Midway through her new collection of essays, Ask Now the Beasts, Corrales author Ruth Rudner notes, “There is a natural order to life and death. We prefer not to witness it. It is violent, irrevocable, messy. One among ten thousand … and yet, it seems so personal. Each death we witness is personal, something that happens to us.”
As she struggles to make sense of her own relationships with the animals in her life, Rudner confronts life and death again and again. In “The Dog,” for example, she moves from a brief encounter with a stray at a northern Arizona trailhead whom she keeps from climbing into her truck but later returns for—only to find him gone—to another dog she feels she failed years before. In “The Horses Killed By Lightning,” she insists on being present for the grisly aftermath of the horses’ deaths, because she wishes to honor the horses’ lives with her presence.
This perfectly titled collection moves between stories about Rudner’s own dogs, cats and horses and her wilder encounters: with coyotes in Yellowstone and Corrales; wolves in Yellowstone; peregrine falcon chicks in Montana; ducks in Bishop, Calif.; penguins in Antarctica; and gorillas in Albuquerque’s Rio Grande Zoo. Rudner repeatedly insists that she’s not brave. Yet she doesn’t simply enumerate her fears but documents her doing the sometimes unthinkable despite them.
“I’m the biggest coward in the world,” Rudner says. “I know that I’m afraid of so many things. I know that the fear is crippling, and I’m not willing to be crippled by it. So the only antidote is in the doing of the thing, where I get involved in the doing and forget that I’m afraid.”
Her willingness to look directly—and, more important, unflinchingly—at her animal encounters makes for an unusually rewarding read. A longtime Manhattanite, Rudner moved to Montana after her first marriage ended, and then to Corrales several years ago when she married well-known nature photographer David Muench. For many years a contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s Art and Leisure page, Rudner found the impetus for this collection in her own dogs, horses and cats. As she began writing, though, she realized this wasn’t what the book was about. “It wasn’t about domestic animals,” Rudner says, “it was about our relationship with animals. The gorillas at the Rio Grande Zoo, for example: There are a lot of people writing about zoo animals and a lot of people writing about primates in the wild. But I was drawn to those gorillas in the same way that I was drawn to all animals. It was simply who they are. I think that when we limit our relationship to wild animals or to domestic animals, we close ourselves off to a lot of other experiences that we might not have otherwise had.”
Rudner’s willingness to look when others would turn away—she documents everything from dying orphaned baby penguins to one dog killing another dog—makes her a meticulous chronicler. Time and again her love of all animals comes face to face with the reality of life and death. In the end, Rudner finds comfort in Job:
But ask now the beasts,
And they shall teach thee;
And the fowls of the air,
And they shall tell thee;
Or speak to the Earth
And it shall teach thee …
If you’ve ever felt you’ve failed an animal, Rudner’s own perceived failures will comfort you as you consider what you might have done differently. And even if you don’t bear scars (emotional or physical) from your encounters with animals, you’ll find Rudner’s essays a journey well worth taking.