David Brooks was 50 before he "woke up."
Sixteen years ago he and his partner Teya became vegan. It followed a discussion at the dinner table over a bowl of curry.
"I can't do it, to animals," Teya had said.
"It was like suddenly she was right, there was no question, it was like a bell rang or it was just a very quiet moment in a way, but my life changed in an instant. 'Yes, of course we can't eat animals, what am I doing, what have I been doing? It was really, really sudden," Brooks recalled.
"It's been 16 years trying to make up for a lifetime of stupidity it seems to me."
Brooks lives in Katoomba on a small farm, looking after rescued sheep, and among wild ducks, rats and snakes, assessing his old life in the light of the new.
The long-time writer and lecturer in literature at the University of Sydney retired on health grounds - he has MS and a heart condition - and moved from inner-city Sydney to Katoomba in 2012.
He shares his story and that of the animals he lives with in The Grass Library. A mature ram is castrated and nearly dies, an orphaned lamb is raised to moody adulthood, a rat vies for possession of the house, bushfires approach and recede, refugees are cared for, stay or are re-housed. They have housed goats, sheep and about half a dozen different creatures in the past three years.
On the surface it's a simple, gentle story of a 'tree change', but The Grass Library is also a moving and powerful consideration of the predicament of non-humans.
"Now that I'm writing about animals I realise why. I loved the writing I was doing before but I'm not interested in doing it like that anymore. There's a mission now and all that was a preparation. Suddenly it makes sense, a lot of things," Brooks says.
His mission is to make people aware of the voice of animals.
"Animals need all the help they can get," he says.
"The better writer I am, the more use I can be to them, because in a way people might read the book because of the writing and find they've swallowed all sorts of stuff they would have never normally wanted to swallow."
The writing is philosophical and subtly asks the reader to question their beliefs.
"The moment you try and hit anyone over the head with it they put the book down," Brooks says.
He learnt the hard way.
"I have had times when I was much more militant and I have lost a lot of friends through being militant, they went 'I'm not going to have him around for dinner any more.'"
At 50 he was a "drum-beating convert".
"But that's not the way to go. I've got such rage in me at what humans do to animals but the rage is useless. It drives me and that's important, but it's something that you can't display because what you really want is to help animals and you are only going to do that by knowing that conversion is really slow.
"Just 10 years ago we thought it would take a lifetime to get people to even know what vegan was and suddenly changes are happening and that is astonishing," he said.
The animals he and Teya share the farm with are special because, "They are still here, alive, four, five or six years after they would normally have been slaughtered. A meat sheep is dead at one year old. A wool sheep is dead at three years old because they only get a couple of years of good wool.
"They actually get to live their lives and most of the animals in the industrial farming system are killed when they are children; they are barely out of infancy."
He writes in an old farm shed where the sheep are free to wander in and out.
"An Italian journal recently called me the most eccentric writer of Oceania. I thought 'that's wonderful, I'll have to put on the back of a book.' I thought 'why would they say that', then I thought 'they are probably all meat eaters.' Here's a guy who has sheep wandering around his desk."
Brooks has loved animals since he was a teen, "but like most people who love animals I had this cognitive dissonance, I loved them but I was happy to eat them."
He grew up in Canberra and had periods as a vegetarian as a graduate student, and regards his last year of high school, which he spent in the United States, as a formative experience. One of his teachers was an environmentalist, who would take the biology class on excursions into the national parks.
"I came back from the States and I was a budding hippy," Brooks said.
Real animals are real people and are really thinking and experiencing and have rich lives, and that is what we are talking about when we are talking about animal rights and trying to persuade people not to eat them.David Brooks
He hopes people will have a deeper respect for animals after reading his book.
"Real animals are real people and are really thinking and experiencing and have rich lives, and that is what we are talking about when we are talking about animal rights and trying to persuade people not to eat them," he said. "If the recognition and respect is there, how could you eat them."
The Grass Library is available at Megalong Books and Gleebooks.
- Brooks will speak on The Grass Library at the Blue Mountains Writers' Festival. He'll be in conversation with Leura resident Christine Townend, the founder of Animal Liberation from 10-11am in the seminar room of the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre on August 24.