Most of our science, philosophy and religion starts from the assumption that there are humans and there are animals – and there could never at any point be any common ground between them. To call someone an animal is as bad an insult as you can offer, and yet we’re all mammals. For centuries, the notion of human uniqueness was the most fundamental orthodoxy. Now it is being challenged. Book after book ventures into the no-man’s-land – the no-animal’s-land – that lies between our species and the other ten million or so in the animal kingdom. As often as not, they reveal more of ourselves than of our fellow animals.
With every page we turn, we can feel the resistance to any suggestion that non-human animals are even remotely like ourselves. Of course animals can’t think, can’t feel, can’t talk. We resist this not because such things are impossible but because they are unthinkable. Our lives would be horribly compromised if we accepted that we humans were just one more species of animal.
The village of Hobart, New York, is home to two restaurants, one coffee shop, zero liquor stores, and, strangely enough, five independent bookstores. “The books just show up,” Barbara Balliet, who owns Blenheim Hill Books, says. “I’ve come to the store and bags of books are waiting for me.” Fewer than 500 people live in Hobart. Yet from Main Street, in the center of town, you’re closer to a copy of the Odyssey in classical Greek, or a vintage collection of Jell-O recipes, than a gas station.
This literature-laden state of affairs emerged just after the turn of the millennium, when two residents of Manhattan, Diana and Bill Adams, stopped in Hobart during a trip through the Catskills. “We were both intrigued,” says Bill, who worked as a physician for 40 years. “I saw what a charming, and somewhat rustic, but civilized, area it was.” He and his wife Diana, a former lawyer, were looking for retirement activities that they could pursue into their old age.
Of all the mistakes made by city planners in the postwar era, the passion for highway construction has to be one of the most foolhardy. After the early success of systems like the autobahn and freeways, cities everywhere were carved up to make way for giant roads, crashing through neighbourhoods and creating opportunities for “comprehensive redevelopment”.
This was considered progress, a necessary part of entering the modern world. But some strange things happened – the most damning being that these new roads didn’t reduce traffic at all. Instead, they induced demand, clogging up almost as quickly as they were built. As time went on, communities began rejecting the plans and fighting back against the bulldozers, halting development in its tracks and kickstarting the modern conservation movement.
Finally, the knockout blow was the oil crisis of the 1970s which put an end to many big plans. Looking back, we can marvel at how outrageous some of these and later schemes were, and the traces they left behind.
Part love story and part speculative sci-fi, it’s a meandering, albeit meaningful, look at marriage, technology and ghosts — those of the otherworldly type that may exist but also specters of our past that influence our present.