A Valentine for my Wild Lovers
I used to say that the way to save a wild animal is to sleep with him. I enjoyed the double entendre, especially because we project all our own feelings of beastly sexuality onto our furry friends. But there's some simple and literal truth in my self-entertaining expression; I learned by sleeping with wild animals that they want the same things we do, that they communicate their desires with surprising clarity, if we pay attention. I’ve slept (and sleep, of course, is the operative word) with a fawn, a raccoon, a Brazilian cardinal and an acorn woodpecker, a pregnant sea lion-- okay she was just a quickie, an afternoon nap. These wild lovers have offered me the most thrilling encounters of my life, and so, for Valentine’s Day I want to sing of them.
Rosebud, a wild fawn, nuzzling up my arm, her expression of gratitude for a safe night, her hard cloven hoofs, her pale pink palate, her gentle invitation into a country not my own. Fling, a fledgling acorn woodpecker, who woke me up each morning by wood-pecking my forearm with surprising power, a hungry baby, who returned to greet me several weeks after his return to the wild. The way that a Brazilian Cardinal’s family came from a mile away to escort her home when we released her. The way it felt to hold a pregnant sea lion, soft and warm the full length of her, the way she utterly filled my arms, so like holding a human lover. The bat who told me with desperate pantomime that he was dying of thirst, clutching his throat with both hands, not once but repeatedly, then drank water like grace, for grace it was to him, as it is to us.
Most of these wild animals didn’t come looking for me, but were injured, and so the rescue motif. If saving is what it takes to get close to these friends, neighbors, relatives, I will do my best. A wounded or encumbered animal wants the same things we do; safety, comfort, refuge, rest. And animals across a wide range of features and habitats express themselves not so differently from us. Perhaps they are more like us than we want to know, and perhaps this has to do with the way we project what we wish to project onto them—beastly sexuality, kingship, servitude, a life of desperate fear, or cold aggression, stupidity, or our imagination of superior sensory awareness—or, to horrendous effect—that they don’t suffer from the same things that we do, that their joys and pains are lesser, more base than ours. The fact is that they go crazy like we do, and from the same kinds of things, horror, grief, debasement, deprivation, the frustration of not being allowed to do what they can do. Every day I pray for caged animals.
Today my Valentine is this letter to publicly declare my love for my wild animal relations, as well as my love for the domesticated animals from whom I first learned the notions expressed by naturalist, Henry Beston (in The Outermost House) in 1928:
"Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."
But, though they are not human, we share a very great deal by way of our common ancestry and habitation of this planet, not just in a theoretical way, but in the experiences of thoughts, feelings, and a shared recognition that we are caught in the same beautiful and frightening network of life. We can learn from them, we can learn very important things forgotten in our complex cultures and technologies, human things that take us away to a place where we “too much discuss, too much explain,” where we suffer from loneliness and disconnection at our roots.
I say that we can learn vitality from animals because I have experienced it, not once, but many times. I say this because I think we must turn to them, and so my Valentine, which is written on this Ash Wednesday of the Christian liturgical year, is also a hope that we humans might turn in a great conversion to love the world we have so feared and disdained, a world that does not belong to us, but to which we belong. My hope is that we can surrender ourselves to this world, as to a lover, in trust.
I quote from the long poem Ash Wednesday by T.S. Eliot (from Collected Poems 1909-1962 by T.S. Eliot, © T.S. Eliot 1963, Faber & Faber Ltd.):
“Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still."
Who can teach us to fly again? Who can teach us to sit still?
The central work of my life now is writing a book to express these ideas in scholarly and storied form. Soon this blog will include a response option for sharing your stories about what you’ve learned and shared with animals. At the end of this month, I will visit the birthing lagoons of the Pacific Gray Whales in Baja, Mexico, to visit a species that has reputedly adopted the strategy of befriending humans, after being hunted nearly to extinction in the 1970s. I am told that mother whales present their babies to humans in boats, as if to say, "Isn't he precious? Shouldn't she live?" No doubt, I will write about them next month.
St. Valentine was executed on February 14, not long after writing a letter to his jailer’s daughter, whom he’d befriended. He found friends in unexpected places, and so, I think can we. If you don’t have an animal friend, I encourage you to make one. If you have a pet, try to imagine her world from her point of view. Or become a regular visitor to a zoo animal, especially if you see one who seems lonely or bored, perhaps the only one of his kind in an enclosure. Or go out into the wild, trying to leave your projections behind, ask what its like to be that coyote, deer, squirrel, or bird who lives in your neighborhood. I trust you will find new love, and for the many of you who already know this love, I challenge you to declare yourselves! My wish for all of us this Valentine’s Day is to find new love and new kinds of love in every niche on earth.
Because, in contrast to the opening lines of Ash Wednesday, I do hope to turn again.