Saturday, June 11, 2011

Out of the Wild

Although I've been traveling across the Scalps for over a month now, it wasn't until today that I finally saw a jackalope. They're not easy to find. I only barely caught a glimpse of this one; it was running between two hills, out in the open for as little time as possible. I thought it was an ordinary jackrabbit at first. I had just enough time to see the tiny antlers on its head before it vanished into the grass.

According to legends, some jackalopes will grant wishes if you catch them (or wealth, or luck, or wisdom, depending on who you ask). No one I've met has ever succeeded in catching one - or if they have, they aren't telling anyone. After centuries, jackalopes have gotten good at not being found.

There are a lot of clever animals on the Scalps. The local foxes are a jackalope's match - some of them, at least - and so are the rhyming magpies. Colonies of the long-legged grass ants have shown rather alarming intelligence at times, though whether they count as one animal or many is anyone's guess. This may be the reason for a widespread belief on the Scalps - that every intelligent being was an animal that somehow found a way to be reborn. The methods of doing this vary quite a lot.

This is seen as an improvement, not because people are considered better than animals (after all, according to this theory, they're the same individuals), but because people have more options. An animal's life and personality are largely determined by its species. It is also, of course, somewhat more pleasant to live in a house and eat cooked food instead of sleeping out in the cold and eating raw dead things; this is considered sufficient reason to want a civilized life all by itself. So is the existence of art. Some believe that music alone (or painting, or poetry, or storytelling, depending on your tastes) is all the reason anyone needs to live in civilization.*

Domesticated animals, while not quite human also tend to have more widely varied personalities than their wild counterparts.** They are seen as an intermediate step - creatures that didn't quite manage the leap to intelligence, but are perhaps halfway there. Ones that show an appreciation for art are thought to be farther along than others and are encouraged. No one on the Scalps stops a dog from howling along with a song.

For similar reasons, people tend to treat animals well here. Killing an animal for food is all right; you are, after all, simply sending it one step further on its journey to intelligence. (Besides, carnivores have to eat something.) Causing unnecessary pain, however, is considered barbaric. Twenty years from now, an animal could turn out to be your own grandchild. It's best to treat all of them kindly.

Many of the stories of the plains are, not surprisingly, about animals seeking humanity. Hance DeStrill has written whole books about them. The most common heroes are the clever ones, such as foxes, crows, and jackalopes, but there are also stories are about more unlikely species. Several tell of the surprising successes of termites or tubermoles.***

A major event in anyone's spiritual life is the discovery (or the theorizing, as few people are ever entirely sure) of what animal they were before. This is not as simple as it might appear. Looks would seem an obvious way to judge species - antelopes become people with horns, snakes become people with scales, and so on. This is not the case. In fact, as far as anyone can tell, the opposite is frequently true. Many herbivores are thought to become large, intimidating people, while predators may be misleadingly small and soft - at least on the outside. The instinct for camouflage is not so easily left behind.

If people are themselves reborn as something a step beyond humanity, no one is sure what it is. Weather Dragons, perhaps, or any of the myriad other nature spirits. They do seem to know much more than we do. It doesn't seem all that unlikely.

* Many people believe art is civilization's only excuse for existing in the first place.

** This is only partly due to the eccentricities caused by inbreeding.

*** It's anyone's guess what sort of people these would make. Hardworking, I suppose, and probably good at digging.

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