Peaceful Lessons

We are all, I think, looking for hope.  Probably due to the way I was raised, I often seek signs.  There’s no way to know if said signs are mere coincidences or the more intense variety known as synchronicities, yet we have a hopeful sign here at home.  On our front porch we have some plant hangers.  Spring crept up on us this year and we haven’t got around to putting any pansies in them yet.  The other day when I was stepping out to get the mail, I noticed feathers in one of them and feared there’d been a bird-related accident there.  As I took a step toward the planter, the head of a mourning dove popped up.  She blinked at me curiously, but didn’t fly away.  I knew then that she had built a nest in the as-yet unused planter and she was sitting on her eggs.

Monday was fiercely windy around here.  And rainy.  I wondered how any birds could fly in such weather.  A mourning dove flew up—perhaps one of the pair on our porch—and landed on the electric wire leading to our house.  The wire was swaying and bucking so furiously that the dove constantly had to shift and fluff and flutter just to stay in place.  The poor bird was in constant motion.  Then it showed a sign of animal intelligence.  There’s a much larger wire that runs down our street, from which other houses are supplied.  It’s more stable in the wind due to its girth.  The dove flew up to that wire instead.  There it was able to perch without having to constantly adjust itself to the gusts.  Peaceful and intelligent.  That’s what the world needs.  I have hope.

The dove has long been a sign of peace.  It’s understood that way in the Bible.  It was the dove that brought an olive twig to Noah, indicating that although all he could see was water there was, somewhere, dry land.  These days we need to be reminded that although it seems that the storm will last forever, even hurricanes eventually exhaust themselves.  The dove, clearly not happy about the horrendous wind buffeting it on that wire, nevertheless persisted in a kind of stoic optimism that things are as they should be.  There is great wisdom in the natural world.  If we can get to a window we can see it playing out before our very eyes.  Now when I step out the door, I glance at the dove, and she looks back at me.  We wink at each other.  She doesn’t fly away, for she understands.  She has a wisdom to which we all should aspire.

Veg Out

It came to me vividly when I heard a speaker self-deferentially say he was crazy.  This was, I suspect, a way of defusing the fact that when vegans speak others often think they’re being judgmental or preachy.  I’m pretty sure this speaker wasn’t, and I try my best not to be.  It can be difficult when you’re passionate about something.  At the event, which included several people in age brackets more advanced than even mine, the question of “why” was predictably raised.  Apart from the rampant cruelty of industrial farming—some states even have laws preventing people from knowing what actually goes on in such places—there are other considerations.  One of them involves Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s person of the year.

Global warming is no joke, no matter how much the Republican Church laughs it off.  Greta Thunberg has become the face of a generation with a conscience, but one fact few wish to know is that industrial farming is by far the largest environmental threat to our planet.  The amount of pollution it causes is staggering.  The rain forests are being cleared for grazing land because people will buy beef.  The largest methane emissions come from farms, not factories.  Our lifestyle of eating animals on an industrial scale is one of the many hidden costs to the modern way of living.  Or of dying.   There are doubters, to be sure.  It’s pretty clear, however, that the agriculture business is massive and it is just as powerful as the other great offender—the petroleum industry.

Making facts known isn’t being judgmental.  People’s eating choices are up to them.  I’ve only been a vegan for about two years now and I sometimes can’t comply with my own ethical standards when I go out to eat.  Or when other people give food.  Many places have no concept of dining without animal products.  I’m not trying to make everyone else accept my standards; I have beliefs about animals that are based both on personal experience and lots of reading about faunal consciousness.  I fully accept that many others don’t agree.  What I do hope, however, is that people like the speaker I recently heard will not have to jokingly call themselves crazy because they’re vegan.  The narrative must change.  We must be willing to look at the way we live on this planet, and accept the fact that just because major polluting industries hide behind large, brown cow eyes doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question what they feed us.  We need to look at our plates and count the cost.

 

Why not try Veg Out, Bethlehem’s new vegan restaurant, if you’re in the Valley?

The God Test

Humans don’t mean to be cruel, I’m pretty sure, when they test animals for intelligence.  We’re a curious lot, perhaps a bit too self-absorbed, but we want to know how other animals are like us.  Of course, we reserve actual thinking for ourselves, given how well we’ve managed to conserve our only environment, but we grant some special spark to our biological kin.  So we devise tests for them.  Since we can’t get beyond human experience, many of these tests are devised for creatures like us.  When animals fail our superiority is reconfirmed.  Then it’s back to the lab.  I’ve got to wonder how it feels to the subject of the experiment (or is it object?).  Some being that has mastered the art of capturing you, perhaps with the aid of alien technology, is trying to get you to understand something that’s only clear from its (the captor’s) viewpoint.  You need to suss out that viewpoint and solve the puzzle in the same way.

This makes me think of many forms of religion.  We’re born to a lower species (human) as the experimental subjects of gods, or a God, who watch(es) to see how we figure things out.  There’s a right answer, of course, but we’re only given hints as to what it is.  We’re given toys to play with—some of them dangerous—and we’re allowed to select clowns and buffoons to lead us.  We can kill off unthinkable numbers of our own kind and the only clue that we’ve succeeded is some tasty treat at the end.  Of course, we have to assume that the intelligence governing this whole farce is much greater than our own.  Doesn’t feel so good, does it?

Holism is the ability to see a continuity in all of nature.  And nature doesn’t just mean this warm globe on which we find ourselves.  It’s vast and mysterious and some parts of it are very cold and others very hot.  There are places we cannot go, and others that seem inevitable, given the choices.  Like the victims of bullies we don’t think about the larger system, but seek to impose our wills on those who see things differently than we do.  Some tote guns while others pack books.  All of us will shoo away insects that buzz too close.  Most of the animals “beneath” us will simply eat them.  Is this all a game?  Or is it some kind of experiment where we have to guess the answer, but with only a fraction of the information required?

Fly Away

Humans can be quite likable, but we have some nasty traits.  One is that we tend to think of ourselves as the only intelligent beings on the planet.  The funny thing about evolution is that it gave us both big brains and opposable thumbs—a winning combination to destroy the planet.  (Just look at Washington, DC and try to disagree.)  Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds is poignant in this context.  Page after page of nearly unbelievable displays of intelligence among birds demonstrates that we are hardly alone on the smarts scale.  Birds make and use tools, have better memories than most of us do, and can solve problems that I even have trouble following.  We tend to take birds for granted because they seem to flit everywhere, but the book ends soberly by noting how global warming is driving many species to extinction.

Homo sapiens (I’ll leave out the questionable and redundant second sapiens) like to think we’ve got it all figured out.  We tend to forget that we too evolved for our environment—we adapt well, which has allowed us to change our environment and adapt to it (again, opposable thumbs).  Many scientists therefore conclude that we are the most intelligent beings in existence.  Ironically they make such assertions when it’s clear that other species can perceive things we can’t.  Ackerman’s chapter on migration states what we well know—migrating birds can sense the earth’s magnetic field, something beyond the ability of humans.  We lack the correct organ or bulb or lobe to pick up that signal.  And yet we think we can rule out other forms of intelligence when we don’t even know all the forms of possible sensory input.  We could learn a lot from looking at birds, including a little humility.

The Genius of Birds explores several different kinds of intelligence.  What becomes clear is that birds, like people, have minds.  Like human beings they come on a scale of intellectual ability that doesn’t suggest only one kind is necessary.  For our large brains we can’t seem to get it through our thick skulls that we need biodiversity.  We need other species to fill other niches and our own remarkable ability to thrive has only been because we are part of a tremendous, interconnected net encompassing all of life.  Other species have contributed to our evolution as we clearly do to theirs.  When we end up thinking that we alone are smart and our own prosperity alone matters we are sawing away at the branch on which we sit.  Further up the birds look at us and wonder if we really know what we’re doing.

No Animals Harmed

Out for a walk after work the other day, I spied a black cat.  Not the superstitious sort, I didn’t let this deter me from continuing on.  Then I noticed that it was a mere three or four feet from a ground hog that was just as large as, if not larger than, the cat was.  They were staring at each other, weighing their options.  The ground hog didn’t appear too concerned.  Then a rabbit hopped up, on the other side of the cat.  A perfect syzygy of fauna that remained still for a moment in a tableau of nature.  About the same time as the cat noticed  the rabbit, the rabbit noticed it back and quickly hopped away.  The cat crouched and slunk after the bunny and the woodchuck ambled off at its own pace.

Not only was this conjunction an odd combination of three species of mammal—four if you count me—but it was such a conscious interaction that I had to think of it as almost human.  Three very different individuals, probably all with eating on their minds, had to assess how to interact, wordlessly.  As far as I could tell the drama ended amicably.  The cat looked well fed, in any case, and the rabbit far outdistanced it from the start.  Chuck was unconcerned.  Although the hard line still exists in science, drawn between ourselves and our fellow animals, I’m convinced that they have a share of consciousness.  We’re told that they’re mere “machines” following instinct.  These three “machines” along the trail were sure acting like they were thinking.

What are they thinking?

As the situation played out, no violence ensued.  Three individuals out enjoying the spring happened to find themselves in a scenario that called for negotiation.  The cat, like Republicans, felt compelled toward aggression, I should imagine.  It had a choice: take on a larger, more worthy foe, or turn its attention to the weaker, more vulnerable prey.  Naturally, it turned toward the weaker of the two.  There were differing agendas at play here, and with a dose of consciousness added in, these critters behaved so like human beings that I felt compelled to share it.   The ground hog and rabbit looked on the situation with some wariness.  They thought about it, and each took the prudent route to safety, for the time being.  Nature, it seems, will find its balance if we let it.  And we, if we would acknowledge it, still have something to learn from nature.

Mastering Ravens

One of the most difficult things in modern life is to keep up with all the new jobs available.  That’s not to suggest that unemployment isn’t a real problem—it is—but that the game has changed since the days I went to the guidance counselors’ office and thumbed through the box of microfiche to learn about potential colleges.  (And what strange people the guidance counselors were!)  Since 1981, when I graduated from Oil City High School, the Internet has been invented and has changed employment forever.  I understand that making YouTube videos can now be a full-time job, with benefits.  Who knew?  So when I was kindly presented with a copy of Christopher Skaife’s The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London I wasn’t too surprised to learn that there is such a job.

Delightfully written, The Ravenmaster goes into the ins and outs of life in what is a ceremonial job.  That the Brits are fond of tradition is no secret, and this little book is so full of them that it becomes a delightful gallimaufry that includes, I kid you not, dog biscuits marinated in blood.  Although Skaife takes you on a few detours through his own life, the book is mainly about ravens.  We’re so used to materialists telling us that everything is simply cause and effect of neurons firing that I wonder how they might react to the obvious intelligence and personalities of ravens.  Reading about their antics as well as their wisdom it’s difficult not to surmise that consciousness isn’t a purely human preserve.  With the ravens and the wolves we are a piece.

Intelligence is more common in the animal world than in the White House these days, and this book may help to show why.  Ravens can plot, plan, and be cruel.  They can also be kind, compassionate, and friends.  I’ve long had a fascination with corvids, and I tried to befriend some before moving out of New Jersey.  It was a bit tricky with the strictures of my own Tower of London—the commute, the bus, the job—and so my friendship with the local crows in the back yard of our apartment remained strictly casual.  We lose so much by not paying attention to the natural world of which we are, increasingly, so unnatural a part.  When humanity disappoints and the ridiculousness of human behavior haunts, I recommend reaching for The Ravenmaster.  It’s comforting to know that real minds exist out there in the wild.

Animal Rains

We may have been to the moon—if not personally, collectively—but we still don’t control the weather down here.  It’s probably not news that the eastern part of the country has been getting a lot of rain lately.  One of the factors that led me to write Weathering the Psalms was the overwhelming tendency for humans to attribute weather to the divine.  It used to be that we couldn’t reach the sky, so placing deities there seemed a safe bet.  Now that we’ve shot through the thin membrane of atmosphere that swaddles our planet, we’ve discovered beyond a cold, dark space liberally sprinkled with stars and planets but mostly full of dark matter.  The deity we thought lived beyond the sky somehow wasn’t anywhere our probes flew and recorded.

Still, down here on the surface, we live with the realities of weather and still think of it in terms of punishment and pleasure.  When we don’t get enough rain, God is destroying us with drought.  Too much rain, and the Almighty is washing us away with flood.  The true variable in all of this is, obviously, human perception.  Sure, animals experience the weather too, and they sometimes look to be as disgusted as humans when it snows too early or too late, or when the rain just won’t stop.  I have to wonder if somewhere in their animals brains there’s the seed of an idea that the bird, or squirrel, or woodchuck in the sky is angry at them for some unspecified faunal sin.

While heading to the store yesterday, after weather reports assured us the rain was finally over for the day, the skies told a different story.  The vistas around here are never what they were in the midwest—or what they are in Big Sky country—but the approaching storm was pretty obvious.  An opaque drapery of precipitation was coming our way and although a rainbow would cheekily show up afterward, knowing that we’d been caught away from home with our windows open felt like punishment for something.  Perhaps the hubris of buying a house when all I really require is a corner in which to write.  Somewhere in my reptilian brain I translated a natural event into a supernatural one.  When we got home to discover the storm had gone north of us, it felt like redemption.  I spied the birds sheltering in shadows from the sun’s heat.  Were they thinking it was some kind of divine avian displeasure, and hoping for some rain to cool things off for a bit?  If so, was our religion correct, or was theirs?

Inventing Breaks

Breaks are good for many things. Time with family and friends. Hours of non-bus time for reading. Watching movies. So it was that we went to see The Man Who Invented Christmas. It really is a bit early for my taste, to think about Christmas, but the movie was quite welcome. Being a writer—I wouldn’t dare to call myself an author—one of my favorite things to do is talk about writing. Watching a movie about it, I learned, works well also. The conceit of the characters following Dickens around, and refusing to do what he wants them to should be familiar to anyone who’s tried their hand at fiction. My experience of writing is often that of being a receiver of signals. It is a transcendent exercise.

Not only that, but in this era of government hatred of all things creative and intellectual, it is wonderful to see a film about writing and books. The reminder about the importance of literacy and thought is one we constantly have to push. If we let it slip, as we’ve discovered, it may well take considerable time to recover. Getting lost in my fiction is one of my favorite avocations. Solutions to intractable problems come at most improbable times. Although publishers tend to disagree with me, I find the stories compelling. In the end, I suppose, that’s what really matters.

On an unrelated note, this is the second movie I’ve seen recently that attributes non-human actors their real names in the cast listing. What a welcome break from the blatant speciesism that pervades life! Animals have personalities and identities. Humans have often considered the privilege of being named to be theirs alone. True, animals can’t read and wouldn’t comprehend a human art form such as cinema. But when they communicate with each other, they may well have names for us. The beauty of a story such as A Christmas Carol is that it reminds of the importance of generosity. We should be generous to those who take advantage of our kindness. Our time. Our energy. We should also be generous to those who aren’t human but are nevertheless important parts of our lives. The movie may have come too early for my liking, but the holiday spirit should never be out of season. If we’ve made a world that only appreciates kindness because much of the rest of the year is misery, it means we’ve gone too far. Films can be learning experiences too, no matter the time of year.

De-programming

I’m no foodie. That’s not a trendy thing to admit, I know. I’ve never been a good consumer. I think it’s because I don’t like being programmed. One area of life where we are most open to programming is in what we eat. Raised to masticate animal flesh, we’re told that it’s healthy for us, and besides, where on earth are you going to get protein if you don’t eat animals? Without thinking too much about it, we step in line. I remember asking my mother, as a child, what part of the animal “the meat” is. I was kind of hoping, I guess, that it was some part that might be kind of painless to lop off, because I didn’t like to think of the implications otherwise. Even when the answer wasn’t satisfactory, I didn’t change my diet.

Once, when eating with a friend, my host commented that you shouldn’t be allowed to eat meat unless you were willing to kill the animal yourself. He wasn’t advocating vegetarianism—he was serving meat—but he was thinking through the process logically. I became a vegetarian, because of that logical thought process, about 18 years ago. I continued to be programmed, however. Yesterday I attended a vegan lunch. I always thought of vegans as spare, acsetical types, emaciated and gaunt. I learned that they are often people who think through the consequences of our love affair with meat. And other animal “products.” The problem is industrial farming. In a word, the commodification of animal suffering. Those who don’t work in the agri-business—to which most looming environmental disasters can be directly traced—are prevented from seeing the conditions in which their “food” is being kept. Animal cruelty on a scale that is, well, industrial. Decisions are made based on one metric—profits.

I don’t think about food a lot. It has become clear to me that my friend’s logic works. One of the things our vegan presenter pointed out is that pigs are considered the fourth most intelligent animal species. Our love of bacon has them kept in conditions where they literally lose their minds. We don’t see it, so we continue to be programmed. Go to the grocery store. The healthy foods are more expensive—“consumers” are punished for refusing to play the “no thinking” game. I don’t know much, but I do know that it’s often the things I do without thinking that ultimately lead to trouble. Capitalism rewards the greedy only. The rest of us, including our animals, pay the price. Think it through and consider the conclusions. I don’t like being programmed.

Human Omniscience

This might take some thought, but please bear with me. I’ve been reading about how some scientists are eager to promote rationality only as the true understanding of the universe. The flaws in this logic are immense. The greatest gaff here is assuming that evolved biological creatures with only five senses have come to comprehend the vastness of a universe in which we matter very, very, very, (and some scientific notation may be helpful here) very little. And we assume that’s all there is to know. Consider that when you want to spot the Pleiades in the nighttime sky, the best way to do it is not to look directly at the constellation. Our rods, which are far more sensitive than our cones, are not concentrated in the center of our field of vision. That means, in some circumstances, you see something better by looking slightly away from it. Don’t take my word for it, test it yourself on a clear night.

We also know that some animals have senses that we don’t. When’s the last time you picked up the earth’s magnetic field? We know it’s there and we know that some animals sense it. We don’t. Or consider the ant. If ants make you itchy, any hive mind will do. There are creatures right here on earth that think collectively, not as individuals. As humans we’ve evolved to think that our limited experience tells us everything there possibly is to know about truth. We don’t know how living under water influences perceptions because we can’t do it. No, we’re a race of surface dwellers. (There’s a metaphor there for those of you who believe in such things.) We’ve learned some basic laws of physics and suddenly we preside over the courtroom of the universe since our evolved logic is the only and the best the cosmos has to offer.

Evolution, however, also made us religious. If logic is at all what it seems we have to admit that study after study has shown the benefits of religious belief to the beleaguered human psyche. If we try to measure it empirically it crumbles in our fingers. Only logic would tell us simply to ignore it then. I’m no enemy of reason. It’s the best way we have of getting along in this world. I love science and support its evidence-based health. It’s just that as I’m standing here in the dark wondering where the seven sisters are, I sometimes have to trust my rods instead of focusing on what I can see plainly with my everyday sight. Logic tells me there are other things outside my sensory range as well.

Photo credit: NASA

An Elephant’s 100 Percent

When I walked out of that dissertation defense, still a little unsure whether I’d passed or not, I thought my testing days were over. My early memories of struggling with exams—I wrote that a sphere was a kind of weapon on one vocabulary test I recall—made me anxious for an end of the process. Hadn’t I proved myself time and time and time again? People are funny that way. We’re suspicious of those who pass. Are they really as smart as that, or have they learned to game the system? (Admittedly, with what’s going on in Washington these days doubts about intelligence have definitely earned their keep.) Tests, however, have become less common these days, at least in the fearful exam room context. Now we’re giving them to animals.

It has long been clear to me that animals are quite intelligent. When that mouse, cat, squirrel, or robin pauses in front of you, looks you in the eye, then decides its course of action, it’s clearly thinking. Of course, some animals are more on the GOP scale of intelligence, such as deer that bolt out in front of cars, while others—ironically including elephants—show up 45 in tests we assign. An article in The Independent describes how elephants are far smarter than we’ve given them credit for being. Jealousy, perhaps, makes the elephant’s own party withdraw protections from endangered species. We’ve got to be sure nobody shows us up. At least not while we’re on camera.

Animals have greater thinking abilities than we’ve been willing to admit. For being so highly evolved, we’re an awfully petty species. We don’t want to share our great accomplishments with others. We’ll call the amazing architecture of the bowerbird “instinct” rather than admit they can build homes better than many in the Appalachians can. We’ll kick over anthills rather than face the fact that a hive mind is a terrible thing to waste. We’ve known for decades, if not more, that all life is interconnected. Because we’ve got opposable thumbs and reasonable cranial capacity, we’re the best thing this planet could hope to evolve, so we tell ourselves. What has made us so insecure? Why do we find the prospect of animal intelligence so frightening? It’s terribly hard to give up the role of being lord and master, I guess. Or if we were to switch it to a classroom analogy, we always want to be the teacher, never the student. But after walking out of that dissertation defense twenty-five years ago I learned that the testing had only begun.

Dog Daze

I read quite a bit about animals. One reason is that when you’re counting all the species on the planet we’re pretty clearly among the animal part. Having grown up with many pets, the dogs particularly stand out. We tended to have only one dog at a time and they were so full of personality that it obviously wasn’t a matter of projecting to understand that one was more or less optimistic or joyful than another. Some could be mean while others were loving. There was quite a bit of buzz about W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog’s Purpose back in January. For Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2017 Reading Challenge the book fit one of the categories for me, and so I found myself reading about animals again. The thing about buzz is that I listen with only half an ear. I didn’t know much about the book except that it was a novel narrated from a dog’s point of view.

A couple of things struck me as I got into the story. One was that the protagonist ended up still believing that humans were more important than dogs. I suppose there’s some kind of evidence for that, from a dog’s viewpoint, but it doesn’t seem very strong to me. After all, we’ve bred wolves into pugs and cockapoos with an intentionality that even Mr. Darwin would’ve recognized as unnatural selection. Left to their own wolves would’ve adapted, but they’re pack animals and while dogs may think us the alphas, they’re each an important part of the group. They are giving, but that’s the nature of being in a pack. It’s also something that elected officials in Washington could stand to learn. When there aren’t rifles and traps, pack animals prosper.

The second thing that stood out about A Dog’s Purpose was reincarnation. The idea scares me. Life’s been a long challenge this time around and, unlike Nietzsche I’m not sure I could face it this exact way again. In any case, reincarnation only works if there are souls to pull it off. Cameron posits that for Toby to become a fully developed Buddy four cycles of reincarnation are needed. Like a good Platonist, our protagonist recalls the important lessons from each previous life and is able to develop into a more fulfilled dog each time around. The karma here is good. Cameron does seem to “get it” from a human-projected dog’s point of view. It can be fun, and it can be sad. The important lesson, for me, is that animals are who we are and to be a successful pack we need to look out for the good of each other.

Monkey Puzzle

One of the unexpected consequences of Christian theology is the ongoing insistence in science that human beings are qualitatively different from other animals. Actually, it goes back to the Hebrew Bible and the concept of “the image of God.” As the absolute line between human and beast continues to blur (intelligence, tool use, language use—you name it) mainstream teaching has trouble admitting that our special differences aren’t that different. A Washington Post story by Darryl Fears describes how capuchin monkeys have been using tools to extract cashews from their toxic husks for at least 700 years. These monkeys use a two-rock system to get at cashews, which, in their natural state, are inedible. The surprise here is that this makes these monkeys denizens of the Stone Age and capable of teaching complex behavior to their offspring.

Animals watch parents to learn to eat—it might seem to be a simple idea. In reality it’s more complicated than that. As I watched a doe and fawn foraging the other day, it occurred to me that what we call “instinct” is a way of getting around admitting animal intelligence. Why would a newborn (“unconscious”) animal seek to feed, or flee from predators? We call it instinct, but what we really mean is a form of will, a desire to survive. This “will” pervades nature well below the human-animal divide. Plants strive to thrive, and exhibit a “will” to live. By just taking all this for granted and calling it “instinct” we’ve further cut ourselves off from the organic world of which we’re all a part.

Christian culture gave rise to scientific method. No doubt this is an embarrassing scenario for those who believe science should reduce all the wonder of being alive to mathematical equations. Can’t we just pretend that rationality was creeping in from the beginning? Aristotle was going that way wasn’t he? But his work was “lost,” only to be recovered by Muslims who saw the value of such logical thinking and Christians—in an over-simplified history—wanted to catch up. Meanwhile, in the Dark Ages monkeys were using an intricate system to extract tasty nuts from toxic casings without the benefit of any religion at all. The Stone Age, we easily forget, was the first recognizable step on the road to the technological world we inhabit today. And we continue to use an outmoded paradigm to understand our place in that world.

391px-Organ_grinder_with_monkey

Not Knowing

WhatIDontKnowAboutAnimalsBegin with a basic premise: we cannot know what a creature without language thinks. Add in the thoughtful anxieties of a post-domestic writer who knows about animals and you have What I Don’t Know About Animals, by Jenny Diski. Part biography, part science, part philosophy, wholly human. I knew from the day the book was released that I would read it since, like the author, I am one haunted by the relationship between the exploited and the exploiter. Diski’s confessions are difficult to read at times, veiling herself, as she does behind the curtains of one’s most private experiences, but she reveals plenty to those who read on. We can’t know for certain what another person thinks, so how can we know what a sentient animal thinks? Some, following Descartes and Skinner, would declare that animals don’t think, they simply do as programmed. The rest of us know that they are wrong. The evidence accumulates more each year that animals think and feel, but, as Diski repeatedly points out, we need to drive with the brakes on. We can’t get inside them to actually know if human experience corresponds at all with animal experience. We’ve shared the planet for millions of years, but we’ve lost track of our common origins.

As I suspected, the Bible came into the discussion. The book of Genesis lurks in the background of most human-animal rationalizations. The divine division into separate “kinds” must be kept discrete at all times. The problem is, nature won’t always play along with that game. One type slowly morphs into another and some biologists are even questioning the usefulness of “species” at all. Fear of bestiality, as Diski points out, is found already in the Bible. Best to keep everything in its proper pigeon-hole, whether that’s where it belongs or not. Genesis gives us the right to exploit, and so we continue to use animals for our own purposes. Although the feline, it turns out, may have figured out how to set this order on its head. In some cases.

What I Don’t Know About Animals is not a defense of vegetarianism or of radical, thoughtless abandon. Diski writing on spiders will cause many heads to nod in agreement, and her rage against the loss of the common lady-bug struck an amazingly responsive chord with this reader. The lady-bug’s demise came at human tampering, importing asian beetles as pest control—beetles that eventually edged out the harmless lady-bug, replacing the Volkswagen of beetles with a biting, omnivorous, massing pest. In Wisconsin the southern side of our faculty house was literally blanketed with them in the spring. Diski uses the same word I did then: biblical. Swarms seem to be the way that the Almighty has of telling us too much of even a good thing will go bad. Although I couldn’t agree with every statement Diski makes, I have the feeling this is a book I will reread more than once. Wisdom often comes in the form of admitting just how little we know.

Crowing Up

GiftsOfTheCrow Whether we climb up or down the evolutionary scale, one factor remains constant—our human sense of superiority. Despite the castigation of biblical-era thinking in the eyes of many scientists, few are willing to relinquish that Genesis-bestowed sense of being the pinnacle of nature. We know the universe is vast, but we assume we’re the best and brightest in it. Climbing down the ladder a bit, we like to distance ourselves from our fellow creatures because of our superior mental capacity. That is why I am so engrossed by scientists who explore animal intelligence. We find we are not so different after all. Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, by John Marzluff and Tony Angell is such a book.

If you’re like most people in this electronic age, you probably haven’t given much thought to corvids. Corvids are the members of the crow family: ravens, jays, magpies, and, of course, crows. Scientists have long known that these birds are exceptionally intelligent, and Marzluff and Angell have written a spell-binding little book that shows a remarkable level of intellect among the birds. Documented cases of tool making and use, conscientious interaction, and perhaps even language, have occurred among the corvids. We try to shoo them from our crops with “scarecrows” and we poison them en masse when they become “pests,” but when we take the time to understand them, we find that we may be far darker than the crows.

Not that Gifts of the Crow is all that easy-going. There is plenty of brain physiognomy and quite a bit about brain chemistry here as well. Knowing that not all of us are scientists, though, Marzluff and Angell include a generous portion of narrative description of what corvids have been observed to accomplish. For three days in a row I climbed off the bus stunned, scanning the skies for crows, just to see for myself. In this suburban jungle outside the New York City metropolitan area, crows aren’t so abundant as they were when I lived in the Midwest. They will, however, serve to remind me, when I see one, that our privileged place in nature has more to do with our thumbs than with our intelligence. When I saw a solitary crow atop a tree during a neighborhood stroll after finishing the book, I stopped, smiled, and bowed. Nature belongs to each and every creature, and there sat one intelligent enough to appreciate it.