Library Talk: Literature’s capacity to transcend human life

The impulse to transcend our little lifespans may be one of the reasons libraries and literature hold such appeal to many writers and readers.

I turned 32 recently. My birthday fell on that beautiful, sunny Sunday we just had. I celebrated by taking myself on a 30-kilometer run, followed by a visit to the Westman Reptile Gardens.

I know what you’re thinking – so jealous.

article continues below

Westman Reptile Gardens is located in the middle of nowhere, just west of Shilo. I’d never been there before, and was frankly skeptical the place actually existed. The thought of pythons, crocodiles, and tortoises in the middle of rural Manitoba seemed, well, unlikely.

As I made my way down hallway after hallway of fantastical reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates, each in their own tailor-made environment, I had to admit the Reptile Gardens existed and were well-worth the visit.

Each tank, terrarium, and enclosure has a sign identifying the animal’s species, size, diet, habitat, lifespan, and another few pieces of information. I learned snapping turtles can weigh up to 200 pounds and that “king” snakes are those that eat other snakes. King cobras, for example, dine on rat snakes, pythons and other cobras. Who knew?

What struck me most about the Gardens, however, was the incredible longevity of the animals I met. Jojo, the massive American Alligator who lay basking under his heat lamp, could likely live to be 100. The same held true for the tortoises. Even the smaller reptiles, like rattlesnakes, could expect 20 to 30 years of life. Sure, some humans hit the century mark, but not without a substantial helping of medical assistance.

As Jojo and I stared at each other through the glass, I considered our contrasting lifestyles. I’d just finished running to Grand Valley Campground along the highway to Kemnay; more than three hours of heart-pumping activity. Jojo seemed perfectly content to lay so still not even his eyes moved.

In the next habitat over, five smaller crocodiles sprawled in an utterly static pile, some frozen with their heads raised.

When I’m not out running, I’m travelling to new places, typing emails, planning library programs and writing stories. We, as humans, seem to feel our mortality very differently than do reptiles. Well before showing any physical signs of death, we think about the prospect and charge around living as hard as we can, making every mark we can on the living world.

I wonder if this impulse to transcend our little lifespans is one of the reasons libraries and literature hold such appeal. When you pick up a book or download an ebook, it doesn’t matter if the author is still alive or not. Canadian Ojibwe writer Richard Wagamese passed away last year, but Indian Horse remains just as poignant a novel about hockey, resilience and the residential school system. I’m currently reading Endurance, a memoir by astronaut Scott Kelly. Kelly is still alive, but after he dies, his account of life aboard the International Space Station and watching the sun rise and set every 90 minutes will lose none of its reality.

Some days it’s easy to envy Jojo and his approach to life. There’s something that we, as humans, might interpret as meditative or Zen-fully accepting about the reptile attitude. If you hit the Gardens on a quiet day, some of that alligator-peace might even wear off on you.

For my part, however, I keep in mind that Jojo’s brain is approximately the size of a chicken’s. In exchange for his blissful complacency, he forfeits the intellectual capacity to appreciate Indian Horse or Endurance. My brain – unlike Jojo’s – includes a frontal cortex and my blood pumps fast and warm. Given these physiological differences, Jojo and I must pursue different paths to a meaningful life. Mine includes action, goals, and literature.

At the end of the day, I’m content with the exchange.

Danielle is the Assistant Librarian – Programming and Outreach at the Brandon Public Library. You can contact Danielle directly at Danielle@wmrl.ca.

© Copyright Westman Journal