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Parley's assesment of the lowly sloth. I have a feeling that no one involved in the writing of this article ever saw a sloth in real life.

My mother gave me a wonderful book by Orson Scott Card called How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.  While I am always excited to read anything by Card (since Ender’s Game is still one of my absolute favourite novels, and has been since I was 11 years old), there is still something a bit backhanded about getting a book like that.  (Imagine how you would feel if someone handed you The Big Book of Oral Hygiene.)

But reviewing such a book here (with my limited authorial clout) would be both presumptuous and dull.  I will offer a counterpoint in the form of another excerpt from Parley’s Panorama: or Curiosities of Nature and Art, History and Biography (1849).  Consider it a “How Not to Write Stuff” lesson.

The Sloth

This singular animal, which is confined to South America, is destined by nature to be produced, to live, and to die, in the trees; and to do justice to him, naturalists must examine him in his upper element. He is a scarce and solitary animal. He inhabits remote and gloomy forests, where snakes take up their abode, and where cruelly­ stinging ants and scorpions, and swamps, and innumerable thorny shrubs and bushes, obstruct the steps of civilized man. This extraordinary creature appears to us forlorn and miserable, ill put together, and totally unfit to enjoy the blessings which have been so bountifully given to the rest of animated nature. It has no soles to its feet, and it is evidently ill at ease, when it tries to move on the ground; and it then looks up in your face, with a countenance that seems to say, “Have pity on me, for I am in pain and sorrow!”

Maybe it was just the one sloth that seemed so miserable and miserable.  Maybe he was having a bad day.  I’ve seen sloths at the zoo, and none of them look clinically depressed that I could tell.  I also take offence to the idea that the thorny shrubs and bushes are intentionally obstructing the “steps of civilized man.”

And since when are all the other animals “bountifully” blessed?  Hyenas and camels are way uglier than sloths.  And if you are going to tell me that a platypus hasn’t been “ill put together,” I’m going to call you a liar.

Finally, I would love to know how the author of this article knows what a grounded sloth is trying to say.  Unless, of course, he is Dr. Doolittle.  I’m inclined to think that the sloth is more likely trying to say something like, “What are you looking at?  When I get back up in this tree, you better keep your mouth shut when you look up, ‘cause I’m gonna poop on you for staring.  Loser.”

The sloth, in its wild state, spends its whole life in the trees, and never leaves them but through force or accident. An all-ruling Providence has ordained man to tread on the surface of the earth, the eagle to soar in the expanse of the skies, and the monkey and squirrel to inhabit the trees; still, these may change their relative situa­tions, without feeling much inconvenience; but the sloth is doomed to spend his whole life in the trees; and, what is more extraordinary, not upon the branches, like the squirrel and the monkey, but under them. He moves suspended from the branch, he rests suspended from it, and lie sleeps sus­pended from it. To enable him to do this, he must have a very different formation from that of any other known quadruped.

That’s right.  Man walks (or drives).  Eagles fly.  Monkeys and squirrels climb.  Any switching around of these roles is a slap in the very face of God.  Think about that the next time you board a 747.

And how nitpicky a naturalist do you have to be to draw a hard line between the “above-branchers” and the “below-branchers.”  “Arboreal” must be far too loose a term for you there, expert.

Hence his seemingly bungled conformation is at once accounted for; and, in lieu of the sloth leading a painful life and entailing a melancholy and miserable existence on its progeny, it is but fair to surmise that it en­joys life just as much as any other animal, and that its extraordinary formation and singular habits, are but further proofs to engage us to admire the wonderful works of Omnipotence!

So we’re now blaming the sloth for passing on its wretched existence to its offspring?  Oh wait, we now can tell that it is neither “melancholy” nor “miserable.”  Turns out that hanging under branches is actually a peach of an existence and a miracle of creation, even if its “conformation” is still “bungled.”

I’m confused: does this author want us to think that God fouled up a few of the uglier animals (hyenas, camels, anteaters) or not?  Just when he gets finished telling us that this is the Chrysler Reliant K of the animal kingdom, the sloth is suddenly a bright shining arrow to Providence.  I feel that it is a less moving symbol than either the lamb or the lion.  After all, I have never seen a sloth stitched into a quilted wall hanging at church.  I saw a hippo on one, but I think that might have been a mistake.

Wednesday:  How One Might Better the Act of Writing, and Such…  (Part II)