By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.
Nature and I are two. - Woody Allen
I’ve always loved that quip of Woody’s, probably because I identify with it. For much of my life, and even to some extent today, I have felt not only removed from nature but alien to it. Some years ago, I wrote a memoir about my father from whom I was separated at an early age and who died when he was scarcely forty years old. I called it My Father, Once Removed
. If I were to write about my life in nature, I could give it a similar title.
Didn’t Thomas Carlyle, who was not a fan of things mechanical, somewhere assert that "machines are inherently aggressive?" Well, I could say something akin to that sentiment about nature – that it is inherently frightening, at least to me. But I know I’m not the only one who thinks this way about nature. I remember when I was young reading the books of a man named Eric Hoffer – he was a self-educated longshoreman whose books were very popular when I was a kid – where he said much the same thing about nature in trying to counter the typical romantic blather about it. Nature is fine on a sunny day in the park, but if you get caught in a sudden thunderstorm in the woods, it is not your friend; it could kill you.
I don’t know how I got to feel this way, but unlike many kids, I did not grow up with animals. In neither my mother’s home nor that of my aunt’s where I also spent a lot of time when I was growing up were there any pets. Not having a father, no one took me camping, fishing or hunting either. I even flunked out of cub scouts because I couldn’t figure out how to tie a knot properly. I knew that I was descended from a long line of Lithuanian rabbis; what I was good at was reading books and studying. That was the world where I felt at home. Jews are urban people anyway. We didn’t farm; we made money (although I was never much good at that either, come to think of it).
I also had another problem growing up that helped to make me a misfit in nature. I was born with a congenital nystagmus
that left me with very poor vision and a wayward sense of balance. No one even discovered my visual problems until I was six years old. Before that, I guess I was walking around like a child version of Mr. Magoo.
You can’t become much of a naturalist if you can’t see. I can’t tell you how many times I would be walking with a friend who would suddenly stop to point out a beautiful bird in a tree. I could see the tree. Or I remember a time when I was walking by the Pacific Ocean in Monterey with a good friend when she stopped to look at how the sea lions were cavorting. I could see the water. I could never see well enough to make out anything. In order to learn to appreciate nature, of course I had to read books about it, such as Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I could be in nature, but I could never experience it the way most people could. Where nature was concerned, I was a hopeless retard!
But that was to change when I was in my mid-thirties. It was then that I had my first LSD experience, which took place mainly when I was ambling around in the woods not far from the University of Connecticut where I was teaching.
That experience was a revelation to me at many levels, and it totally changed my feelings about nature. I remember looking at a certain tree and realizing as if for the first time that it was alive – and holy. For a long time after that experience, I could no longer look at trees in the same way I had been used to. And after that, I spent a lot of time tramping through the nearby woods. I would go there as often as possible, both for pleasure and as a place of refuge. I would drag my kids there, too, who were not keen to go and would complain. But I was at home in nature now, and when I could travel to places, such as Colorado, where there were mountains, I learned to love to hike up them. Of course, I was never much of a hiker, given my physical limitations, but hiking became one of the supreme recreational pleasures of my life. It’s only been in the last few years that I was no longer able to hike. I miss it terribly.
My views about animals have changed, too, and I will get to that since that is what I really want to focus on in this essay but first I need to say a little about my feelings about the two types of pets we are most familiar with – cats and dogs.
It’s often said, simplistically, that there are two kinds of people in the world: dog people and cat people. Well, I am definitely a cat person. And I always have been. Even though I didn’t grow up with them, once I got married and had kids of my own, cats became a part of my life. I feel about them the way the ancient Egyptians did
. They are divine creatures, and truly one of the jewels of evolution’s experiments. There’s an old song from South Pacific, "There is Nothing Like a Dame
." For me, there is nothing like a cat. Nietzsche
said "Without music life would be a mistake." I would say the same for cats. A catless world would be an abomination. I trust I have made myself clear.
As for dogs, I would be happy to live in a world without them. They may be "man’s best friend," but they are not mine. Oh, I know there are touching stories about men and their dogs, one by Thomas Mann called in fact "A Man and His Dog," or the famous story by J. R. Ackerley, about his dog Tulip (though it was actually named Queenie), and many others. Fine, to each his own. But, frankly, some dogs look like unmade beds to me, and I really can’t abide their slobbering tongues, their panting, their fearsome teeth, their annoying barks, and their slavish loyalty. When my second wife suddenly arrived one day with a large matted four-legged thing, who proceeded to jump on me, seeking out my gonads, I immediately named him Albatross, and his name, shortened to Alby, stuck. I’m sure he was responsible for our fighting like cats and dogs ourselves (you will know who was who) and in part for our later divorce. I’m sorry if I have offended you, if you are a dog lover, but I hope to redeem myself in my next blog when I will have some wonderful things to say about dogs who don’t live with me.
In fact, I will soon have some wonderful things to say about animals, period, because in recent years I have become fascinated with books about animal intelligence (or "animal cognition," as it is now usually called) as well as the emotional life of animals. Indeed, I now have a slew of books in my library – well over a dozen – dealing with various facets of the lives of animals and am currently reading a new one on animal languages. For somebody who didn’t grow up with animals, I am now growing old with them, and what I have learned about them has been a source of endless wonderment and enchantment. Of course, I admit I am really not spending my time with actual animals; I am limited merely to doing my usual thing – reading about them. But that’s been enough to thrill me with what I’m learning about them and why I’m keen to share some of that knowledge with you in the remainder of this essay.
The thing that’s new in animal studies, and what has particularly excited me, has been the focus on the inner lives of animals. Perhaps surprisingly, in recent years animal researchers have learned a great deal about how animals think, what they feel, what kind of emotional lives they have, and most intriguingly, about the structure of the languages they use to communicate with one another and to us. Consider, for example, the titles or sub-titles of the following books, which are representative of these new directions in the exploration of the lives of animals.
Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves by Frans de Waal
. (De Waal is world famous for his forty years of research on chimpanzees.) In this illuminating book, de Waal shows us how similar the emotional lives of chimps are to our own. After beginning with the very moving story of the death of the chimp, Mama, de Waal shows us that humans are not the only species with the capacity for love, hate, fear, shame, guilt, joy, disgust and empathy. There is no sharp dividing line between us and them; we all animals after all and we share a continuum with all life.
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina.(Safina, a MacArthur Fellow and a marvelous writer – I even wrote him a fan letter and he responded most graciously – in this book writes about the inner lives of elephants, wolves and killer whales.) I can’t resist quoting just a short passage from the book jacket, which echoes de Waal’s sentiments:
Beyond Words brings forth powerful and illuminating insight into the unique personalities of animals through extraordinary stories of animal joy, grief, jealousy, anger, and love. The similarity between human and nonhuman consciousness, self-awareness, and empathy calls us to reevaluate how we interact with animals.
The Soul of An Octopus: A surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery
. (Montgomery is another accomplished writer and naturalist. She lives with a flock of chickens and a border collie – and did you know that one border collie learned the names of a thousand toys
and understands grammar? Yes!) Of course, when it comes to octopuses
(yes, that’s the plural – not octopi!), we encounter a creature vastly different from ourselves. For one thing, their brain is distributed through their arms, but Montgomery, too, wants to explore their emotional lives
and how they come to experience and navigate the world. I defy anyone not to be amazed and utterly captivated with the story that Montgomery tells of these extraordinary beings whose evolutionary history is so different from ours. And yet….
Modern research into the lives of animals has taken us a long way from Descartes (or Des-car-tees, as my best friend, Stan, in junior high was wont to call him until I gave him some French lessons) who thought that animals, because they could not speak and therefore could not think, were soulless creatures, mere machines (in fact, he called animals bêtes-machines), incapable of experiencing pain.
Did that man ever look into the eyes of a dog?
Of course, Descartes was famous for his dictum, cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. But why doesn’t someone ever pose this question: If Descartes had said instead, "I do not think," would he then conclude that he didn’t exist?
I think Descartes, as great a philosopher as he may have been, is over-rated. He may have been a smart cookie, but at least where animals were concerned, he was an arrogant anthropocentric nincompoop.
But he got his comeuppance. The fabled Queen Christina of Sweden, who was fascinated by Descartes’ ideas, invited him to come to Sweden so she could learn from him. Against his better judgment, Descartes allowed himself to be lured there in the fall of 1649. As a brutally cold winter set in, he was obliged meet with the queen in her unheated library very early in the morning, and because she was the queen, Descartes had to appear bare-headed. Naturally, he developed influenza, which turned into pneumonia, which turned into death. So ended the life of a great philosopher who knew everything about how to think but would die without knowing that animals could think, too, and would never be stupid enough voluntarily to venture into territory which could be expected to be a mortal threat.
Well, so much for our Cartesian diversion. Let’s return to more intelligent creatures. Take bats, for instance.
Free-tailed bats use echolocation to navigate and to catch prey. They emit sounds that are too high-pitched for human ears to detect. And they sing, too. In recent years, digital technology has revealed that bats are now believed to be the mammals with the most complex form of vocal communication after humans.
These bats not only sing, but each male bat creates his own distinctive song to court females. And these songs are extremely complex and varied, and are constructed like human sentences. The language of bats, therefore, has its own syntax.
I learned all this from reading a fascinating book
I alluded to earlier on the language of animals by a Dutch researcher and philosopher named Eva Meijer
. She also revealed to me the secret lives of the lowly prairie dog.
Prairie dogs live in underground tunnels with different areas for sleeping, giving birth, and getting rid of bodily wastes. Because they have to be vigilant for predators when they surface, they have developed various complex alarm calls that sound a bit like the twittering of birds. Did you ever wonder why these animals are called prairie dogs? It’s because when they are out in force vocalizing their alarm calls, it sounds like the barking of dogs.
But these calls also contain information about the predator, and it is so highly specific as to be almost unbelievable. According to Meijer, in the case of a human predator, for example, they can communicate that it is a human, what color clothes he is wearing, and if he is carrying something like an umbrella or a gun. Different parts of the call change meaning depending on the order of its elements, so that the language of prairie dogs has a simple grammar. Meijer says that research into the language of prairie dogs shows that they use verbs, nouns and adverbs in meaningful ways.
Take that, Descartes!
I wish I had the space to talk about the wonders of larger animals that are more familiar to us, such as chimps and elephants (I have read a number of books about each of them, which have been fascinating to me), but for now, let me mention another creature that is familiar to us all on a daily basis: the crow.
Crows are among the most intelligent of birds. A number of studies have shown that they can solve complicated puzzles and devise and use tools. They are extraordinarily clever and tales of their prodigious memories are legion. If you threaten or actually injure a crow, that crow will never forget you and will attack you on sight. I have read a number of accounts of this sort of thing, but one of the most fascinating comes from one of the best books on birds you could ever read, Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds.
I just can’t resist quoting this story, which I will lightly edit and slightly abridge here:
A brilliant string of studies over the past five years ... at the University of Washington has revealed the extraordinary abilities of American crows not just to recognize individual humans by their faces but to pass along to other crows information about those whom they deem dangerous. In one experiment, teams of people wandered through several Seattle neighborhoods wearing different sorts of masks. One type of mask in each group represented the "dangerous" mask. The people wearing the dangerous mask captured several wild crows. Other people, wearing "neutral" masks or no mask at all just meandered along harmlessly.
Nine years later, the masked scientists returned to the scene of the crime. The crows in these neighborhoods – including those who weren’t even hatched at the time of the capture -- reacted to the people with the dangerous masks as if they were a threat, dive-bombing, scolding, and mobbing them.
Moral: Never mistreat a crow or you will pay for it. And also don’t volunteer to carry out any such experiments wearing a threatening mask. You may decide that some scientific experiments are just not worth having to fend off savage crow attacks!
Well, there are so many remarkable stories about animals I would love to regale you with, but this blog can’t go on forever, anymore than I can, so let me conclude with one more topic, which many of you will know has long played a special role in my life: death. In this case, the death of animals.
Can animals actually die? Of course, they can, you would say. That’s obvious! But not to some philosophers. Martin Heidegger, who along with Ludwig Wittgenstein, is generally regarded as the most important philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century, famously held that animals, because they presumably have no concept of death, cannot die; they simply disappear.
Honestly, these philosophers! Some of them deserve to be attacked by a swarm of vengeful, screaming crows.
I have already referred to the fact that animals are capable of empathy, so it won’t surprise you to learn many animals mourn those who have died. Chimps, for example, and the mourning rituals of elephants are well known. (I could easily write pages about elephants in this connection; the stories I have collected about them are deeply moving.) What isn’t well known is that giraffes and foxes also mourn their dead. There is even a remarkable story about a gorilla who used sign language to describe the death of his parents by poachers.
And there are our crows again whose mourning of their dead comrades is especially affecting. I have read several very touching stories, especially in Ackerman’s book, about the way crows gather around the body of a dead crow, and often return to drop twigs or a piece of grass over its body.
In fact, when I was talking about such rituals to my girlfriend Lauren a few days ago, she volunteered that she already knew all this from her own experience and proceeded to tell me about something she had witnessed herself a few years ago. After listening to her account, I asked her if she would be good enough to write it out for me so that I could use it in this essay. Lauren indeed was "good enough," so here it is in her own words:
There is a set of wires that intersect in front of my house. One goes to my home, and another is attached to a pole across the street that crosses in front of my view, which would otherwise be exposed to a panorama of the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay. One day I heard a terrific uproar at the front of my residence and wondered at the commotion. As the cacophony continued, I investigated only to find crows sitting on the wires abutting one another bawling, rocking back and forth, and in utter distress. There must have been forty of them in lamentation. Why were they crying so piteously?
In a moment of bravery, I walked out my front door, down my steps, and peered into the street at the object of anguish. There to my surprise was a huge crow without a mark on his body, but dead. I looked up at the mourners and said to them, "I am so sorry that your friend has gone." With those words, the crows inexplicably and suddenly became quiet. I picked up the body, which was surprisingly heavy, and said, "I will take care of his body. You may lament him, but I will take guardianship over him." The crows reciprocated with a soothing cooing sound. I was stupefied that my words and actions had such an impact on these beautiful highly intelligent avians.
I walked with their friend to my backyard noticing that five of them followed me up the driveway and settled in a tree under which I placed his body. They bobbed and swayed and cooed quietly while I went about my preparations. Inside I found a length of fabric with which to wrap his body and returning I picked up a shovel with which to dig his grave. I dug as deep a hole as I could, perhaps a foot and a half deep all the while the mourners remained unchanged, quietly grieving. When I had completed my regrettable task, I covered the grave with an old doormat knowing that one of the night creatures might dig him up. I then placed an antique fireplace grate over the mat to make sure the gravesite would remain untouched.
This is the biggest surprise of all: five of the crows returned each day for five days and remained all day to mourn their friend. Then I noticed that there were only three who came to lament his passing, and they too remained all day for three days. While I can never be sure, I suspect that one still comes each day to pay her respects, and I welcome her.
I need to bring this blog to an end soon, but not quite yet.
Obviously, I could offer you here only a few tidbits, as it were, about the lives of animals based on my reading of books about them. But I hope I have said enough to intrigue some of you to read some of these books yourself. (If you would like a complete list of such books in my own library, please write me.) Of course, books are no substitute for actual physical encounters with animals, but most of us can’t easily arrange to have an elephant in our backyard or to burrow underground looking for prairie dogs. Anyway, in my case and at my advanced age, I am pretty much forced to follow my usual practice – to spend time learning about animals, once removed, in my belated efforts to become an animal lover after all these years malgré moi. It is never too late for an old dog to learn new tricks.
And speaking of dogs, I haven’t forgotten my promise to say some good things about them in my next blog, which will be about the psychic life of dogs and especially cats, wherein more wondrous stories will be told about the amazing sensitivities of those we call our pets, including what happens to them after they die.