Come into animal presence
Friday, June 11, 2021
Ever since humans have lived upon earth, writes Lyanda Lynn Haupt,
"we have made our homes and conducted our movements in proximity to other animals. The more prominent our enclosed modern dwellings, encapsulated modes of transportation, indoor workplaces, and every-present technology become in everyday life, the more we are separated from the presence of other animals who have always been a part of human life-making. The beloved domestic dogs and cats who share our homes are a delight, but no substitution for time alert to the vivid intricacy of wild visitations and interactions.
"We are experiencing now an isolation named species loneliness by Michael Vincent McGinnis in a 1993 paper for Environmental Ethics. In his book Our Wild Calling, Richard Louv describes this modern human condition as 'a desperate hunger for connection with other life....All of us are meant to live in a larger community, an extended family of other species.' Without this, a number of pathologies grow within us and 'the family of humans loses comfort, companionship, and perhaps even the sense of higher power, however one defines it.' Animals, too, have evolved with humans among them -- and this distant relationship in which we currently live may be an incalculable, unknowable loss to them as well."
Communication between animals and humans, notes Jay Griffiths,
"is a fixture of science and has led to curious discoveries: dolphins communicating with humans will modulate the pitch of their calls to stay within the realm of human hearing; orangutans will modify their gestural signals according to the comprehension of their human audience.
"Such unfeigned communication, unbuyable and uncommandable, delights us as if they the unfallen were in that moment inviting us to step across, right through the curtain into the Dreaming. 'Everything has and tells a story. Everything communicates, through its own language and its own Law,' say Indigenous Australian Yolngu people from Bakawa in north-east Armhem Land. Indigenous cultures have kept faith with the animals as part of what it means to belong, and the world is larger and more vivid when animals and birds and insects are imbued with spirit and significance, when there is Mind of unknowable diversity, elastic and ecstatic, until the very air is electric with Message and there are more stories than stars.
"The communication between animals and humans is sometimes a terrible reproach. While elephants in captivity can speak human words, wild elephants have a word for 'human being' and, points out animal philosopher Eva Meijir, in Animal Languages, it indicates 'danger.' I have always wanted to hear a koala call. I have never wanted to hear one cry for help, its fur singed, its paws and nose burned, crying little bleats of bewilderment, and whimpering with pain in the arms of the Australian woman who rescued it from one of the bushfires caused by the climate crisis. Something in me died that day, and I am not alone. We need their well-being, their voice, their happiness, their life.
"When other creatures speak to us, a breach feels healed into wholeness, wellness. Worldwide, shamanic lore has included the art of shapeshifting; these animal transformations are often treated as fact without much analysis but the revelation to me is that healing, whether individual or social, is thought to come about through animal mind. Animals are the Healers, if we would but let them. This is physically true, as we know that, for example, heart surgery patients recover more quickly if they have a cat on their bed. Dogs can detect certain cancers through their heightened sense of smell and some dogs are now being trained to detect Covid-19. Emotionally, animals are the first-responders for the human heart, and eschewing the natural world is life-denying, refusing its most potent medicine: vitality.
"Vitality is at the heart of healing traditions: acupuncture or yoga, the concepts of Chinese Chi or Indian Prana, the life force in flow. It is among the five 'character strengths' most correlated with happiness, according to The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, the others being curiosity, optimism, gratitude and the ability to love and be loved. Vitality means living in vividness, alert, the senses picking up everything. It is the embodiment of life, keener and more alive. It is a core strength and not necessarily correlated with age: an eighty-year-old can be elastic with vitality. It is zest, enthusiasm, energy: sheer sap-rising, the very quick of life....Vitality is the aspect of human happiness that is most keenly associated with natural connection, as natural environments improve emotional functioning and attention. To notice, to attend the world, to be alive to its co-vitalizing, amounts to biophilia, the term used by biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson to describe that lovely innate quality of life loving life, and the particular kind of energy it offers is that shining momentness that, in the Homeric world, surrounds the gods: energeia. It is intense presence, wildness incarnate. In this sense, wild animals are the gods still walking -- swimming, tumbling, climbing, pouncing -- in the world."
The passages above are from Lyanda Lynn Haupt's new book Roots: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit, and Jay Griffiths new book, Why Rebel. Both are highly recommended. The title of today's post is taken from Denise Levertov's classic poem "Come into animal presence," which you can read here. For animal and human relationships from a folklore point of view, see "The Speech of Animals" and "Married to Magic: Animal Brides and Bridegrooms."
The images today are by Canadian artist Kristin Bjornerud, who was born in Alberta, studied at the Universities of Lethbridge and Saskatchewan, and is now based in Montreal. She's received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Saskatchewan Arts Board, the Ontario Arts Council and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec. Her work has been exhibited nationally and is represented in numerous public collections
"My watercolour and gouache paintings," Bjornerud writes, "explore contemporary political themes, ecological motifs, and personal narratives through the lens of folktales, dreams, and magical realism. In these delicately painted tableaus, a world is revealed wherein dream logic pervades, where women swim with narwhals and vivify hand-knit fauna. These eccentric landscapes are uncanny projections of a possible world where familiar activities are imbued with a mythic quality while, at the same time, extraordinary deeds are carried out with unruffled poise by proud, unconventional heroines.
"My aim is to create contemporary fairy tales that act as a medium through which we may consider our ethical obligations to the natural world and to each other. Retelling and reshaping stories helps us to understand how we are entangled, where we meet, and how our differences may be viewed as disguises of our sameness."
Please visit the artist's website to see more of her wonderful work.
The titles of the artworks by Kristen Bjornerud above (top to bottom) are: Encounter With a Bear, Caterwauling, Exile, Conjuration, In Your Skin, Tiger, Breathing Space, Beneath, and When You Were Wild. All rights reserved by the artist. The text quoted above is from Roots by Lynanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown Spark, 2021) and Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths (Penguin/Random House, 2021). All rights reserved by the authors.
A few other posts on animal/human relationships: Kissing the lion's nose, Keeping the world alive, The blessing of otters, Liam Henegan's Beasts at Bedtime, The animal helpers of T.H. White, and Wild Neighbours.