The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Archives of Joy: Reflections on Animals and the Nature of Being

Archives of Joy: Reflections on Animals and the Nature of Being

Joy is not a thing of the will, not subject to control and conquest. It comes when we least expect it, like a murmuration of starlings across the evening sky. It stays for as long as we are able to stay openhearted to the tender transience of life. Anaïs Nin knew this when she contemplated its elusive nature, and Beethoven knew it when he spent half a lifetime capturing it in music.

The secret pulse-beat of joy is what Jean-François Beauchemin explores in Archives of Joy: Reflections on Animals and the Nature of Being (public library) — an invitation to “a certain, forgotten way of seeing the world” and an exultation at “earthly life, with its duration so short it obliges us to surpass ourselves.”

In a passage Walt Whitman could have composed a century and a half ago, Beauchemin introduces himself:

I am simply a man who is always moved and amazed by the brevity of everything, and who strives to at least balance this brevity a little by way of the counterweights within my reach, be it joy, for instance, or otherwise the seeking of beauty.

Art by Matthew Forsythe from The Gold Leaf

Beauchemin begins his archive of joy with an encounter:

Every other day since the start of summer, an old deer with a grizzled gray snout has been wandering into my garden to dream away some of what little time he has left. The light around him pivots by a few degrees, arranging its photons as if to ready him for his passing into the beyond. As his body escapes him a little more each day, I think that he’s slowly coming around to a more abstract and somehow purer way of seeing the world. It’s as if his subconscious has fallen out of sync with him and the intricacies and intensity of his life in the forest. From the look in his eye, and the story of sorts that it seems to tell, one remarkably real thing emerges: joy. I know that joy.

It is an old joy he finds there, and an old touchstone at the boundary of the natural world and the numinous:

I have no theory to explain the sense of closeness and connection I have felt to deer… Perhaps I am so drawn to them because they defy all explanation. I am continually moved by these timid beings, steeped in wary, woodsy contemplation, graced with a playful spring in their step and a synchrony of memory. I am quite sure that their mind’s eye holds an everlasting, airy daydream of a big red sun with people whirling about in their finest new clothes and a cascade of colors, just like a Marc Chagall painting. Alas, I only have intermittent access to this metaphorical world. I try my best to stay awhile, but all I can manage are fleeting moments. The images in my memory and imagination are not terribly compatible with those I think I see swirling in the gaze of my elusive visitors. The wood-wormed doors, half-moored rowboats, and secret infernos of my mind will always be foreign to the concerns of these beautiful animals. Still, they and I walk in step, and at night we lift our gaze to the same stars.

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett, Old French Fairy Tales, 1920
Century-old art by the adolescent Virginia Frances Sterrett. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)

Other beings figure centrally into Beauchemin’s invitation of joy. He roams the forest with his dog named Camus, rescues a coyote pup from drowning, sits daily with a neighbor’s grazing goat, administers first aid to a hummingbird that crashes into his window, holds vigil over a dying rabbit. Looking back on his life, he finds himself “a writer whose curious destiny is to cross paths with creatures abandoned, hurt, lame, or dying.” A generation after Henry Beston insisted that “we need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals [who are] gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear,” Beauchemin observes that, like us, animals “live a never wholly decipherable life — not as mystical as ours, but no less mysterious.” Remembering the death of the old donkey he grew up with — a creature into whom he confided his young heart’s tenderest tremblings — and how he rolled an enormous flat rock behind the stable to make a tombstone for him, Beauchemin reflects:

I understood that another reality set in once the last handful of earth was scattered over those thin flanks. It was, it seems to me, the reality of the imperishable memory left in my life by this being who came from I don’t know where as if to teach me what human presence is incapable of teaching me, and which might well be the true definition of happiness.

In consonance with poet Ross Gay’s conviction that “joy is an ember for or precursor to wild and unpredictable and transgressive and unboundaried solidarity,” Beauchemin discovers again and again that happiness is a function of the connection between beings — the nonhuman animals as well as the human. In another vignette, he writes:

The peaceful home of our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Chung, sits among the trees some distance away from ours. Some summer nights, when the weather is mild and the trill of the chorus frogs is sounding down by the pond, Mr. and Mrs. Chung come out onto their patio with their two daughters, and all four of them sing songs from their faraway Korean homeland. A startling melancholy takes hold of the surrounding environment. In the forest, the animals pause their usual activities for a moment and prick up their ears. The moon, thus far climbing skyward, hangs still among the branches. Even our cat, who usually seeks contact with things so keenly, looks out, barely touching a thing, at this fragile, ephemeral world. Later, once the voices of Mr. and Mrs. Chung and their daughters have fallen silent, we thread our way through the trees to their house with our kettle and share a steaming pot of tea with them. I’ve always enjoyed the company of happy people. I feel that by being with them, I’m increasing my chances of being contaminated by their happiness.


A considerable part of my happiness rests on the thought of an impression made on my life by that of others.

Art by Nahid Kazemi from Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon

With an eye to his own mortality, he envisions a way of being where we come to see our transience not as a terrible error in the log of existence but as a form of intimacy with reality, tender and joyful. A century after Rilke exulted that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Beauchemin writes:

I would like for something new to spark in people’s minds, for people to begin to love the elementary simplicity of their spiritual lives for what it is, to stop quaking with fear before the shadows, and to find interest for all the right reasons in the idea of infinity, so enigmatic, so harrowing, and so tumultuous, charged with a centrifugal joy, bestowed with a great magnetic force, and, no matter what people say, so profoundly connected to this earthly existence.

Couple Archives of Joy with Ross Gay’s radiant Book of Delights, then revisit the remarkable story behind Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

Published June 25, 2023




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