We are all equal to a rat’s nose
Men were under huge pressure to enlist – Isaac Rosenberg was poor, short, frail and a Jew, he wrote: “I am thinking of enlisting. It is against all my principles of justice though I would be doing the most criminal thing a man can do . . . I don’t know what to do.’ He left home secretly with just the poems of John Donne in his pocket.
He was a poet of understatement. In this poem ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, the rat, ubiquitous in the trenches takes no sides, a reminder of common humanity. The poppy in the ear echoes blood from a head wound. He died, April 1918.
The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old Druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems, odd thing, you grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver—what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping,
But mine in my ear is safe –
Just a little white with the dust. 1916
We are lucky to have survived as a species at all, and we have so much in common, skin colour, ethnicity, religion are surfaces. ‘Beginning 195,000 year ago, the global climate entered a period of cold and dry conditions, that lasted for 70,000 years. In interior Africa, this shift triggered drought conditions so severe, that much of the continent would have become uninhabitable. Genetic studies of modern human DNA tell us, that at some point during this period, human populations plummeted from more than 10,000 breeding individuals to as few as 600. Homo Sapiens became a highly endangered species; we almost went extinct. This “population bottleneck” means, that all humans alive today are descended from this tiny group of survivors. The result: Our species has less genetic diversity than a single troupe of West African chimpanzees.’ Rick Potts[i]
And yet we value animals so poorly which has consequences for them and for us. The Nazis used the word ungeziefer (vermin) for Jews. It was a word that was spat out. Rwandan hate radio sought to demonise and ‘dehumanise’ Tutsis, calling them inyenzi, ‘cockroaches’.
[i] Rick Potts, Director of The Human Origins Program Smithsonian Institution, in The Great Human Odyssey dir Niobe Thompson, CBC TV; https://www.cbc.ca/greathumanodyssey/content/iceage/135k/index.html?platform=hootsuite