Healing the Animal Body

Atlas at the ocean, part of Operation 365, one painting a day for one year.

I am not one of those novelists who thinks my writing is a healing practice. I have always been more interested in creating high-end fiction, a work of literature full of rich characters, dynamic setting and profound themes. I thought of healing as something one did in therapy. I wanted to keep my books sacred and professional and not turn them into an exercise is personal journaling.

I think writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame. — Alice Walker

Don’t get me wrong. I use my own experiences in my novels in sweaty, heart-rending visceral detail. I purge my life onto the page and hope that in the end it resembles something close to poetry. But I did not expect it to heal me. I expected it to move me, and to affect the reader. To me, the concept of personal healing around writing seemed to de-emphasize its importance as a piece of literature.

So, it was quite a surprise the level of healing that washed through me after I finished Earth. The transformation Earth created in my soul was nothing less than epic. It was a miracle.

I grew up on a subsistence farm in Missouri, and our lives centered around the killing, skinning, scaling and gutting of animals. Deer, cows, chickens, squirrels, crappie, catfish, pheasant — the animals of the muddy rivers and scrappy forests were our food. I was around 5 when I started helping with the butchering. My childhood is full of bloody memories, of heads severed from bodies, of entrails dripping through the fingers. I fictionalize this experience in Earth.

When I finished skinning and gutting, I was washed in sweat. I felt almost loopy, like laughing hysterically. I put the intestines into a banged-up pot, walked them down the hill to where Lady Luck was chained. Lady Luck was a boy; Father named him. It was his sense of humor. You wouldn’t know it most of the time, but Father had a strong sense of humor. He had a bumper sticker on his truck: “A fool and his money are soon partying.” Lady Luck was a bird dog, meant for running and fetching. He was kept chained all day. His life was a circle of worn dirt, his whole universe the length of his chain. I came up to where he lay on his belly whimpering. I turned over the squirrel innards and plopped them into the dirt.  — From Earth, by Caroline Allen

To my profound surprise, three major life changes happened after Earth was published. The transformations occurred both after completion of the book and after publication. When others read it, the healing seemed to intensify.

First, I went from an avid meat eater to a vegetarian and then a vegan. Second, at age 48, for the first time since I was a child, I moved back to the land. And, finally, I adopted my first dog.

Each one of these transformations could fill a volume. Bleu cheese bacon burgers were my favorite meal, but then after my exploration of butchering in Earth, I felt a spiritual calling to give up eating animals. The thought of eating meat began to make me nauseous. I took a year to prepare to go vegetarian, and spent two years as a vegetarian before going vegan.

After my time growing up in rural Missouri, I went on to earn a journalism degree and leave the Midwest. My adult life became a crazy, busy urban wonderland. Tokyo, London, Boston, Seattle — a jet-setting, cityscape of experiences.

After Earth, I could not abide cities anymore. I loved that I’d had so much experience of the world, and had no regrets, but now the noise, pollution, consumerism, the lives that were so filled with the pursuit of enterprise that no one had time to smell the roses, I just couldn’t abide it anymore. I moved from the Boston area to Oregon. Today I live on 80 acres, my first time back in wild nature since I was a girl. I’m around entities that care not what kind of clothes you wear or your hairstyle. I began getting to know the nearby farm animals, and I started painting their portraits. I looked deep into the eyes of animals, turned them into color and texture and began a long journey of healing all of the killing I’d done as a girl.

And then came Atlas. The reincarnation of Lady Luck, a Lab Husky mix, 100 pounds of pure animal joy. This dog would never be chained, I promised him and myself. This dog would be loved. I had no idea how to raise a dog. I’d only known sad creatures. Pets as possessions. Atlas daily continues to heal me.

More healing happened for me in novel writing than in 20 years of therapy. Does this negate the professionalism of the book? Just the opposite. If as a writer, the words do not affect move you to transformation, like Alice Walker, I don’t believe you’re doing it right. I am learning that words on the page have their own personality, and I am humbled by their power to transform.

To read more about Earth, and the recently published Air, the second novel in the Elemental Journey Series, go to www.carolineallen.com.


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