wildness of the garden and the attempted taming of God. In other words, when I hear the story, I sort of invert the common Eden telling, which usually assumes that everything was nice, and tame, prior to the infamous fruit eating, and only after the fruit eating, is when everything became wild. But what if buried deep in that story, is a forgetting of a primordial part of ourselves that must be remembered, for recapitulation?
And of course, we could say, this tempering the wild, is a necessary part of evolution. Dealing with the lizard brain. Finding practices to aid us with irrational fight or flight reactions. Yes, right, of course, but that does not rule out the question: are there more sides to the evolutionary coin? In our process of evolving beyond the lizard brain, have we also tamed imperative wild parts of ourselves, wild creation, and God too? I'll warrant that this sort of taming is in desperate need of a major course correction.
For mythologist Martin Shaw, particularly schooled in his place in the world, Devon, he does see that there is a bridge from the wild to “conviviality” or what he would call “gallantry”. In his language, real, whole, wildness is connected to whether or not we are initiated. This is my language, too.
We have traded the wild and the hearty, for uninitiated civility - and in most cases, we have called this civility, “Christian”.
I recently mentioned being at my friend’s place, and seeing a nerve gas mask from WWI, hanging on the same wall as an elongated ritual mask of an indigenous origin. These side-by-side images are still haunting me.
My great uncle had to wear one of those nerve gas masks. And one of the times he wasn’t, the nerve gas overcame him, in some filthy trench.
When I used to sit on his knee, I could feel how shaky his body was, and I would look up at the part of his eye that had been grazed by shrapnel.
There he was, born into the story of violence in the name of civility. He had been swept up into the machine of the uninitiated, that would catapult technology into the unimaginably fast pace we find it today.
For some time now, I have been haunted by the concept that our relationship with, and financial investments in technology, has had something to do with separating wholes, and sundering sacred unions, in order to destroy. Like, in order to have God-like powers to destroy life, we need to pull apart and tamper with the building blocks of life.
Then, when I was recently on pilgrimage to Iona, I listened to John Philip Newell speak of his mentor George McLeod. I was truly awestruck by McLeod’s mysticism, as I soaked in his palpably present legacy there in that place.
This quote of McLeod's pummelled me even further than I’ve ever gone, into the haunted longing for initiated union with the wild, and with the God of that wild. It made me yearn for a different story. One in which innovation merges into a union with nature.
This longing never ceases, and is like a prayer.
Here is a quote from Daily Readings with George McLeod, page 68-9,
Suppose the material order, as we have argued, is indeed the garment of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Ghost. Suppose the bread and wine, symbols of creation, are indeed capable of redemption awaiting its Christification. Then what is the atom but the emergent body of Christ?…
The Feast of the Transfiguration is August 6th. That is the day when we ‘happened’ to drop the bomb at Hiroshima. We took His body and we took His blood and we enacted a cosmic Golgotha. We took the key to love and we used it for bloody hell.
Nobody noticed. I am not being cheap about other people. I did not notice it myself. I was celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration, in a gown and a cassock, a hood, a stole, white hands, saying with the whole Christian ministry, ‘This is my body. This is my blood.’
The while our ‘Christian civilization’, without Church protest, made its assertion of the complete divorce between spirit and matter.
One man noticed. When the word came through to Washington of the dropping of the atom bomb - ‘Mission successfully accomplished’- Dr Oppenheimer, in large degree in our name its architect, was heard to say, ‘Today the world has seen sin.’
I recently listened to the podcast Another Name for Everything with Richard Rohr, Brie Stoner and Paul Swanson. It was the episode from the second season, on parenting. I found myself weeping when Richard said, “if you’re a Christian, sing Jesus Loves Me to your children.” He was speaking about children needing to enter into the Mystery through the particular. Ever since then, I have been singing it every day with my young kids. One time this week, they even sang it with me to the rhythm of my milking our Jersey cow, Lady Susan. It doesn’t get more “particular” than that.
This song Fox Woman, can be heard at many levels. And I am daring to "interpret" the story through song in the first place. What comes up for me with this story is how much we fear the wild, certainly, but mostly, how much we fear death. And maybe even through insular walls, we fear a Creator with both feminine and masculine fire, that would indwell in oneness, with such a wild, fertile, unpredictable world. The voice in this song could be Mother Earth herself, baring her dark breasts, levelled by industry, and showing us her commodified womb, running dry.
For my part, I sing Fox Woman with the longing I have for collective reunion, with our wild creator, and with this wild world. We are causing all kinds of extinction, through the severance story we tell ourselves. And to be at least a bit gentle to people... it is very likely that this severance story resulted at the dawn of human consciousness of mortality. And maybe the reunion story will happen, when we make peace with death.
In the meantime, the lie of separation muffles the cry of the earth, the cry of the wild, and the cry of you, yourself. Because your cabin in the woods, is the Fox Woman's cabin. And she may very well still be stirring a stew at the fire, but has only left your awareness.
We will be forever haunted... we are atomic garments of Christ.
To close, I want to mention again the book I Wish that I Had Duck Feet, written by Theo. LeSieg.
I wonder if perhaps Dr Seuss had heard a rendition of Fox Woman Dreaming, and then perhaps put his tongue in his cheek, and gave civilization what it was looking for. A tame child, who leaves wild things behind. But I wonder also, if he might have written a secret last page we will never see, and on that page, the child grows up to then pick up a gun, or a bomb, as though that is the appropriate, civilized next step, that we all ought to accept.
Look at the image below, of all the wild things in the trash can. If you look more closely, you will see a set of paint brushes, a guitar, and a manuscript, of a novel, or book of poetry.
And although he aches for those wild things, the grown up boy’s parting line will be,
“long live short term profits”.
Alana Levandoski is a song and chant writer, recording artist and music producer, in the Christian tradition, who lives with her family on a regenerative farm on the Canadian prairies.