Everyone who writes about Diane Ackerman seems to note that she has a molecule named after her — dianeackerone — probably because that's a distinction not often granted to authors. If you know any of Ackerman's work, however, it isn't so surprising. In addition to several volumes of poetry, she has published books about gardening, psychology and neuroscience, animals on the verge of extinction, working in a crisis-call center, and a history of love. Her bestselling books, including A Natural History of the Senses and An Alchemy of Mind (which Francise Prose calls "a love song to the brain"), are illuminating windows into the human condition, and are distinguished not only by Ackerman's graceful and exuberant prose but by her inclusion of her own life experiences into the larger scientific questions she explores.
The Zookeeper's Wife is a different kind of book; Ackerman is very deliberately telling someone else's story. A work of narrative nonfiction, The Zookeeper's Wife focuses on Jan and Antonina Zabinski, zookeepers in Warsaw during World War II. In addition to saving as many animals as possible during the German assault on the city, the Zabinskis saved the lives of hundreds of Jews, often at great risk to their own. The Los Angeles Times raves, "[A] shining book beyond category....[A] book to read and reread and give to others."
Publishers Weekly claims in a starred review that "this suspenseful, beautifully crafted story deserves a wide readership." In An Alchemy of Mind, Ackerman writes that her "favorite fascinations are nature and human nature." In Antonina's story, she has found the perfect confluence of the two.
Jill Owens: In An Alchemy of Mind, you write, "I tend to see life through the lens of the book I'm writing." In what ways did The Zookeeper's Wife filter your vision?
Diane Ackerman: What a privilege it's been peering through the lens of Antonina's sensibility — living the war, seeing the natural world through her eyes. In order to paint the story in sensory detail, I had to study the natural history of Poland, especially the natural history of Poland early in the twentieth century. That provided a steady stream of small astonishments. If you think about it, the sights and the sounds and the smells of the zoo depend on the animals that it keeps, and I had enormous fun learning the ways of the gibbons and badgers and Arctic hares and lynxes and things like that.
The more serious sides of this story were also so compelling. For example, as a nature lover, I was fascinated and horrified by the Nazi plan to control the genetic destiny of the planet. I didn't know about that, and I hadn't really thought in terms of so complete a control of the biology of the planet before. But that was what Nazism sought to do; they wanted to alter the world's ecosystems and actually extinguish other countries' native species of plants and animals, including human beings, of course, and plant their own versions.
And yet, the Nazis loved animals and revered nature. They went to extraordinary lengths to protect it. This paradox, that on the one hand you can have so much good and on the other so much evil, in the same personality, was kind of an object lesson in the human condition, and that nothing is really black and white.
There were those things, but maybe most of all, it improved my idea of what a hero is. We tend to think of heroes only in terms of violent combat, whether it's against enemies or a natural disaster. But human beings also perform radical acts of compassion; we just don't talk about them, or we don't talk about them as much. For some reason we prefer to highlight the worst in human nature. In these days of genocide, I think it's very important to remind ourselves that humanitarian efforts take place all over the world during terrible times, and unfortunately we don't learn about them very often.
I'm fascinated how often and with what whole-heartedness people will risk their lives to perform acts of courage, sacrifice, and compassion for total strangers. Above all, that's why I think Antonina's story needs to be told, because it's a tale of the heroic compassion that so-called "ordinary people" rise to, in every era, and it's time that they became role models, too.
Jill: In the introduction, you write that this story seems to have fallen "through the seams of history," and it that hasn't really been told before. How did you come across it?
Ackerman: I became interested in the animals decades ago. My grandfather and my grandmother were Polish, and I had heard that there was a kind of lost-in-time primeval forest on the Polish and what's now the Belorussian border. I had heard that there, running around, were the kinds of animals that the Neolithic hunters painted in ochre on the cave walls at Lascaux and other such places 35,000 years ago. I wondered, How on earth did these "fossil" animals get there?
Then the more I looked into it, layer by layer, a bizarre story began emerging about these zookeepers who risked their lives to save over 300 Jews by hiding them in the bombed-out cages in the zoo. I also loved finding out that they adopted as many orphan wild animals as they could, which they raised right inside their home. Both of those stories were compelling to me.
It was a question of one little morsel leading to another, and before I knew it, I found that there was an untranslated memoir that the zookeeper's wife had written — not about all of her experiences, but about some of them. If I spent a couple of years trying to find the interviews, and newspaper articles, and whatever I could that related to their lives, then I could start to piece together what had actually taken place there.
The more that I learned about it, the more I was drawn to Antonina, who was a woman of exceptional empathy, with humans and other animals. She had a mysterious gift for calming ornery animals and people — and that was according to her husband, who prided himself on being cynical. He said that she viewed animals like cousins, or alter-egos, and that as a result, they responded to her with an almost magical trust. She and her husband both considered her a kind of mind-whisperer.
Jill: You've written extensively about the brain, neuroscience, and psychology. How does someone like Antonina have that capacity for empathy and intuition?
Ackerman: For sure, she had more, or at least livelier, mirror neurons than most people do. We know now that mirror neurons are really the hotbed of empathy, and that not just people but other animals have them too. That would be a strong part of it. This was also something that I think she developed very early on in her life. She was an orphan, and it sometimes is the case that people who don't have a firm relationship with a parent develop a parental relationship with nature instead. I think that might well have been true for her, also.
The ability to shake off her self, as if it were a sweater, and enter the form of an animal — I think that was a form of escape for her, in difficult times, in delight. Also, Polish girls are taught from an early age to be responsive, to be able to read the circumstances and emotions of people in the family so that they can attend to them. There are many elements to this. I don't think there's any one simple answer to it.
Jill: There's another quote from An Alchemy of Mind that I thought seemed very appropriate to Antonina: "In rapidly changing and unforgiving landscapes, the animal with the best chance of survival can detect new experiences, quickly review its options, decide what to do, and learn from its choices. Flexibility was and still is our genius."
Ackerman: I think that's true. I think she undoubtedly owed her ability to bridge minds to richly developed mirror neurons, so she inherited some of the ability. But the rest — and maybe even the lion's share — became ingrained during childhood, when the brain is most malleable, and she needed to adapt to her surroundings.
We should bear in mind that a gift for empathy is really native to our species, and maybe there are a lot more Antoninas out there than we think. Also, orangutans can think, I know you think the way I would in your shoes, but do you know I know what you know? [Laughs] And humans can do that even more so. Above all, she had a phenomenal gift for empathy and she just had radiant compassion. She had what the Poles call hart ducha, which means "a spirited heart." I think that's part of why she couldn't turn away any orphan animal.
She writes about those animals as though they were other kinds of people. They all had different dispositions, but all of them fall under the heading of guests. According to the code that she lived by, one offered guests sublime hospitality and comfort. I don't think she made much of a distinction between human and animal. They were all intimate strangers, not aliens, to her. She felt that if she gave them her full attention and she mothered them, they would relax and feel safe in her care. That certainly worked for her when it came to the Nazi visitors who would show up.
There may have been a time in our past when we all possessed psychic skills that we've lost over the eons, and we've probably lost them to make room for language. For example, I could see a tether of mind-reading between mother and child being really advantageous for the species, and maybe those genes still trickle through some bloodlines. I mentioned that, in Antonina's day, well-raised Polish women were expected to be really attuned to the moods and needs of others. In any era, children who are raised with parents who are depressed, or abusive — Antonina was raised by her grandmother, and we don't know what that was like — those kids tend to develop a knack for reading very subtle facial cues. That could have been triggered at an early age and etched into her forming brain.
Jill: The book is written almost like a novel. You imagine their lives from within their own context, with the external history woven throughout. How did you choose that structure and voice, which is in many ways quite different from your earlier books?
Ackerman: Yes, it is very different. It would have been fun to write it as a historical novel, but if I did that, people would have no way of knowing what part was true and what part was not, and it is this real, exceptional story that needs to be known. I decided the best way I could do that was to stick to the facts as carefully as possible so that whenever I describe the zoo in winter, for example, it's based on details that Antonina offers in her memoirs, or on research that I've done into the Polish climate and wildlife. Every single time the characters speak, or think something specific, I'm quoting directly from their writings and interviews.
On the other hand, I could saturate myself in their world. I went to Poland, and I spent time at the Warsaw Zoo. The villa stands, where they lived, and I could lie down in the bed and look out of Antonina's windows. I could stand on the terrace and look over to Old Town, which fortunately has been reconstructed according to Renaissance architectural drawings, so it's very much what she would have seen. I studied the navigation routes of the different birds that flew overhead, and what kinds of plants and animals would have been around, and then I just walked around the city inhaling and looking and enjoying nature, giving my senses over to the nature that she would have known. I could follow her footsteps down some of the streets that she wrote about; I talked with some people at the zoo who knew the Zabinskis; I interviewed their son.
One of the most interesting things was talking with women, now in their eighties, who served in the Underground during the war, and going to the actual forest that they had camped out in so many times. That was fascinating. It's not changed, the forest. The sensations would have been the same, and Antonina had extremely alert senses.
On the one hand, it's a totally different genre for me. I couldn't give myself over to various skills that I already had; I had to learn to write this genre. But on the other hand, I have written narrative nonfiction before, in a sense; it just hasn't been historical. I've written about expeditions to different places, and there are characters, and actions, and scenes, and elements like that. I think the simple answer is that it would have been much more difficult if I didn't have her testimonies that were given after the war, and her husband's testimonies, and her memoirs, and all the other pieces of research to help pull the picture into my mind's eye. Though I couldn't imagine what it was like for her, I could actually go and experience so much of the world that she knew.
Jill: You make the point in an earlier book that Shakespeare wasn't much good at plots, that he borrowed most of his plots from other people, and that you share his inability to make up stories. This story seemed like the perfect plot for you to elaborate on, rather than having to come up with one from scratch.
Ackerman: [Laughs] How could I resist this? How could I resist this mind-whispering woman who wrote dozens of children's books from the perspective of the animals and what it was like being in their skin? I loved her. I felt very close to her. And I feel that I'm doing a great service to her, and to the world, in allowing her to be known by more people, to speak.
It is one of those stories that has fallen between the seams. Most people in Poland don't know it. After the war, the Russians came in, and it wasn't very popular to have been working with the resistance, so everything quieted down. These stories are only just now starting to come out.
Jill: The resistance and the Underground are fascinating in and of themselves. I had no idea that they came so close to blowing up Hitler, for example.
Ackerman: Oh, there were many times. Hitler was very lucky. He was also probably in third-stage syphilis, and addicted to many drugs, and suffering from Parkinson's. There are lots of other things that people didn't realize then and may not realize now about the him and the people who surrounded him.
It's typical that he and his henchman would decide that, after the war, they would have to have pure Aryan horses to ride and pure Aryan animals to hunt.
Jill: That was one of the more bizarre discoveries of the book for me.
Ackerman: I think people probably know that he had a breeding program for humans, but I don't think that they necessarily know that it didn't stop there, that it extended to all of nature.
Jill: Was the resistance in Warsaw stronger than in other occupied cities?
Ackerman: It was strong throughout Poland, and Polish resistance was admired by everyone, including the Germans during the war, because it was astonishing. This is not to say that every Pole was helping the Jews escape. There were certainly ones who acted very badly, as well. But that's not the book I need to write. There are other people who will tell those stories.
Jill: The nurturing relationship between the humans and the animals at the zoo seems to have made it, on occasion, a much more joyful place than the rest of Warsaw. You also mention the rabbi who practiced meditation as a way of transcending the circumstances of the war.
Ackerman: It was their salvation. Really, the question is, Where can one find exultation in a mutilated world? That's true today, as it was true then. For two of the ghetto's leaders, mindfulness meditation offered the best solace. There were tens of thousands of Jews who managed to escape the ghetto, but there were famously some people who chose to stay, to help others. These were not perfect people by a long shot, but they managed to transcend, and help others to transcend a horrific situation.
Jill: Transcendence might not be the first thing anyone thinks of in such desperate circumstances, but it might be one of the most important.
Ackerman: Exactly. There was no nature in the ghetto. We try to exile ourselves more and more from nature — not always consciously: We build houses; we dismiss nature; nature has to be outside, because we're inside. God forbid something like a cockroach comes inside, or some dust. If you go over to somebody's house and there are piles of leaves and dust around, you don't think well of them. As we are discovering today, we pay for that alienation, because we haven't evolved to live outside of nature. I think I say in the book somewhere that being without nature is like a phantom limb pain. Or if I don't say it in there, I should have. [Laughs]
I think that is as true in horrible ghettoes that are imposed on people as in the lesser, self-imposed ghettoes that sometimes people make for themselves. We now visit nature, in parks and things — you're a lot better about this in Oregon than in some other places! But it had really reached critical mass in the ghetto, where there were no trees. One of the jokes for Jan Zabinski was that he managed to finagle all different kinds of official passes to be allowed into the ghetto. One of them was to be in charge of the ghetto's parks, at one point — and of course there were none. There were very few trees, even. On another occasion, he had a pass to collect scraps in the ghetto — extras, you see, disposable food to feed the pigs on the pig farm he was raising. And of course there were none.
I think the ghetto rabbi and the head of the orphanage are good role models for people. I think they're like Just-So stories of how survival is possible.
Jill: In your earlier work, you've written about synesthesia (in which one kind of sensory stimulus evokes the sensation of another), both your experience with it as a child and other people's, which also may be a kind of earlier structure in the brain. Do you still experience it now, and how does it affect your writing?
Ackerman: Oh, I do all the time. I will look outside and see something and immediately am reminded of other things. For example, there's a pool in the back, and I'm looking at the water through the window right now, and the sunlight has made lozenges of light on the surface, but it looks like giraffe hide, the pattern on giraffe hide. So I'm looking out there, and I'm seeing water and thinking "giraffe hide." [Laughs]
I think poets probably do this naturally. But certainly, it still occurs. I think babies automatically are synesthetes. I really doubt that they can tell the difference between one thing and another, or where mom stops exactly and the food begins.
Jill: Who do you think of as some of your influences, either literary or scientific?
Ackerman: They are probably literary, more than anything else. I began as a poet, and I still think of myself as a poet. I probably write more prose now than I do anything else, but I have a poet's sensibility. I was heavily influenced by people like Wallace Stevens, Pablo Neruda, Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, and Colette — lots of card-carrying voluptuaries. Boy, those Neruda love poems — mmm! [Laughs] They're smoldering, and rampant with imagery, and just wonderful in a hundred ways.
I was mainly influenced by writers first, and then I started reading naturalists like John Muir and Loren Eiseley, Peter Matthiessen, who I still read, and lots of others, and admiring their work too. I've always loved phrasemakers especially. When I was at Cornell as a student, I worked with a poet and a scientist on my MFA and on my doctoral committees. I had A. R. Ammons, the poet, and Carl Sagan, the astronomer. Even when I was a student, I didn't really want to have to choose between the arts and the sciences. For me, science — we're using the word science because that's easy to use — I don't want to be a scientist, but I love the revelations of science. Science, for me, is just another word for nature.
Jill: You have been or still are a poet, a naturalist, a crisis-center worker, a small plane pilot, a teacher, an avid biker... the list goes on. What's one of the strangest or most interesting jobs you've ever had?
Ackerman: I had to pause for a moment, because it's not really a job. But I think just being a human. Every single day, without exception, at some point — it's not planned, but at some point, I just look up and notice the sky and think, Oh my God — we live on a planet. It's a planet, you know? And we've evolved. And there was blue-green algae. It seems so extraordinary, so improbable. I just feel startled to be alive. The planet is green; nature is green here. It doesn't have to be green. On other planets, the biology could be blue, or red. But we live on a green planet. I find it absolutely amazing, so this is not the strangest "job," but I find being alive strange and wondrous.
Jill: I've read that you have a molecule named after you. How did that come about?
Ackerman: First of all, the molecule is dianeackerone, and you should know that it's a sex pheromone in crocodilians. [Laughs] I believe that two chemists who discovered it wanted to honor my nature writing, and I had just finished writing about crocodilians; I had spent some time studying them. Part of that involved having to sex alligators, which of course you can't do from the outside; you have to get your alligator, climb on top of your alligator (after you persuade the alligator out of the water), lift up the tail, reach inside, and then you can tell.
I think they felt that that was rather sporting of me, to be willing to do that. [Laughs] But I think it's really funny and wonderful. I love it.
Diane Ackerman will speak at Portland Arts and Lectures on November 20, 2007. I spoke with her by phone on August 31.
Books mentioned in this post