Topsell’s Hare

Martha Alexandra, University of California, Davis

When people ask me what I write about, the short answer I usually give is “witches, witchy stuff.” Many times this is a sufficiently juicy response to satisfy someone that my work is interesting—witchiness and the occult are, as I’ve learned, “in”—but if they want to know more, the conversation will quickly travel to the place/time that most excites my fevered poet’s brain. The historical period of the European witch craze coincides, in addition to the advent of capitalism and the rise of European colonialism, with the development of what we now call “science.” Each one of these troubled threads has profound implications for our current set of ecological (and other) conundrums; much of my poetry could be described as a nervous habit of pulling and prodding at these historical strings in an attempt to untangle the present.

For a variety of reasons—and whether or not we believe that the Burning Times, as this period is known to many of today’s witches, constituted an assault on (certain marginalized forms of) actual magic and its practitioners—we often associate the transition from the medieval to the modern with a process of “disenchantment.” I don’t think this is quite right. In place of a linear ascension out of the world of “superstition” and/or magic, I read lateral moves into what we might call “differently enchanted” worlds; the modern experience of “disenchantment,” then, can be understood as a kind of spell in itself. The fabulous conviction of the alchemical tome, for example, metamorphoses into the authoritative aura of the scientific text—historically a formidable kind of magic power (the current persistence of climate denialism notwithstanding). I am drawn to the ways that early modern texts capture something of the transition between such different kinds of voices; caught in time between this and that, chimerical creatures shimmer into being.

“Of the Hare,” from Edward Topsell’s The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (1658), sig. T2r.

My classmates and I found ourselves in pursuit of such beasts in the small, concealed hunting grounds of Special Collections at Peter J. Shields Library. Having been shepherded through a series of gates (themselves bounded within the layered enclosures of University property and a graduate course on “Renaissance Oecologies”), we sat—very quietly and very still—until, compelled and given permission, we opened an ultimate, leather-bound door. My quarry, dear reader? The Hare. Edward Topsell’s The History of Four-Footed Beasts & Serpents offers us a twinned core sample of the proto-scientist’s voice and his subjects in its chimerical treatment of zoology. Topsell’s entry on the Hare spans ten pages and ranges from physiological, psychological, and magical characteristics of the beast to mythical (or is it historical?) references, hunting tactics, pharmacological uses (more magic here) and beyond—all in a subdued, scholarly tone that conjures a spirit of expertise. (Curious readers are encouraged to make their own dive down the, as it were, Hare-hole, here.)

Along with this pseudo/proto-scientific specter, Topsell’s Hare briefly summons into view an additional premodern phenomenon that feels especially relevant to ecocritical and dis/ enchantment inquiries alike. I have alluded already to Enclosure, which readers will associate with another semi-fantastical animal—the carnivorous sheep that haunt the h/edges of the outermost narrative layer of More’s Utopia. The dispropriation of the commons obstructed peasants’ access not only to economic resources but also to certain alternative/non-sanctioned sources of the numinous; as access to land shrank, so too did the parameters of the relational field. Places where human folk might experience the greatest diversity of more-than-human encounters—and a witch might seek out many magical ingredients—over time became differently enchanted to appear as sources of exchange value and capital.

From there to here: we live again in Burning Times. Now is the moment to turn inside out inherited epistemological enclosures—to turn loose the wild worlds of our cultivation. Harvesting textual resources from an uncanny ancestor of the scientific reference and taking the shape of a “Park or inclosed Warren,” my poem works to draw back the curtain on the illusion of materialist, capitalist “reality” besetting today’s world and reveal a history of different enchantments and a world more malleable than meets the eye. In addition to window, this calligram is also spell: its image of apparent order is seeded with a feral impulse toward casting new and divergent enchantments—which it hopes, dear reader, will blossom in thee.

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