NATURE: The Language Of Animals, by Barry Lopez

From Wild Earth

The steep riverine valley I live within, on the west slope of the Cascades in Oregon, has a particular human and natural history.  Though I’ve been here for thirty years, I am able to convey almost none of it.  It is not out of inattentiveness.  I’ve wandered widely within the drainages of its eponymous river, the McKenzie; and I could offer you a reasonably complete sketch of its immigrant history, going back to the 1840s.  Before then, Tsanchifin Kalapuya, a Penutian-speaking people, camped in these mountains, but they came up the sixty-mile-long valley apparently only in summer to pick berries and to trade with a people living on the far side of the Cascades, the Molala.  In the fall, the Tsanchifin returned down valley to winter near present-day Eugene, Oregon, where the McKenzie joins the Willamette River.  The Willamette flows a hundred miles north to the Columbia, the Columbia another hundred miles to the Pacific.

The history that preoccupies me, however, in this temperate rain forest is not human history, not even that of the highly integrated Tsanchifin.  Native peoples seem to have left scant trace of their comings and goings in the McKenzie valley.  Only rarely, as I hear it, does someone stumble upon an old, or very old, campsite, where glistening black flakes of a volcanic glass called obsidian, the debitage from tool-making work, turn up in soil scuffed by a boot heel.

I’ve lingered in such camps, in a respectful and deferential mood, as though the sites were shrines; but I’m drawn more to the woods in which they’re found.  These landscapes are occupied, still, by the wild animals who were these people’s companions.  These are the descendants of animals who coursed these woods during the era of the Tsanchifin.

When I travel in the McKenzie basin with visiting friends, my frame of mind is not that of the interpreter, of the cognoscente; I amble with an explorer’s temperament.  I am alert for the numinous event, for evidence of a world beyond the rational.  Though it is presumptuous to say so, I seek a Tsanchifin grasp, the view of an indigene.  And what draws me ahead is the possibility of revelation from other indigenes – the testimonies of wild animals.

The idea that animals can convey meaning, and thereby offer an attentive human being illumination, is a commonly held belief the world over.  The view is disparaged and disputed only by modern cultures with an allegiance to science as the sole arbiter of truth.  The price of this conceit, to my way of thinking, is enormous.

I grew up in a farming valley in southern California in the 1950s, around sheep, dogs, horses, and chickens.  The first wild animals I encountered – coyotes, rattlesnakes, mountain lion, deer, and bear – I came upon in the surrounding mountains and deserts.  These creatures seemed more vital than domestic animals.  They seemed to tremble in the aura of their own light.  (I caught a shadow of that magic occasionally in a certain dog, a particular horse, like a residue.)  From such a distance it’s impossible to recall precisely what riveted my imagination in these encounters, though I might guess.  Wild animals are lean.  They have no burden of possessions, no need for extra clothing, eating utensils, elaborate dwellings.  They are so much more integrated into the landscape than human beings are, swooping its contours and bolting down its pathways with bewildering speed.  They travel unerringly through the dark.  Holding their gaze, I saw the intensity and clarity I associated with the presence of a soul.

In later years I benefited from a formal education at a Jesuit prep school in New York City, then at New York University and the universities of Notre Dame and Oregon.  I encountered the full range of Western philosophy, including the philosophy of science, in those classrooms and studied the theological foundations of Christianity.  I don’t feel compelled now to repudiate that instruction.  I regard it, though, as incomplete, and would say that nothing I read in those years fundamentally changed what I thought about animals.  The more steeped I became in the biology and ecology of animals, the more I understood about migration, and the more I comprehended about the intricacy of their neural impulses and the subtlety of their endocrine systems, the deeper their other unexplored capacities appeared to me.  Biochemistry and field studies enhanced rather than diminished my sense that, in Henry Beston’s phrase, animals were other nations.

If formal education taught me how to learn something, if it provided me with reliable structures (e.g., Moby-Dick, approaching the limit in calculus, von Clausewitz’s tactics) within which I could exercise a metaphorical imagination, if the Jesuits inculcated in me a respectful skepticism about authority, then that education gave me the sort of tools most necessary to an examination of the history of Western ideas, a concept fatally flawed by an assumption of progress.  I could move on from Gilbert White’s Selbourne to Thoreau’s Walden.  I could trade a thread from Aristotle through Newton to Schrödinger.  Or grasp that in the development of symphonic expression, Bach gives way to Mozart who gives way to Beethoven.  But this isn’t progress.  It’s change, in a set of ideas that incubate well in our culture.

I left the university with two ideas strong in my mind.  One was the belief that a person had to enter the world to know it, that it couldn’t be got from a book.  The other was that there were other epistemologies out there, as rigorous and valid as the ones I learned in school.  Not convinced of the superiority of the latter, I felt ready to consider these other epistemologies, no matter how at odds.

When I moved into the McKenzie valley I saw myself beginning a kind of apprenticeship.  Slowly I learned to identify indigenous plants and animals and birds migrating through.  Slowly I began to expand the basis of my observations of their lives, to alter the nature of my assumptions.  Slowly I began to recognize clusters of life in the valley as opposed to individual, isolated species.  I was lucky to live in a place too steep for agriculture to have developed, too heavily wooded to be good for grazing, and too poor in commercial quantities of minerals for mining (though the evidence that all three occurred on a small scale is present).  The only industrial-scale impact here has come from commercial logging – and the devastation in parts of the valley is as breathtaking a sight as the napalmed forests of the Vietnam highlands in the 1960s.  Pressure is building locally now to develop retirement real estate – trailer parks, RV parks, condominiums; but, for the moment, it’s still relatively easy to walk for hours across stretches of land that have never been farmed, logged, mined, grazed, or homesteaded.  From where my house sits on a wooded bench above the McKenzie River, I can look across the water into a four- or five-hundred-year-old forest in which some of the Douglas firs are more than twenty feet around.

Two ways to “learn” this land are obvious: enter it repeatedly and attentively on your own; or give your attention instead – or alternately – to its occupants.  The most trustworthy occupants, to my mind, are those with no commercial ties, beings whose sense of ownership is guided not by profit but by responsible occupancy.  For the valley in which I live, these occupants would theoretically be remnant Tsanchifin people and indigenous animals.  To my knowledge, the Tsanchifin are no longer a presence; and the rational mind (to which man of us acquiesce) posits there is little to be learned from animals unless we discover a common language and can converse.  This puts the emphasis, I think, in the wrong place.  The idea shouldn’t be for us to converse, to enter into some sort of Socratic dialogue with animals.  It would be to listen to what is already being communicated.  To insist on a conversation with the unknown is to demonstrate impatience, and it is to imply that any such encounter must include your being heard.

To know a physical place you must become intimate with it.  You must open yourself to its textures, its colors in varying day and night lights, its sonic dimensions.  You must in some way become vulnerable to it.  In the end, there’s little difference between growing into the love of a place and growing into the love of a person.  Love matures through intimacy and vulnerability, and it grows most vigorously in an atmosphere of trust.  You learn, with regard to the land, the ways in which it is dependable.  Where it has no strength to offer you, you do not insist on its support.  When you yourself do not understand something, you trust the land might, and you defer.

When I walk in the woods or along the creeks, I’m looking for integration, not conversation.  I want to be bound more deeply into the place, to be included, even if only as a witness, in events that animate the landscape.  In tracking a mink, in picking a black bear scat apart, in examining red alder trunks that deer have scraped with their antlers, I get certain measures of the place where I live.  In listening to the songs and tones of Swainson’s thrushes and to winter wrens, to the bellows of elk, I get a dimension of the valley I couldn’t get on my own.  In eating spring chinook, in burning big-leaf maple in the stove, in bathing in groundwater from the well, in collecting sorrel and miner’s lettuce for a summer salad, I put my life more deeply into the life around me.

The eloquence of animals is in their behavior, not their speech. To see a mule deer stot across a river bar, a sharp-shinned hawk maneuver in dense timber, to watch a female chinook build her nest on clean gravel, to see a rufous hummingbird extracting nectar from foxglove blossoms, to come upon a rubber boa constricting a shrew, is to meet the world outside the self. It is to hear the indigenes.

We regard wild creatures as the most animated part of the landscape. We’ve believed for eons that we share a specific nature with them, different from the nature of wild berries or lightning or water. Our routine exchanges with them are most often simply a verification of this, reaffirmations that we’re alive in a particular place together at a particular time.

Wild animals are like us, too, in that they have ancestors.  When I see river otter sprawled mid-stream on a boulder in the noon sun, I know their ancestors were here before the fur trappers, before the Tsanchifin, before Homo.  The same for the cormorant, the woolly bear caterpillar, the cutthroat.  In all these histories, in the string of events in each life, the land is revealed.  The tensile strength of the orb weaver’s silk, the location of the salmon’s redd, the shrew-moles’ bones bound up in a spotted owl’s cast, each makes a concise statement.

Over the years and on several continents I’ve seen indigenous people enter their landscapes.  (I say enter because the landscape of a semipermanent camp or village, as I have come to understand it, is less intense, less numinous.)  Certain aspects of this entry experience seem always to be in evidence.  Human conversation usually trails off.  People become more alert to what is around them, less intent on any goal – where to camp that night, say.  People become more curious about animal life, looking at the evidence of what animals have been up to.  People begin to look all around, especially behind them, instead of staring straight ahead with only an occasional look to the side.  People halt to examine closely things that at first glance seemed innocuous.  People hold up simply to put things together – the sky with a certain type of forest, a kind of rock outcropping, the sound of a creek, and, last, the droppings of a blue grouse under a thimbleberry bush.  People heft rocks and put them back.  They push their hands into river mud and perhaps leave patches of it on their skin.  It’s an ongoing intercourse with the place.

Learning one’s place through attention to animals is not solely a matter of being open to “statements” they make about the physical, chemical, and biological realms we share.  A more profound communication can take place.  In this second sphere, animals have volition; they have intention and the power of influence; and they have the capacity to intervene in our lives.  I’ve never known people who were entirely comfortable addressing such things.  However we may define consciousness in the West, we regard it as a line of demarcation that separates human nature from animal nature.  A shaman might cross back and forth, but animals, no.

In my experience indigenous people are most comfortable in asserting a spiritual nature for animals (including aspects of consciousness) only when the purpose of the conversation is to affirm a spirituality shared by both humans and animals.  (They’re more at ease talking about animals as exemplars of abstract ideals, as oracles and companions, and as metaphorical relations.)  When someone relates something previously unheard of that they saw an animal do, something that demonstrates the degree of awareness we call consciousness, the person is saying the world still turns on the miraculous, it’s still inventing itself, and that we’re a part of this.  These observations keep the idea alive that animals are engaged in the world at a deep level.

The fundamental reinforcement of a belief in the spiritual nature of animals’ lives (i.e., in the spiritual nature of the landscape itself) comes from a numinous encounter with a wild creature.  For many indigenous people (again, in my experience) such events make one feel more secure in the “real” world because their unfolding takes the event beyond the more readily apparent boundaries of existence.  In a numinous encounter one’s suspicion – profound, persistent, and ineluctable, that there is more to the world than appearances – is confirmed.  For someone reared in the tradition of the cultural West, it is also a confirmation that Rationalism and the Enlightenment are not points on a continuum of progress but simply two species of wisdom.

Whenever I think of the numinous event, and how vulnerable it is to the pincers of the analytic mind, I recall a scene in a native village in Alaska.  A well-meaning but rude young man, a graduate student in anthropology, had come to this village to study hunting.  His ethnocentric interviewing technique was aggressive, his vocabulary academic, his manner to pester and interfere.  Day after day he went after people, especially one older man he took to be the best hunter in the village.  He hounded him relentlessly, asking him why he was the best hunter.  The only way the man could be rid of the interviewer was to answer his question.  He ended the assault by saying, “My ability to hunt is like a small bird in my mind.  I don’t think anyone should disturb it.”

A central task facing modern Western cultures is to redefine human community in the wake of industrialization, colonialism, and, more recently, the forcing power of capitalism.  In trying to solve some of the constellation of attendant problems here – keeping corporations out of secondary education, restoring the physical and spiritual shelter of the family group, preserving non-Western ways of knowing – it seems clear that by cutting ourselves off from Nature, by turning Nature into scenery and commodities, we may cut ourselves off from something vital.  To repair this damage we can’t any longer take what we call “Nature” for an object.  We must merge it again with our own nature.  We must reintegrate ourselves in specific geographic places, and to do that we need to learn those places at greater depth than any science, Eastern or Western, can take us.  We have to incorporate them again in the moral universe we inhabit.  We have to develop good relations with them, ones that will replace the exploitative relations that have become a defining characteristic of twentieth-century Western life, with its gargantuan oil spills and chemical accidents, its megalithic hydroelectric developments, its hideous weapons of war, and its conception of wealth that would lead a corporation to cut down a forest to pay the interest on a loan.

In daily conversation in many parts of the American West today, wild animals are given credit for conveying ideas to people, for “speaking.”  To some degree this is a result of the pervasive influence of Native American culture in certain parts of the West.  It doesn’t contradict the notion of human intelligence to believe, in these quarters, that wild animals represent repositories of knowledge we’ve abandoned in our efforts to build civilizations and support ideas like progress and improvement.  To “hear” wild animals is not to leave the realm of the human; it’s to expand this realm to include voices other than our own.  It’s a technique for the accomplishment of wisdom.  To attend to the language of animals means to give yourself over to a more complicated, less analytic awareness of a place.  It’s to realize that some of the so-called equations of life are not meant to be solved, that it takes as much intelligence not to solve them as it does to find the putative answers.

A fundamental difference between early and late twentieth-century science in the cultural West has become apparent with the emergence of the phrase, “I don’t know,” in scientific discourse.  This admission is the heritage of quantum mechanics.  It is heard eloquently today in the talk of cosmologists, plasma physicist, and, increasingly, among field biologists now working beyond the baleful and condescending stare of molecular biologists.

The Enlightenment ideals of an educated mind and just relations among differing people have become problematic in our era because the process of formal education in the West has consistently abjured or condemned non-Western ways of knowing, and because the quest for just relations still strains at the barriers of race, gender, and class.  If we truly believe in the wisdom of Enlightenment thought and achievement – and certainly, like Bach’s B Minor Mass, Goethe’s theory of light, or Darwin’s voyage, that philosophy is among the best we have to offer – then we should consider encouraging the educated mind to wander beyond the comfort of its own solipsisms, and we should extend the principle of justice to include everything that touches our lives.

I do not know how to achieve these things in the small valley where I live except through apprenticeship and the dismantling of assumptions I grew up with.  The change to a more gracious and courteous and wondrous awareness of the world, will not come in my lifetime, and knowing what I know of the modern plagues – loss of biodiversity, global warming, and the individual quest for material wealth – I am fearful.  But I believe I have come to whatever I understand by listening to companions and by trying to erase the lines that establish hierarchies of knowledge among them.  My sense is that the divine knowledge we yearn for is social; it is not in the province of a genius any more than it is in the province of a particular culture.  It lies within our definition of community.

Our blessing, it seems to me, is not what we know, but that we know each other.

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  1. Weekly Readings 11.25.17 – archologies

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