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Embracing The Beauty In Life

The alpine peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 2008.
The alpine peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 2008.

Judy Van der Veer is an American author (1912-1982) who wrote books that are too little remembered now. In her works of fiction and non-fiction, Van der Veer beautifully brings alive small California worlds close to nature.

The novel November Grass (1940) tells of a 23-year-old woman (called "the girl") who lives on a ranch in the valleys east of San Diego. Surrounded by animals, she observes the small details of their lives. She notices the cow who labors in pain, then turns to greet her calf "with all love in her eyes."

This is no cute-animal story, however. The girl fattens calves then takes them from their mothers for sale; this the girl both accepts as necessary and as a weight on her heart. Out walking the hills, she finds signs of death:

Skulls of cattle, eyes no longer empty, but filled with grass. ...

The ivory whiteness of these bones made her think that death treated them better than it did the buried bones of men who had owned the cattle. ... Here at least the bones were free of the flesh that kept them from wind and sun. But the poor bones of man were ever in darkness. She wished that her own bones, when she was done using them, could rest cleanly in the sunshine.

The book is not in the least a downer; rather, Van der Veer's words thrum with all of life's emotions. In my own writing, I work to support with evidence my claims that non-human animals — from ducks and cats to chimpanzees and dolphins — feel love, joy, vexation and grief. In Van der Veer's books, these emotions emerge naturally from farm animals' lives.

A black cow's calf dies, and that night the mother calls out for her lost one:

All night long she grieved until by morning her voice was hoarse.

A young bull explodes into joy:

He was in ecstasies of delight. Being a little bull, he couldn't write a poem or sing a song, and the need to express himself was very great. So, until dark, he praised the earth with all the exuberance of his stocky young body. And when he was tired at least it seemed that he might well have gathered a lot of the goodness of the earth into his very bones.

From A Few Happy Ones, Van der Veer's memoir (1943), we learn of the experiences that fueled her fiction. The wise person knows, she concludes, that, despite life's inevitable suffering, he will be all right if "he can still enjoy the good moments that come at times to all living things, if he can still take pleasure in what beauty he chances to see."

I thank my California friend and fellow primatologist Joanne Tanner for first sending "Judy books" my way. With this little Valentine to Van der Veer, I pay it forward: she's a gift to lovers of literature and the natural world.

You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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