Yellow Jacket Redux

Back before what year it was really mattered, I stepped on a yellow jacket nest.  (I know I wrote about this last summer, but there’s a point being made here.)  So traumatic was the ensuing horror scene that I literally did not wear shorts (other than those obligatory for gym class) for at least a decade.  I’m still reluctant to do so.  The south side of our house is the best real estate in town.  For bugs.  After last year’s unfortunate yellow jacket massacre, I went out and patched every hole I could find and reach.  I missed one.  (Actually, it is where previous owners didn’t bother to reattach a porch light after installing a new porch.  The gap was too big to use filler and I was trying to figure out how to do the repair when it got cold out last fall.)  So the jackets are back.  Ironically, not two feet from where they settled last year.

I really don’t want to kill the little buggers.  I have respect for all of life, and if they didn’t regularly get into the house I’d leave them be.  They’re only doing what they evolved to do.  At times it seems like all of life is an experiment presided over by some alien race, curious about what would happen if a few select species were given an intellectual boost.  You see, these yellow jackets are smart.  They’re problem solvers.  When I realized what they were doing—it was already too late—I started going outside at 3 a.m. (I’m awake anyway) and duct-taping the gaps shut.  I did this three days in a row before I realized what would happen if the police drove by.  A guy in a hoodie in the dark, standing next to a window on someone’s back porch with a roll of duct tape in his hand?  How do you explain your way out of that one?

Nature couldn’t have given these yellow jackets a real analog for duct tape wrapping the entry to their home, but each day they came back and buzzed around it contemplatively.  I figured the stickiness of the tape (I could barely get it off my fingers) would dissuade them.  They began digging under it.  Not only that, they began building an exterior entrance tunnel.  Soon they had an even better fortified nest with an easily guarded means of ingress.  Their brains may be small, but working together they can accomplish truly remarkable things.  More so, in many ways, than this human who watches them with fear and reverence.


Learning from Nature

Netflix is one of those companies that has shown that new models for providing both television and movies are emerging.  Of course there are many subscription services, but Netflix rose to the top of the pile during this pandemic.  I don’t watch it much, since my time is generally otherwise spoken for, but I did have a chance to watch My Octopus Teacher, a documentary about Craig Foster’s relationship with an octopus.  The story unfolds over a year in which Foster comes to know, and to be recognized by, an octopus.  Quite apart from the Cthulhu references that may come to mind, octopuses are often skittish, highly intelligent mollusks.  Perhaps what made this movie such a surprise hit was just how emotionally attached viewers become to the cephalopod through Foster’s relationship with her.

Photo by Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash

Almost immediately in the documentary, the viewer is struck by just how intelligent octopuses are.  The particular personality—and there is no other word for it—featured in this film is able to think and solve problems.  Not only that, but she is capable of forming a relationship with a human being she came to trust.  For many decades we’ve been taught that animals are like automatons, reacting with stock behaviors, because they can’t think.  Any claims to animal intelligence were chalked up as “anthropomorphism,” or inappropriately allowing animals to share in that coveted human trait of being “intelligent.”  The idea comes from the Bible and not even scientists would question it for the longest time.  Spending part of each day with one octopus, however, gives the lie to animals being subject to programmed behavior.  Like both Heisenberg and Schrödinger demonstrated, being involved in the scenario necessarily changes it. 

Animal intelligence has great implications for religion, of course.  This is perhaps why it is such a taboo subject.  What does it mean if animals can think and act intentionally?  Does it imply morality?  Foster implicitly raises that very question as he tries to decide whether to keep the pajama sharks away from the octopus he’s befriended.  Is he watching nature or has he become a part of it?  Our religions are often our ethical signposts.  In more recent years ethics has been shifted to the philosophy department since many people outwardly distrust the obviously mythical aspects of religious stories.  Nevertheless, the implications are clearly there.  Doesn’t it make a difference that our world is filled with other intelligent beings apart from those of us with opposable thumbs?  Watch My Octopus Teacher before deciding on an answer.


Whale Tales

Photo by Richard Sagredo on Unsplash

Always I’m surprised when other people seem surprised, specifically about animal intelligence.  Then I have to remind myself that our culture has absorbed the biblical view that people are different so thoroughly that even scientists believe it.  I watch the birds out my window quite a lot.  What they do is intentional and often quite intelligent.  True, not all animals are college material, but they are far brighter than the “automaton” paradigm with which I grew up.  So when I saw a piece in The Guardian titled “Sperm whales in 19th century shared ship attack information” I kept the tab open until I could read it.  Then I woke up this morning wondering why one of my many open tabs had the header “Sperm” on it, only to remember that I was going to read about whales.

I’ve written about Moby-Dick many times on this blog.  Although Melville didn’t experience financial success with it, he managed to pen one of the most profound and memorable novels ever.  One of the things he stressed was the intelligence of the whaler’s prey.  The Guardian article describes how, due to the magic of digitized log books, researchers can now compare captains’ notes about whaling.  What this comparison makes clear is that whales shared the information about attacks and avoided the areas where they occurred.  Despite the massive size of their brains, researchers had supposed whales to be rather stupid—or automatons—simply waiting to get slaughtered.  Animal intelligence is visible anywhere as long as we’re not afraid of that bogeyman, “anthropomorphism.”

We’ve been taught that human beings are so special that we think other animals act like us only because we’re projecting onto them.  Since the Bible informs us that we’re special and they’re further down the food chain, we must assume that creatures who destroy their own planet believing that they’re serving the will of God are somehow smarter than animals living in harmony with their environment.  We’re so smart that we had to add an extra sapiens to Homo sapiens to show just how special we are.  I’ve long suspected that animals are far more intelligent than we allow them to be.  Philip Hoare’s article offers us yet more evidence that we’ve underestimated our non-sapiens companions time and again.  Ironically we can accept that evolution explains how life forms change over time, but we somehow can’t let go of the story that says we’re somehow different.  I think we need to get out more and simply watch how animals behave.


Animal Spirituality

I had little scientific basis for my claims.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have evidence, but it was more one of those “if you see something say something” kinds of scenarios.  I have been claiming for many years that animals experience some kind of spirituality.  My evidence was drawn from disparate scientific materials I’d read, along with ancient religions.  Egyptians believed baboons worshiped the sun.  Chimpanzees make threatening gestures toward the sky during thunderstorms.  Penguins grieve.  Human spirituality, it seems to me, is part of our kinship with other living creatures.  Then I found an article by none other than Marc Bekoff titled “We’re Not the Only Animals Who Feel Grief and Spirituality,” in no less a prestigious place than Psychology Today.  Bekoff, some of whose books I’ve reported on here, has studied animal emotions professionally.

Our ideas of human exceptionality, it seems to me, often get us into trouble.  Arrogance is perhaps the most dangerous of psychological states.  When we see ourselves as part of a continuum, and realize that it can go on beyond us—yes, there are likely greater intelligences—humility should be an expected response.  Those who are arrogant frequently experience their comeuppance, even if they have to get elected to high office for it to happen.  We share emotions with our fellow creatures, and, now according to at least one expert, we share spirituality.  What is spirituality?  It seems to be an awareness that the body isn’t everything.  In my lexicon it’s listed there right with consciousness, mind, and soul.  We know it because we feel it.

The interconnectedness of the world, and beyond, is something many want to take exception from.  Looking around, such folks say, “Hey, we’re different than all of this.”  Yes and no.  We’re different, but that makes us no less a part of it.  Nature is our matrix.  We build fancy houses, but so do bower birds, and they do it without benefit of opposable thumbs, or even hands.  Of late we seem reluctant to admit that even human beings have spirituality.  That doesn’t stop us from feeling it, however.  I’m glad that others see it in the animal realm also.  Anyone who’s “owned” a dog knows what it’s like to receive worship.  We’ve selectively bred these wolves to adore us.  Is it so much of a stretch, then, to suppose that other animals also feel a sense of admiration for what’s beyond themselves?  Only the most arrogant wouldn’t pause to consider it.


The Parable of the Doves

A loud flapping of wings.  I looked out my window in time to see a mourning dove land on the roof opposite with audible bump.  The poor thing sat there, looking stunned.  Then another flapping of wings.  Another dove flew over the gutter onto the higher roof.  It was then that it dawned on me that these two were being pushed out of the nest.  I’ll admit that I doubted the wisdom of a dove building a nest in the neighbor’s gutters, especially when the tropical storm dumped several inches of rain on us last week.  Sometimes animals know what they’re doing, however, and even after the storm I could see the mother dove winking at me, her head just above the level of her aluminum-sided home.

The stunned youngster sat there for quite some time.  As soon as Mom was gone, the one that had flapped above climbed back into nest.  Was I watching a parable unfold?  Mom flew back when chick number two decided to flap down and join its sibling.  Throughout the morning I watched as the mother returned, landed in sight of her offspring, then showed them how to get down to the ground.  Ensuring they were watching, she waddled to the edge, dropped, and spread her wings.  She did this several times as the young birds kept carefully away from the edge.  Mom, it seemed to me, was growing impatient.  She’d occasionally fly back to peck them, but the siblings simply wouldn’t take the leap.  She started coming back to feed them instead.  I wondered how she managed with two beaks jammed into her own at the same time.

I kept an eye on the drama the entire day.  By the time I turned in for the night, the two youngsters were bedded down next to each other on the roof.  Their mother had landed, cooed insistently to them, but they dutifully ignored her, afraid of falling.  We look at birds and think they’re built to fly.  It’s one of their greatest assets.  It is the kind of gift, however, that requires overcoming obstacles.  Just because you can fly doesn’t mean that you’re not afraid to fall.  There’s learning involved.  Such episodes of animal intelligence always inspire me.  We could learn so much if only we would take the time to see how birds learn to fly.  The transition from coddled nesting to the freedom of the skies is not easy, and being built to fly still requires overcoming a very natural fear.


Unnatural Nature

It began as an odd sort of noise.  I had the study windows open during the morning of a heat wave and I heard a small, but metallic noise coming from the roof outside.  My study overlooks part of the first floor roof and slinking to the window I saw a sparrow trying to pick up a roofing nail.  We’ve had the roofers over twice already since we moved in a couple years back (and will have them again), and some of the nails from their work on the second-story roof landed here.  I’ve noticed sparrows pecking at them before.  Instead of skittishly flying away when I came up—I was only about a yard away—she still tried to lift the nail without success.  She then flew even closer to me, snatched up a different nail, and flew off with it.  Sparrows have, of course, adapted well to human dwellings, but what would a bird be wanting with a nail?  Surely not to make a nest?  It wasn’t even shiny—it was a rusty old one from the shingles replaced—since everyone knows birds are attracted to bright objects.

I’ve been a close watcher of nature my entire life.  This isn’t the same as being an outdoorsman, but when I can see outside, or when I do spend valued time outdoors, I look closely.  I always keep an eye out for animals on my daily jogs.  And I watch animal behavior through the window when work isn’t too pressing.  Still, I wonder about what a sparrow could want with a nail.  The next-door neighbors moved out a couple of months ago, and I watch the sparrows on their porch roof.  With no human activity nearby, they frequently gather there.  They seem to be picking up bits of human detritus—even pulling at, it looks from here, nails.  Now this behavior has me a little worried.  I’ve read about sparrows before and despite their innocent looks, they can be very aggressive birds, even attacking and sometimes killing larger perching fowl.  The idea of them weaponizing themselves is disconcerting.

Intelligence in nature is one of the last features many scientists want to admit to the the discussion.  There seems to be too strong a supposed correlation with shape of the physical brain and the ability to “think,” it seems to me.  I don’t know what the sparrows are planning, but clearly it involves gathering rusty old nails.  Even as I was writing this I noticed sparrows chirping aggressively.  Looking out my window across the street, I saw that a squirrel had crawled across an electric cable into a bushy roost where there must’ve been a sparrow nest.  Sparrows began flying into the fracas from all over the place, loudly chirping.  I couldn’t see what what happening because of the leaves, but the squirrel soon rushed out with a whole flutter of sparrows in pursuit.  Perhaps he’d discovered their plan with the nails.

Now, the next order of business…


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.