On the Animal Trail

On the Animal Trail
by Baptiste Morizot; Andrew Brown, Translator

Polity Press, Cambridge, UK/Boston, MA, 2021
180 pp. Paper, $22.95
ISBN: 978-1509547180.

Reviewed by: 
Gregory Tague
December 2021

On the Animal Trail by Baptiste Morizot is an impressive work of philosophy written in a beautifully lyrical form. Part memoir, travelogue, and science writing, the book’s structure is almost novelistic with a strong narrative voice, characterization, compelling plot, and literary elements. Yet the work is deeply philosophical, made evident in the paradox of the title: The “animal” trail is about tracking and finding through other creatures what it means to be human-in-the-world. Tracking is not just the skill of following an invisible animal but also the art of grasping human nature. Morizot is a gifted thinker and talented writer, and this is the type of stimulating, erudite book many readers will not want to end. The work is difficult to pigeonhole, but it’s recommended for students of cultural anthropology, environmental studies, and animal ethics.

Morizot’s stated intention is to track the seemingly invisible traces of animals through human geopolitics. He wants us to learn about the lives of other creatures, not ignore them. There are, then, phenomenological moments of being with animals in their world and through signs they’ve left while they are momentarily absent. This act is political because as humans continue to occupy more wild habitats, there’s a pressing existential question of how people can live socially with animals, for many nonhuman creatures are socially capable. A key concern is how people can cohabit spaces with other life forms without exploiting ecosystems, as has been raised by political thinkers like Sue Donaldson, Will Kymlicka, and Eva Meijer. Morizot forces us to enquire about our urban dwelling, not separate from but in a natural world shared with other species in a metamorphosis of becoming another.

What we blithely call nature is not a “passive backdrop” (2) for our recreation, entertainment, and exploitation. In fact, nature is not external to being human in the world, as many hunter-gatherers and other indigenous people already know. Perhaps modern Westerners like Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, the primatologists who tracked great apes on the level of the soil, in swamps, through blackwater rivers, and from trees also know. As Charles Darwin showed, humans are related to and in a relationship with the inhabitants of an extended physical community, all of whom are being in, breathing with, and becoming through the world. In this respect, Morizot talks about “enforesting” (7) oneself or acquiring a new perspective of sensitivity to create an animal relationship, a communicative diplomacy, a move away from the human tendency of self-centeredness.

Morizot tells the story of spending one night among a flock of sheep (in France) predated upon by wolves. In the middle of the night he encounters the wolf and charges at it. Later, before sunrise, there’s another encounter, this time with eye contact, one interior intention coming to know another. Wolves come up periodically in the book, and his writing about them is as good as ecologist Carl Safina’s. The wolf’s intelligent tactics of stealthy attack are compared to those of people, suggesting that humans learned from careful observation of wolves. In this nighttime rendezvous, the wolf is the subject of his own agency, not an object of the human hunter. Meantime, this place is inhabited by humans who visit as tourists, supposedly having eliminated wolves from the area. Wolves helped deer adapt agility, alertness, and grace, and when the author unexpectedly encounters a doe, it’s a phenomenological gift of experiencing the world without the human ego. Who has sovereignty of the land, Morizot seems to ask, for in his terrain the wolf acts as he must and is not, according to human law, a lethal enemy of ungulate property. On his long walks he meets some bears who mirror his curiosity and bodily movements in mutual avoidance. Accepting the other on equal terms is what he calls “empathic courage” (46) when each takes the other’s perspective embedded in and not separate from the biomass energies of food chains. Ecological reciprocity is respected.

Morizot rides on horseback with others in Kyrgyzstan fulfilling a need to travel and disperse, like other species. On the treeless steppe people live off animals: wearing their fur, eating their flesh, burning their dung to heat yurts. His mission is to know the mysterious wildlife of a reserve, with particular attention on the snow leopard. In his expedition, one of the workers at the wildlife preserve seems to pose a question that haunts Morizot’s book: “Was nature made for us, or are we, with her...partners?” (57). The use of horses in this section reveals further human-animal communication in the shared enterprise of tracking the bear who, in turn, is tracking food. Involved in all of this and closely related to human thinking is “animal logic” (59). Tracking involves both close inspection and distance observation, metaphors of reading nature and interpersonal communication between humans and other animals. This chapter about exploits in mountainous Kyrgyzstan to scope out wild inhabitants is particularly lyrical and evocative in the author’s attempt to relearn human nature outside of a city. In writing reminiscent of naturalist Aldo Leopold, Morizot’s involvement in this part of the world is seeing through the perspective of the invisible creatures he tracks, whether wolf, bear, or panther, who leave only small signatures, like a scratch on a rock, a partial paw print, or a tuft of fur. There’s a puzzle in how immersion in the wild, animal world makes people receptive, an opening outward without the confinement of human myopia. With close attention to the details of nature, one becomes keenly aware of a converging relationship to animals, all of whom along with humans form a rhythmic continuum of similarities and differences in evolved forms of behavior. The point seems to be about how sediments of hominin, primate, and animal pasts can manifest in our modern physical and mental behaviors if we free ourselves to tap into them, evidenced, for example, in the patience of hunter-gatherers.

At Haut-Var in France, with wolves again, tracking is not hunting but a way to read and interpret not only the physical but also the mental behaviors of an animal. Anatomically modern humans lived in such an ecological niche which helped evolve their brains into ours. Over the course of three years of tracking, he concludes that some wolves in that area eat crayfish, unusual cultural continuity of fishing found in a solitary group. This special identification elevates the wolves from merely a biological species to individuals with a shared tradition. As it turns out, in a reversal, the wolves have been tracking the humans based on physical evidence. In another section of this chapter, he follows an antelope whose sense of smell is greater than his in avoiding a Yellowstone grizzly. He also reads signs from crows to locate a carcass, much as wolves and bears employ interspecies signs. Tracking as metamorphosis helps humans “merge” (108) into the ontological sphere of other animals, perhaps embodying their consciousness. In fact, evolved behaviors in habitats overlap in an ecosystem occupied by many organisms, multiple minds and bodies adapting different perspectives. His job as a tracker is to imagine the animal’s world from the sometimes obscure clues left behind, whether half eaten foods, broken branches, or fecal remains. The tracker is deeply interested in animal eco-psychology, and he can decipher or predict movement based on soil, ground cover, and clouds. Morizot reminds people that they are not alone in this world, even in urban areas, and contact with other organisms enriches their lives. The tracker does not look for or see himself but is a diplomat in another community, separate but yet linked.

In his final chapter, Morizot makes some tempting and daring claims. He says that long distance tracking of the invisible is a key development from early hominins to Homo sapiens cognition and intelligence. As he puts it: a frugivore “changed into...a predominantly carnivorous omnivore” – our “singularity” (141). In his opinion, this ability is rated more highly than any human/nonhuman primate phylogeny. He sees most human thought, whether in mathematics or philosophy, as an exaptation of early human tracking skills. In other words, writing and reading are like deciphering signs derived from tracking, where group tracking was the adaptation in a neural reward system. The group collective evaluates the tracks, all speak, and data is compared to posit a plan. This, he says, is the origin of much human discourse and thought. Some of this thinking is not new, since primatologists have posited great ape intelligence in their ability to identify, recall the locations of, and find hundreds of food items. What’s different here is how Morizot does not lay emphasis on the hunting but on the tracking. The skills and thinking involved in tracking would include understanding the mind of another animal, prediction, anticipation, and self-control. Biological and cultural anthropologists have posited a number of theories concerning the development of intelligence, and reliance on one aspect neglects to pull them all together. While it’s difficult to disagree with Morizot, we’d also have to consider the cognitive abilities of tracking along with, for instance, the mother-infant dyad, a social brain hypothesis in group living, so-called Machiavellian intelligence, and consciousness in material culture, to name a few.

Morizot’s writing makes his presentation of this theory fascinating, though, and it’s a fitting conclusion to the book. Tracking in early humans was a patient, symbolic diagnosis with speculation and the weighing of judgment from another’s point of view, problem solving. In this way tracking can be political (my word) since it permits the tracker to understand and identify with an animal and its movements in a habitat; it’s psychologically social on some level. That’s the point Morizot is driving home: humans cannot view themselves as conquerors of earth but as mutual inhabitants in many ecosystems shared with billions of organisms.