I grew up in the suburbs of Sydney, but was lucky to inherit a passionate attachment to rural ‘nature’ through family holidays. Caravanning was a favourite activity, and my father always chose the most remote location he could find to plant our family of six plus the family dog, Sandy. On arrival, Dad’s idea of a holiday was to walk off into the bush with a billycan to collect blackberries. Mum loved the minimalist lifestyle and minimum housekeeping. Both my parents were stoic anti-materialists and sought a simple life, as much as was possible in mid-century suburban Australia. Sandy fitted well into this life and accompanied us everywhere: he always rode in the front seat of the car, he ran in races at Dad’s work picnics and, like Dad, he loved our home fires in winter.
I loved Sandy as a member of our family, but when I welcomed Sista into my own family, I understood my relationships with other animals differently. Sista, a blue cattle dog cross, had lived with several of my close relatives before she came to me as a companion. Now an elder, she had little tolerance for children or tradesmen, she continuously shed tumbleweeds of fur, she barked inconsolably when left alone, and was deaf to the shouts from cranky neighbours. Despite these quirks, we settled into a relationship of affection and mutual regard, and she fully occupied our home with an air of jaunty insouciance.
As a sociolinguist, I was intrigued by the modes of communication that grew between us: Sista watched me and learned the semiotics of my various daily routines; I watched her detailed body movements to gauge her moods and desires. The more I considered her intelligence and emotions, and her ways of being in the world, the more deeply I thought about my relationship with other animals. I stopped eating animal flesh, thought more carefully about sentience and emotion in other animals, and started to read more in the field of animal studies. I turned my thoughts to how I might use my privileged position as an academic to integrate environmental awareness into my scholarship and teaching and also aimed to model a practice of attending to the living beings around me – in my daily life – as a way towards a more ethical engagement with the natural world.
After Sista left me, I took up ocean swimming and my daily immersion in this new aquatic world led to a series of studies about what I saw and experienced. I became fascinated by the way that sharks are represented, in the news media, in film, and in the natural sciences. Some of these interests were incorporated into my applied linguistics teaching and writing, some were presented at conferences, and eventually put together in a book. Then, when I moved into a high-rise apartment, I became intrigued by the bird life around me and was able to incorporate this attention into my writing.
My daily practice now is to look, to listen, and to wonder at the beauty of the natural world.
Bio: Roslyn Appleby is an independent writer and researcher with interests in feminist sociolinguistics and human-animal studies. Her publications include: Sexing the animal in a post humanist world (Routledge, 2019); ‘Human-animal relationships in literacy education: Reading the Australian magpie’ (Literacy and Numeracy Studies Journal, 2020); ‘Swimming with sharks, ecological feminism and posthuman language politics’ (Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 2017); and ‘Dog days’ (in Animal companions, animal doctors, animal people, 2012).