The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Home: An Illustrated Celebration of the Genius and Wonder of Animal Dwellings

Home: An Illustrated Celebration of the Genius and Wonder of Animal Dwellings

“There’s no place like home,” Dorothy sighs in The Wizard of Oz. But home is not a place — it is a locus of longing, always haunted by our existential homelessness. “Welcome home!” a cheaply suited broker once exclaimed at me, swinging open the door to a tiny studio as my foot fell on the beige wall-to-wall carpet and my eyes on the two dead roaches embracing in the corner. Between the time I left my family home in Bulgaria in my late teens and the time I settled in Brooklyn in my late twenties, I moved in and out of housing across continents and oceans, cycling through dozens of dwellings. No matter how many books I shelved and how many plants I potted, none ever felt like a home. That took another decade — not because of anything in the house, but because I had finally begun feeling at home in myself.

Other animals don’t anguish with such existential troubles. “They are so placid and self-contain’d,” Whitman wrote. “They do not sweat and whine about their condition. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins… Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things.” From the moment they are born until the moment they die, other animals are entirely at home in their being, for they don’t suffer the tyranny of a self, with all its restless need for expression and actualization. The homes they build — strange and various, baffling and beautiful in their singularity — reflect that purity of being. No ego and no self-image govern the design — only the exquisite genius of evolution, refining the blueprint over eons to make each home a perfect temple for consecrating each creature’s biological destiny.

The wonder, perfection, and diversity of animal dwellings come alive in artist Isabelle Simler’s book Home (public library) — a vibrant catalogue of nature’s creativity: the miraculous courtship cathedral of the satin bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus), the “lace citadel” of the cross orbweaver spider (Araneus diadematus), the “silky apartment” of the comet moth (Argema mittrei), the “mossy miniature home” of the hummingbird (Trochilidae), the “cactus cabin” of the world’s smallest owl, the elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi), smaller than a sparrow.

There is emergence incarnate in the termite cathedral, built by millions of blind insects with no leader and no blueprint. There is an affirmation of poet and potter M.C. Potter’s credo that “the creative spirit creates with whatever materials are present” in the case-making caddisfly, housing its larvae in snug cases made of whatever is on hand: bits of wood, grains of sand, shells and pebbles and marine debris stitched together with silk. There is the sheer astonishment of the baya weaver’s nest, meticulously woven from fresh grasses that change color under the sun’s rays.

Nearly a century after Rachel Carson pioneered the then-radical approach of writing about the natural world from the living perspective of each creature, Simler channels each animals’s approach to its home in a short singsong first-person poem.

of the Eurasian harvest mouse

Micromys minutus

My tail knows each blade of grass
and tethers me safely
as I swing through the air,
a micro-acrobat
dressed in soft skin.
My tangled nest,
woven from grasses,
is shaped like a little ball.
Stem to stalk, stalk to stem,
a bounce or two,
and in between
I rest in my house.

of the common wasp

Vespula vulgaris

I nibble the dry bark,
and with my saliva I mush the wood fibers together.
That’s how I make the paper pulp
that I’ll use to build my palace.
The shades of color vary
depending on the tree
I’ve been chewing.
Inside, everything is well organized.
The hexagonal cells are
neatly spread out,
arranged in circular tiers
held by cardboard pillars.
The lightweight nest
is shrouded
in layers of paper,
and so it remains
at the ideal

of the common tailorbird

Orthotomus sutorius

With three mango leaves
and the tip of my sharp beak,
I fashion my tailor-made house
at the edge of the forest.
Carrying a blade of grass or thread from a web,
I jab, I sew, I flit here and there.
Stitching straight lines or zigzags,
I hem, I make knots, I chirp and cheep.
Finally, I pad out my home with woolly red fibers,
animal hair, and another chirrup or two.

What emerges is a dazzling testament to naturalist Sy Montgomery’s poetic observation that “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”

Complement Home with The Blue Hour — Simler’s breathtaking celebration of nature’s rarest color — then revisit the sapiens counterpart to these creaturely dwellings in Carson Ellis’s tender illustrated catalogue of the many kinds of human homes.

Published April 11, 2024




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