Witnessing the Other: Bewilderness by Kat Brown
Updated: Jan 30
JOIN US! Kat's live book release event is Saturday, February 4, 2023 in Capitola, see details below.
Your image of an animal shelter may be many things, depending upon your life experience. You might think of a place for kittens to be adopted by happy kids, and you would be right. You might conjure a sanctuary for lost or abandoned dogs who are adopted by families and individuals who live out long, fulfilling years together, and again you would be right. You might picture the dog collector, or the experts called when a neighborhood nuisance animal gets out of hand, the person who saves the day with all sorts of conundrums—kittens stuck up in the tree, snakes in the house, a sparrow with a broken wing. Most of us don’t know how to deal with these creatures, but thankfully there are people who do.
We admire these people and see their work as important, but most of us do not know them, and rarely do we get a candid view of the much more weird, wild and extraordinary world of the animal shelters where they work. By definition, an animal shelter is a place where human lives intersect with animal lives, and today many humans have at best an ambivalent relationship with animals, who are sometimes adored family members, sometimes lovely wild visitors to our gardens, sometimes hissing, quarrelsome, nuisance creatures we simply want gone and out of sight. But humans who work in animal shelters cannot avert their gaze. They see the complexity, love and cruelty of our human relationships with animals close up, and definitely personal.
Every now and then one of these people is also a poet and writer, someone who is called to bear witness. Author Kat Brown worked in animal shelters in suburban and rural Santa Cruz, California and later as Assistant Director at the City shelter in San Francisco. The unforgettable book she has woven from those experiences is fittingly titled Bewilderness: Reality Fiction Bred While Working in Animal Shelters. Over thirty years, she not only found homes for kittens and dogs, but was the person asked to deal with the strange, the unpredictable, the hilarious, the confounding and the heartbreaking. Bewilderness not only draws back the curtain on the unseen world of animal shelters, but also offers a mirror into our human world as we travail the confusion and heartbreak of our disconnected modern society.
Brown’s stories are epic, and unforgettable, full of visceral moments that have stayed with the writer, and will stay forever with this reader. We encounter not only lost dogs and cats and their human companions, but every other kind of animal in a town or city—in Golden Gate Park, the municipal zoo, exotic animal parks, urban hotels, suburban stables and mountain hideaways. We meet handsome cowboys, troubled professionals, urban immigrants, people living in cars with their beloved animal companions, and humans of every stripe whose worlds have been changed in profound ways by the animals in their lives.
In addition to compelling storytelling and vivid characters, Bewilderness is a book that often inspires and heals. The author is at heart a philosopher, a student of Eastern philosophy and a lifelong practitioner of Tai Chi. She sees the essential mystery at the core of life in our human relationships with animals, and her understanding is subtle, humble, intelligent and graceful. Her book shows an unwillingness to offer simplified easy answers to complex, multi-layered questions—which is often hard to do, but is perhaps humanity’s only true answer.
As I read Bewilderness, I thought often of our human tendency to treat animals as Other, so different from us that they are assumed to be less than, not worthy of compassion or concern, often believed not even to have sensations or feelings--with the exception of those accepted into the home as pets and family members. Of course, this was not always the case for our human ancestors, and is still not the case for many indigenous communities, who understand the animals with whom we share the Earth to be vital, life-giving, sensitive and powerful companions and often our teachers.
Most modern humans have not only forgotten this, but we have also become tragically expert at "Othering" members of our own species. Humans who are different from us are regularly slipped into the category of Other, not considered entirely human, at best ignored, often feared, hated and attacked. In Bewilderness I found myself witnessing society's Others, both human and animal, and I was moved and profoundly grateful. Nothing about the human relationship with animals is clear-cut or easy, and again I appreciated Brown's unwillingness to settle for simple answers to profound societal and political questions. What she offers is compassion and truth-telling.
At one point Brown tells her animal shelter staff, who had worked hard to unsuccessfully save an unfamiliar type of animal, that instead of throwing up their hands at the complexity, “We will work to expose this mystery, not to solve it. Unafraid today that beneath it all there is a jewel: the testament may be a dark song, rhythmic hint...that comes with paying attention, listening to the humble, daring to witness the other.” In my view, this could be the ethos of a life well-lived.
Some humans choose to not, or simply cannot, look away. They live in the in-between world where we meet the Other. Sometimes they bring back to us what they have learned. Bewilderness is an important offering that helps us to see with new eyes. A fascinating, funny and often astonishing book, readers with a long interest in animals as well as those who have rarely thought about them will come away a wiser and more enlightened citizen of our embattled and gorgeous Earth.
JOIN US! BEWILDERNESS BOOK LAUNCH
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 4, 2023, 2pm
Jade Street Park Capitola Rec Center
4400 Jade Street, Capitola, CA
Reading by Kat Brown, joined by
Marilyn DuHamel, author of "Earth Dialogues" blog
Marcy Alancraig, with an excerpt from novel-in-progress Whale Singer
Carolyn Brigit Flynn, Emcee
NOTE: Due to Covid and other respiratory illness sensitivity, masks will be required indoors but the space extends to an outdoor patio.
For information and to purchase Bewilderness: Reality Fiction Bred While Working in Animal Shelters, see Kat Brown's website.