Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Be Kind to Animals: Bookmarks, George Comings & Barry the St. Bernard

George Comings (pictured here) was born in Vermont in 1848, one year before John Muir's family would move to the U.S. and start Fountain Lake Farm near Portage Wisconsin. In 1870, at the age of 22—two years before the creation of the world's first national park (Yellowstone) and four years after the foundation of the American Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals—Comings moved with his parents to Michigan to help them establish and maintain a fruit farm.

Thirty years later, in 1900, as Louis Lassen went about his work paving the way for McDonald's and Burger King by inventing the modern hamburger in Connecticut, Comings moved to Muir's Wisconsin where he would start and run a dairy farm and breed Holstein cattle. Shortly after the institution of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, he served two terms (1921-1925) as Wisconsin's Lieutenant Governor and made an unsuccessful run for Governor, losing in the 1924 primaries to fellow Republican John J. Blaine. (Milwaukee had a socialist mayor at the time, btw.) Well-known as a lecturer on agricultural topics, Comings then began working for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and was made a state humane officer in 1928—a post he held until his retirement in 1939, the year that famous vegetarian and Humanitarian League founder Henry Stephens Salt passed away.

A year before Comings retired—and one year after the Atlantic Monthly accepted Rachel Carson's essay "The World of Waters" for publication—Comings oversaw the creation and distribution of a series of "Be Kind to Animals" bookmarks that mixed prose and poetry from various sources in asking readers to reconceptualize their relationship with our furry and feathered friends. On the front of the marker pictured above and to the left, for example, we have the story of Barry the St. Bernard, a quotation by one-time Missouri Senator and Yellowstone champion George Graham Vest, and three stanzas by the much maligned but extremely popular poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox who was born on a farm in—you guessed it—the badger state. In fact, it is Wilcox who gets the most column inches of anyone quoted on the bookmark, front or back:

I am the voice of the voiceless;
Through me, the dumb shall speak;
Till the deaf world's ear be made to hear
The cry of the wordless weak.

And I am my brother's keeper,
And I will fight his fight,
And speak the word for beast and bird,
Till the world shall set things right.

For he who would trample kindness
And mercy into the dust—
He has missed the trail, and his quest will fail;
he is not the guide to trust.

Wilcox's "Voice of the Voiceless" went on to become part of the animal rights movement beyond Wisconsin as well; the official journal of the Animal Liberation Front (Voice of the Voiceless) takes its title from her verse. In the specific context of the bookmark, however, Wilcox's words mix with those of Seneca, Abraham Lincoln, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and others to create a multicultural, cross-Atlantic, historical coalition of individuals lobbying under the slogan "Every Day in Every Way Be Kind to Animals." And the poetry is a central part of this effort: the rhyme in the slogan helps us remember the motto; the verses by Wilcox (pictured here) and Coleridge tie sympathetic human emotion to animal rights in ways that the genre of prose cannot; and because of the longstanding link between birds and poets in the cultural imagination—Wilcox rhymes "word" and "bird" in line 7 for a reason—the figure of the poet lends an even greater authority to the discourse of animal rights than simply his or her status as curator of moral emotion generally speaking.

What we here at the P&PC Office really appreciate about Comings's campaign, however, is how the medium of the bookmark synchronizes with, or materially tropes, the Humane Agent's political message. Beginning with the story of Barry, the famous dog who "saved the lives of forty-one Alpine travelers," the bookmark itself, as an object, is all about the act of salvation as well—it's designed to save one's place in a book. Through an associational logic that connects Barry saving Alpine travelers to bookmarks saving readers, the "Be Kind to Animals" project transforms the everyday act of marking one's place in a text, making it into an extension of an animal rights agenda. By using the bookmark, an individual participates in—even rehearses—the type of ethical activity he or she is encouraged to practice "every day in every way" in regards to animals. In its vertical orientation, the bookmark may even figure the "beautiful monument erected" in Barry's honor in Paris—itself a marker—thus making three acts of remembrance (of Barry, of one's place in the book, of one's ethical responsibility) simultaneously possible. It's an accomplishment, we think, that should give us, er, paws.