Sunday, 14 November 2010

Purple Poppies

I am glad that the life of pandas is so dull by human standards, for our efforts at conservation have little moral value if we preserve creatures only as human ornaments; I shall be impressed when we show solicitude for warty toads and slithering worms. (Stephen Jay Gould)

I wore a purple poppy this year, and it seems I am not the only one. It was not in place of the red poppy, but in addition to it. They are also starting to make the news across England:

With just days to go before Remembrance Day, a purple poppy has surfaced in Edmonton, and it's raising some eyebrows. The purple poppy is designed to recognize animals who served and lost their lives in war. Kevin Stewart brought 30 of the poppies to Earth's General Store on Whyte Avenue. The store is out of the poppies already. The purple poppy originated in England, where they are supported by the British Legion. Many battle sites throughout Europe even display the poppies, but some Canadian veterans are having a harder time getting on board. (1)

And in London, the well known campaigner for human rights, Peter Tatchell was also supporting the purple poppy:

At the Animals In War memorial off Park Lane, campaigner Peter Tatchell was the guest speaker. He wore a purple poppy, which was introduced five years ago by charity Animal Aid to commemorate animals' suffering during wartime. (2)

But there are other ways animals are commemorated for their part in wars and conflict zones as well. In 1943, Maria Dickin insitituted the Dickin Medal:

The Dickin Medal was instituted in 1943 in the United Kingdom by Maria Dickin to honour the work of animals in war. It is a bronze medallion, bearing the words "For Gallantry" and "We Also Serve" within a laurel wreath, carried on ribbon of striped green, dark brown and pale blue. It is awarded to animals that have displayed "conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units". The award is commonly referred to as "the animals' Victoria Cross". (Wikipedia)

It was replaced in 1949 by the PDSA's (People's Dispensary for Sick Animals) Silber Medal. And the most recent animal to be honoured was Treo, a black labrador:

Treo, a black Labrador which sniffed out bombs in southern Afghanistan has been awarded the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross - called the Dickin medal. The eight-year-old 'Treo' twice found hidden bombs while on tour in Afghanistan with the 104 Military Working Dog Support Unit. He is now retired and living with his handler, Sergeant David Heyhoe.(3)

What is the importance of these kinds of actions, from wearing purple poppies to the Dickin medal? The psychologist Oliver James says human beings have a powerful desire to bestow human attributes on animals, and this is the reason. But I don't think that is the whole story, or even an important part of the story, certainly not when I wear a purple poppy.

For me, it represents an acknowledgement that animals have been brought into the field of human conflict, and we are responsible for doing so - and we cannot just treat animals as cannon fodder, as disposable assets, mere tools to be disposed of as we wish. In other words, it is part of a greater attitude to the natural world - to we treat the world as purely there for our convenience, to be pillaged as we wish, with animals such as the great whales hunted to extinction, or do we regard ourselves as stewards of the planet? The "instrumentalist" view of the natural world is shown in C.S. Lewis "fairytale for adults", "That Hideous Strength", where one of the characters contrasts the old Celtic tradition with the modernist Belbury:

"Merlin is the reverse of Belbury. He's at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one's horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead--a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won't work as the way he pleases" CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength

And this is the crux of the matter - how we treat animals in war - as biological machines of no more merit than a tank or machine gun, or as part of the same world that we ourselves inhabit, is also part of our understanding of the world in which we live. And that is why purple poppies are important, not because of what feelings we impute to animals, but as a significant part of how we think about nature itself. Are we gods, to whom the natural world, like the fickle Greek gods, is merely there for our amusement and pleasure? Or do values of conservation, or the importance of animals and species, form part of a whole pattern in which we ourselves must play a significant role, if we are to survive?

I will conclude, therefore, with a quotation from Gerry Durrell, most apt for a Jersey blogger, in which - far better than myself - he shows how the jigsaw of conservation fits together:

Firstly what does conservation mean? It is not merely the saving from extinction of such species as the Notornis, the Leadbetters Possum or the Leathery Turtle; this is important work but it is only part of the problem. You cannot begin to preserve any species of animal unless you preserve the habitat in which it dwells. Disturb or destroy that habitat and you will exterminate the species as surely as if you had shot it. So conservation means that you have to preserve forest and grassland, river and lake, even the sea itself. This is not only vital for the preservation of animal life generally, but for the future existence of man himself - a point that seems to escape many people.

We have inherited an incredibly beautiful and complex garden, but the trouble is that we have been appallingly bad gardeners. We have not bothered to acquaint ourselves with the simplest principles of gardening. By neglecting our garden, we are storing up for ourselves, in the not very distant future, a world catastrophe as bad as any atomic war, and we are doing it with all the bland complacency of an idiot child chopping up a Rembrandt with a pair of scissors. We go on, year after year, all over the world, creating dust bowls and erosion, cutting down forests and overgrazing our grasslands, polluting one of our most vital commodities - water - with industrial filth and all the time we are breeding with the ferocity of the Brown Rat, and wondering why there is not enough food to go round. We now stand so aloof from nature that we think we are God. This has always been a dangerous supposition.(4)

(4) Two in the Bush (1966), Gerald Durrell

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