Positive Existentialism and the Importance of Birds

Recently, a fellow bird-lover sent me a link to Jonathan Franzen’s April 6, 2015 New Yorker article entitled “Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?” which is concerned with how our apathy toward global warming extends to the extinction of birds and other species. Franzen suggests each and every one of us is implicated in global warming but that most of us feel impotent to do anything about it—and birds and other animals are the victims of the resulting apathy. The author goes on in his article to exhort us not only to act locally but also to think locally as well so that, as individuals or in smaller groups, we can make a difference where making a difference is most critical and possible.

American crow fledgling, with blue eyes

American crow fledgling, with blue eyes (all bird photos by Rick Clark)

But birds aren’t important only from the Protestant, New England Puritan, and Saint Franciscan points of view that Franzen mentions. Birds are also important from the Positive Existentialist point of view, which I suggest undergirds the most universal of value systems and which gives us a way to see all life on Earth as endangered and as worthy of saving.

American Robin in meadow

American robin in meadow

The Existentialist writers and philosophers of the 20th century—Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, and Gide, to name a few—posited a world in which there is no supernatural—no God or gods, no soul, no heaven, no hell, no “given” purpose or meaning. This point of view was experienced as so alien, pessimistic, and bleak at the time that most rejected it out of hand. However, I’d like to suggest that what many view as an agonizing dilemma might just as easily be viewed in a positive, redemptive light and that adopting the Positive Existentialist orientation might save the birds (and us) from extinction.

black-capped chickadee

black-capped chickadee

The problem with Existentialism is that, according to its view, nothing is more or less valuable or important than anything else, at least not from an extrinsic standpoint. This is the most troubling critique aimed at Existentialism: that the Existentialists failed to work up a system of values. But I think that’s because they failed to see that if the supernatural doesn’t exist, then we humans made up God, and if we made God up, then we’re the source of the values and morals we’ve projected on God in creating him. I might refer to this instinct as “the moral organ” (an idea I borrow from Joseph Campbell, who suggests the myth-making impulse is a kind of psychic organ). The relativism inherent in Existentialism applies to the value we put on human life in relation to the value we put on other animal life, including birds. Yet there’s no evidence without the created authority of an all-powerful supernatural being that one species is more valuable or important than any other—or that in the context of the universe anything whatsoever is important or valuable at all. It simply is.

Canada goslings

Canada goslings

The beauty of Positive Existentialism is that our view of the universe and our place in it becomes so much simpler and easier to understand. We humans are simply the most complex and sophisticated of some seven million species striving to survive (or thriving) on a relatively tiny star-lit ball of molten iron, rock, soil, water, and air rolling through space around one of trillions of stars in a universe billions of light-years vast. But not having a colossal supernatural being out there doesn’t mean we’re any less moral. It just means it’s up to us to act according to the authority we otherwise divest in “God.” If it’s we who conceive of God, religions, and moral systems, then it’s we who are moral to begin with. Morality is in our nature, much as the instinct to survive is in our nature. The Positive Existentialist orientation puts us in the driver’s seat, fully responsible for our own existence on this planet and in the universe. And if we returned to being a race of Nature rather than sycophants of the supernatural, there’d likely be a lot less conflict and fewer large-scale wars, since believing in different gods, differing versions of God, and contrary interpretations of “sacred” texts, wouldn’t be reason to kill each other off.

common loons

common loons

Once we get comfortable with a godless universe, we realize the world is ours to create, in our own best image, with all the goodness that we’ve created an all-powerful supernatural being to expect of us. We decide what’s important to us, to our individual selves as well as to the whole of civilization. We make our own meaning, we strive for the highest universal ideals and values, and we work hard to make our planet a paradise. Not to strive to make our planet a paradise is to fail as a race. Not to hold universal ideals and values is to fight and compete amongst ourselves till we destroy life on Earth as we know it. We know in our heart of hearts that we have the choice to become bad people and create hell on Earth or to become the best people we can become and strive to create Paradise on Earth.

eastern kingbird

eastern kingbird

While the Existentialists, especially Albert Camus, also posited Absurdism (the view that there’s no reason to exist in a meaningless world), the instinct to survive is not absurd. It is inherent. And to act to see that other creatures survive, including saving our birds, is heroic. Therein lies our meaning: In the context of our biological, ecological, economic, and spiritual imperatives, we need to create a world in which most or all peoples and species can survive and live together relatively healthily and peacefully.

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

As my philosophy professor, during my undergraduate years at Portland State University, suggested, the instinct of the survival of the species might in fact be the basis of human morality. I go a step further to suggest that recognizing other creatures’ instinct to survive as a species is just as important as recognizing our own need to survive as a species. We’re all Earthlings, so let’s extend the very secular Golden Rule to include other creatures, which is to say let’s have empathy not only for other human beings but also for other creatures on our planet (many of us do). We are arrogant to think our “ownership” of the land means that other creatures have no right to inhabit it. We humans created the once non-existent idea of property ownership, but plants and animals have no say about where the borders and property lines fell. This isn’t to say that property ownership is bad. Property ownership is natural, since most motile creatures on this planet are instinctually territorial, human property ownership being the formal extension of our territorial instincts.

great blue heron

great blue heron

As a longtime college English instructor, I copied and passed out a handout to my Intercultural Communications and Ancient Literature students that includes versions of the Golden Rule from sixteen different religions. The Golden Rule is, indeed, the first and most fundamental spiritual tenet, undergirding most if not all religions and spiritual systems and deriving, not from some external supernatural source, but from our own sense of one another’s vulnerability, imperative to exist, and longing for peace, fullness, and comfort. It is our highest empathic and compassionate means of relating to each other and to other creatures. The Golden Rule is an expression of our recognition that all creatures on Earth desire to survive, even thrive, on our shared planet. It is a universal, a sense we all have, or should have, in common. Live and let live.

gulls and moon

gulls and moon

I’m not advocating communism or any other system that doesn’t recognize Nature or human nature. I’m not advocating a Bacchanalian return to Nature, nor am I promoting anarchism or nihilism. Nature is very orderly, with territories, pecking orders, social structures, rites and rituals, symbiosis and mutualism, and, lest we forget, the food chain and its many fragile links. I’m simply advocating a heightened consciousness of and approach to our killing, exploitation of resources, destruction of habitat, mindless consumption, and ignorance of other creatures who might inadvertently be destroyed in the process of our exploitation and consumption, and I do so for the sake of the survival of our species and relative peace on Earth. It’s a matter of consciousness, empathy, intention, and, yes, action. True, we cannot achieve the ultimate ideal of a paradise in which there is no suffering or death, because, of course, we have to kill in order to eat and we all have to die in order for others to live, but we can lean toward some balance that enables most or all of our species to survive our otherwise careless destructiveness. If we believe in the human will and the ultimate good, then we are obliged to lean—heavily, at this late date—toward some sort of healthy balance between humans, other creatures, and Habitat Earth.

kildeer eggs

kildeer eggs

It’s impossible not to kill and eat plants and animals in order to survive. Life eats life. But we need to do it the way that some early peoples did, with respect, humanity, and even a kind of grief for being caught in the web of life in which we Earthlings must kill each other in order to survive. Many religions and tribal beliefs, in fact, are founded on this idea. Many rituals include sacrifices of animals emblematic of our taking of life to survive. Suddenly the taking of a life has the symbolic weight it deserves. But such rites don’t require that we believe in some obscure supernatural being—just that we treat all life with the respect that we seek for ourselves.

least sandpipers hunkering down in footprints

least sandpipers hunkering down in footprints

While there will always be those who set out to destroy others and the environment, we humans will always be most attracted to the brightest light, that of Aristotle’s “ultimate good.” As long as we can conceive of the light of goodness, we will always be drawn to it. Goodness shines its light on badness and shows it for what it is. Every clear-eyed, responsible, relatively intelligent human being knows this. Even dogs can learn the difference between good and bad. It’s when we know what good is and we choose to do bad anyway that amounts to the worst crime. Conversely, when we’re tempted to do bad and do good instead, we know we make the best choice, we confirm our belief in the human will, and we acknowledge our humanity.

mallard couple

mallard couple

I know there’s a degree of circularity in this logic, but it’s the best we can do without reconstructing the illusory authority of a colossal supernatural being, which, indeed, also involves a kind of circular logic (we exist; therefore there must be a God or gods to have created us). Ultimately, we must find our meaning and purpose in the context of our Earthly existence, in grooming the health of our planet and its many species.

peregrine falcon

peregrine falcon

Surprisingly, I’ve talked to relatively wise, intelligent, productive people who’ve told me they don’t believe in the human will. Some people can imagine a better world, or a better outcome for their efforts, but they say they’re helpless to achieve it. I, for one, believe in the human will. Not to believe in the human will is to suggest that nothing that came about on this planet came about as the result of human intention, and so much of what’s come about has come about in the last 120 years. 120 years of evolution and tumultuous change didn’t occur accidentally. If there’s one ideal that humans should believe in, it’s the human will. If we don’t believe in the human will, the belief that we can choose and create a better world, we may as well embrace the idea that there’s nothing that drives us but our basic animal instincts, that our bicameral brains and cortexes are for naught, that civilization is an illusion, and that the birds are doomed to perish, which is to suggest that this ever more complex world that we seem to be creating is nothing more than billiard balls ricocheting off each other, off the “bumpers” of the laws of nature into the bumpers of our idle constructions, physical and abstract.

red-necked grebes

red-necked grebes

Let’s face it, if we are conscious and have free will, then we are not innocent, unlike birds and other animals, who kill to eat and protect their young out of instinct (or so the theory goes). In fact, it would follow that the more conscious we are, the more responsible we are for our actions in the world, the less innocent—that is, the more guilty—we are for doing nothing to counter our own actions or the actions of others. How we live with our guilt, our remorse, I can’t claim I have no idea, because I too am as guilty as the next human being. I have killed—and killed for no good reason or without a second thought.

rufous hummingbird

rufous hummingbird

Some readers will argue it’s obvious that we humans are more important than birds and other animals because we’re more intelligent (according to our own standards and measures), we create and evolve technology, we have reason, language, religions, philosophies, countries, cities, governments, corporations, communication and transportation systems, schools, libraries, weather stations, and we’ve leashed the power of the wind, the wheel, metallurgy, plumbing, electricity, flight, space travel, and the atom. We may consider these characteristics and developments as indicative of how much more valuable we are than birds and other creatures, but our abilities and institutions are valuable only in our own eyes and according to our own value systems—intrinsically. There’s no great cosmic judge out there saying, “Wow, your technology is a clear sign of your goodness in the universe,” or “The high values to which you pay lip service are indeed the highest values in the universe.” They’re only valuable to us humans, not to other species, which have only been maimed, sickened, and killed off by our presence and our technologies. Certainly the pig wasn’t too thrilled about the invention of the sty, nor the horse the bit. The fact that humans can be viewed as more evolutionarily complex or sophisticated, or that we humans appear to have freedom of choice and can take responsibility for our actions—might make for good arguments, but complexity, sophistication, and freedom of choice are nevertheless human, species-centric values.

scrub jay

scrub jay

We can view ourselves as valuable and important only to the extent that we conceive and act on the highest universal values, ideals, and visions for the majority of people and species on our planet. This is what I think of when I think of Positive Existentialism. We can measure our goodness only within the context of our actions on Earth. War may occasionally be the only choice as far as we can see, but war is never good. We can’t say, “We’re a great people because we destroyed a country or a people and won the war.” Millions of people may be starving and dying due to disease on our planet, yet we are no better as people just because we’re not the victims. At minimum, we each—most of us—need to be self-sufficient. Beyond that, we need to contribute positively, in some small way at least, to creating Paradise on Earth.

shorebird flock

shorebird flock

We must choose to create Paradise of Earth. We must act on our choice to create Paradise on Earth. To do anything else is to succumb to apathy, inaction—or self-serving action—that is, to remain blind to, and even hate, Nature—a great sadness, indeed.

song sparrow

song sparrow

Animals, including birds, have every bit as much right to survive, to live, as we do. Just because we’re human doesn’t mean that other species don’t have a right to exist. Just because other creatures lack the technology we possess to kill them doesn’t mean we have the right to kill them meaninglessly or accidentally. This seems to be the attitude of humans for the most part: We think that just because we’re human we have the right to destroy other life and wildlife habitat (which amounts to the same thing). This mindset is not a sign of intelligence, but of ignorance, stupidity, arrogance, and sheepishness. It’s like a man stranded on a desert isle who cuts down the one and only tree that produces coconuts and upon which a parrot perches to keep him company and who cuts that tree down to make a raft to reach yet another desert isle with no palm or parrot on it. It doesn’t make sense to destroy this planet thinking we can simply go in search of and destroy another planet elsewhere. This is not a test we can fail.

spotted towhee

spotted towhee

Birds have been around since long before our hairy ape ancestors ever clambered down out of their trees and walked out onto the grasslands to scavenge lion-killed wildebeests. Birds may have evolved from dinosaurs, but I wonder what kind of dinosaur humans evolved from?

winter wren

winter wren

I take seriously the canary in the mine argument. The frogs, in the early 1980s and on, were the canaries in the mine when, due to human-made air pollution, holes opened up in the ozone layer and countless frogs died or were born deformed and dysfunctional. I’d like to suggest that, if we let bird species continue to go extinct (let alone cause them to go extinct) along with the pollinating bees, then we’re not too far behind them with our own demise (Endangered Species International lists 25 species of birds whom we humans have caused to go extinct since 1900). We are foolish to count our blessings when we think, “At least it’s not me dying due to global warming!” This is arrogant, short-range denial. And how stupid can we be to think we can simply move to another planet once we destroy this one! Or even to live under glass domes in order to survive the harsh climate and geological conditions that we helped create outside those domes. Are we so important as to deserve hell?

wood duck,male

wood duck

Beautiful, beautiful birds! What creatures besides birds lay eggs, sing, and fly? Insects lay eggs, and many fly, but none sing like birds (a few verge on melodious, such as the cicada). What other creatures display more brilliant and varied colors than birds (except butterflies and fish—other Earthlings whose species are endangered)? But even these criteria derive from a human aesthetic that values incomparable song, swift, soaring, and acrobatic flight, and dazzling plumage.

bald eagle

bald eagle

My favorite kinds of birds are the little ones that visit our house in the woods—the sparrows, finches, chickadees, thrushes, towhees, wrens, and warblers that typically dwell in forests, marshes, and meadows—the most apparently helpless, most childlike birds (except for those ubiquitous English sparrows, who, like the cockroaches, seem to be one of Earth’s ultimate survivors), the birds that for the most part seem not to eat human refuse. Many don’t eat the birdseed I put out for them because they’re not seed-eating birds or because they have an innate distrust of anything touched or created by human hands. They eat bugs—or seeds not supplied by the feeder. While I can’t really establish a relationship with an individual small bird the way I can with a crow, raven, or parrot, they’re always nearby, keeping me company while I work or entertaining me visually around the feeder, in the alder above, and in amongst the salal and rhododendrons at ground level. These birds are my personal canaries in the mine. Every year I participate in the Audubon annual bird count just to help make sure the numbers are still up and that none of the usual suspects have disappeared. The loneliness I’d feel without birds would be excruciating. I’m not sure I could go on living on a planet in which we humans have destroyed all the birds, where birds are merely the subject of ancient myths to which we hark with dreamy eyes and nostalgic literature, such as the beautiful passenger pigeon.

stellar jay

stellar jay

If we can’t save the birds and all or most of life on this Earth from which we were also born, then how important and valuable can we be? Having the ability to destroy life might make us feel powerful, but it hardly makes us “good.”

fox sparrow

fox sparrow

Hatred, destruction, and negligence of Earth are not family values. Letting one species of bird become extinct due to human causes is a failure of so-called human civilization. If the definition of civilization doesn’t extend to include other species, then either the definition needs to be reworked or the word needs to be thrown out of the lexicon altogether.

heron rookery

heron rookery

Copyright 2015 by Rick Clark

Eagles and Angels (Americana poem)

The Eagles come goose-stepping
around the corner of Second and Main,
drilling the wet-eyed perspectives
of moms and dads with near military
machine work, hardly rippling a shirt
or smudging a collar as a band of Angels,
leaning in on tattooed shoulders,
rumble through in hairy procession
around the corner opposite, at First

and Main, their scars and eye patches
stating there’s nothing left to lose. The Eagles
come to a simultaneous heel-digging halt
in front of Marvin’s Drug and Fountain
as the Angels clutch and brake,
squeaking rubber and leather, to stop
face to face with the scouts and kill
their engines in leering disarray.

Grandmas and grandpas
hold their cherry soda breath.
The mouths of boys and girls
hang open. One last baby gurgles
before all fall hushed. Eagles
waver in their stations, the sky
weighs a ton on every shoulder.
A gas cap glints in the heat.

Legless veteran town drunk Jake
arm-hops through stock-still legs,
passing a dog with one eye raised,
stops before the cracked black jacket
and python beard of the hog boss, calls out,
“Are you the one they call The Snake?”
The hog boss chaws and spits,
fires a look down his dreadlocked beard.
“Mary over at Morgansville says Hi.”

Snake motions with his one good eye.
The Angels kick-start their Harleys,
drop them into gear, then roll
unwavering through the Eagle ranks,
never once brushing sleeve with handlebar
as the scouts resume their march down Main.
The thunder rises in pitch as the Angels
stretch their arms and hair out of town.

All heads turn in search of Jake
who’s returned to hold up the bar.

Copyright 2015 by Rick Clark

The Greatest Gift

While so many people were roaring about trying to fulfill the various obligations of the giving season, I was wondering: What is the greatest gift we can give our selves and one another? Ask this question of most people and they’ll admit, after a lot of thought—or after almost no thought at all—that love is the ultimate gift. But talking about love is easier than loving. Or rather, if we felt secure in our exchanges of love, we wouldn’t go roaring about trying to fulfill all these seasonal giving obligations all at once and not as much at other times. And I suppose that amongst all the many forms of love that we can usually identify and present in a list—motherly love, romantic love, familial live, brotherly love, spiritual love (compassion), adoration, affection, care, and tenderness—the kind of love I’m thinking of fits nicely: belief in the self and in one another—on a par with trust.

Shadow of Self

Shadow of Self

We can place our belief in money, guns, power, or violence, but none of these is so non-materialistic, so non-destructive of life, so humanizing, or so self-evident as the belief we can place in ourselves and in each other. I’ve seen a father break down and give a daughter what she has longed for all her life, that belief in herself that she has felt or managed not to feel as lacking for as long as she can remember or not remember. The same goes for fathers and sons. This is why so many of us set out in search of affirmation, because we grow up without receiving it. Some parents simply aren’t equipped to provide that affirmation, because they never received or found it for themselves. Thus we set out into the world in search of affirmation, that is, for evidence that we are worthy or capable or at least adequate to the task of our responsibilities and dreams in life, and we find ourselves circling back to our parents or teachers, seeking fulfillment of that great lacking, that vacancy in our hearts: the need to be believed in.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Prize winner

I for one have received a great deal of affirmation as a teacher, in turn, through providing affirmation to my students. I have had it said to me on numerous occasions that it was due to my belief in my students that they felt they could write better, write well or beautifully, or simply pass the course with satisfaction. I’ve seen it in their faces, when I’ve expressed my confidence in their abilities, ideas, or intentions. They are exhilarated at having someone, anyone, believe in them! As a result, I’ve had a minimum of plagiarism or cheating in my classes, because few are willing to pass up a chance to be believed in. Thus many of my students have far surpassed their expectations for themselves coming into my classes.

Great Belief

Great Belief

I remember a moment when an internationally respected composer, when I was wrapping up an undergraduate degree in music performance, asked me to undertake a masters in music composition with him, one on one. What an opportunity! But even as I swooned at the offer, I heard my mouth say, “I’m honored, but I have to get a job.” But my real reason was that I felt like a phony as an instrumentalist and didn’t have the confidence to move ahead with music in my life, even though this composer whom I highly esteemed had expressed his belief in me. But I felt the affirmation of the man, the composer, in that moment and felt that, had I been prepared instrumentally, I would have soared as his student of composition. And I would have carried on that affirmation with me over the decades like a plump bag of gold in a vest pocket. As it is, I carry about with me a single gold coin as a reminder.

Belief in Self

Belief in Self

A writer can have received only so much belief from parents or even friends if those parents or friends have no power of affirmation to give. Thus the writer wanders almost blindly and without belief, possibly for a whole lifetime, if some small affirmation doesn’t come his or her way. Where to submit? From whom risk rejection? Then, one day, the writer receives notice that a piece has been accepted by so-and-so a publication and soon the writer is busy grooming poems, stories, or articles for further submission and sends a number of pieces out. The affirmations begin to add up to out-and-out self-belief.

Belief is a psychosocial phenomenon. Belief doesn’t exist without other people. One doesn’t worry about being accepted as a writer if there are no readers. Editors, and especially readers, become the writer’s believers. And even if a writer hasn’t broken into the greater world of writing, he or she imagines—must imagine—a reader who believes enough in the writer, in the writer’s story, to keep reading and for the writer to keep writing.

Being believed in by another reminds me of a famous story in which the Buddha set out to confront a murderer in the forest, a man who’d become a murderer in order to bring 100 first fingers to his spiritual master as payment for his services. When the Buddha came upon the murderer, whose name was Angulimala, Angulimala set out to murder the Buddha as he had so many others but found he couldn’t catch the Buddha, although the Buddha never moved. Immediately, the murderer broke down due to all the crimes he’d committed and became Buddha’s disciple. Eventually, Angulimala achieved enlightenment.

budda-angulimala-01

Angulimala

What interests me about this story is what happened in that moment when the Buddha saw deeply into Angulimala and saw the man for who he was, a man first and a murderer second, and Angulimala felt those loving eyes on his heart. I believe this is the kind of love I speak of here: the profound belief in another that the other can feel to the core and is then pacified and changed forever, powerful encouragement.

Belief in oneself and others and trust are foundational forms of love—closely related. The belief I’m talking about here enables us to become fully ourselves and to make our dreams come true, while trust is the belief or faith that others have our best interest at heart…

In other words, if we can’t trust others not to hurt us, then how can we possibly believe in ourselves to become everything we can be?

Universal Symbols

Universal Symbols

Two Paradise Poems

First egg (Killdeer)

First egg (Killdeer)

Birds in Heaven

What do the birds
in the place they call Heaven
look like? Are they colorful?
Do they sing beautiful melodies?
Do they soar gracefully,
with great acrobatic agility?
Are there furry creatures there
pleasant to pet, to cuddle,
to keep us cozy company?
And won’t there be a little green,
a few green leaves, a deep blue sky?
Yes, I’d like a deep blue sky.
And I’m wondering. Will there be
stones, rain, someone there to love?
Will we get to eat and drink?
I’d like some tasty food, a strong wine
in Heaven, a few birds singing.
What do the birds
in the place they call Heaven
look like? Are they colorful
or are they invisible?

New birds (Canada geese)

New birds (Canada geese)

Reconstructing Paradise

A man set out to reconstruct paradise.
With an abandoned equation,
a few letters from an antiquated alphabet,
with the distant echo of a syllable,
he rebuilt the tree.

Clouds he coughed up
from his own lung’s eons of gases
till a beautiful storm cloud
banked up overhead
near to bursting.

Birds gave him the most trouble:
To redesign that which both sings and flies,
in a single act of destruction in reverse,
is a lot to ask of a man
who’d given up the world for lost.

From his own hair he fashioned
feathers and mounted them
on a twig from the tree,
then this lifeless creature
he began to teach to whistle.

What a wonderful in-earnest
sight he made, who had nothing to do
and no reason to do it! With what
a profusion of silly shrill notes
he bent the poor ear of outer space!

Imagine no birds (American robin)...

Imagine no birds (American robin)…

Copyright 2014 by Rick Clark

Leave Enough Deadwood

View of Seattle's Green Lake

View of Seattle’s Green Lake

with respect to Seattle’s Green Lake
Habitat Restoration

Leave enough deadwood
to feed the bugs,
enough bugs
to feed the birds,
enough small birds
to feed the big.

Leave snags and stumps
to rot and die, to silhouette
the Northwest sky
before the ants and termites
carry it all away
in the beak of a wren.

Lay in a few old logs.
Plant cottonwood, willow,
aspen, and birch. Spread ferns,
salal, and huckleberry.
Lay moss on soggy wood.
Skirt the lake with yellow irises.

Don’t rake up the leaves
in these hidden paradises.
Add the leaves from the lawn.
Let the cedars, redwoods,
pines, and cypresses slough
their glistening duff!

Hire a poet or two
to write what they see
in prose or straight haiku
to publish on a public site—
What old species return,
what new ones arrive?

What eagle, egret, or heron,
what wood duck, night hawk,
junco, sparrow, or vireo appear?
What red-winged blackbird,
what darting hummingbird,
what kestrel, owl, or jay?

Make the crazy world
a masterpiece, if possible.
Make way for all of life to live.
Leave us all the ground
upon which to sleep,
to eat, to play.

Making Humans Animals: An Advanced Lesson in English

Most of us have heard of anthropomorphism, giving animals human characteristics, but few of us have heard of, or given much thought to, zoomorphism, giving humans animal characteristics. And yet we probably commit the crime of zoomorphism much more frequently than we do anthropomorphism. In fact, once we move past the well known literary examples of anthropomorphism, such as Aesop’s fables, George Orwell’s Animal Farm (this may also be an example of zoomorphism), the iconic Disney movie Bambi (which has had a huge impact on political thinking about animals and hunting), and how we think about, talk to, and treat our pets—we’re left to consider an endless list of words, phrases, and expressions we use to refer to each other as—or as like—animals.

Egyptian gods often had animal bodies or heads

Egyptian gods often had animal bodies and/or heads.

While some words and expressions draw attention to them selves as comparisons and are thus not particularly deeply integrated into our language and how we see each other, others are so deeply ingrained in our language and thought that we hardly notice them. Not only can we classify zoomorphic words and expressions, but I’d suggest we can also order those classes into a kind of hierarchy extending from the least integrated and most noticed to the most integrated and least noticed. The classification might also range from traditional expressions to relatively new expressions in modern usage.

Many Indian gods have animal features and powers

Many Indian gods have animal features and powers.

We’ve inherited many common zoomorphic expressions from the distant if not obscure past. She’s got ants in her pants. A little bird told me so. He and she are birds of a feather. He was running around like a chicken with its head cut off. She has the memory of an elephant. Don’t let him get your goat. They have their heads in the sand. He’s mad as a March hare. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. She looked like a deer caught in headlights. I have a frog in my throat. And so on. These expressions have been around for decades if not centuries and attest to a long history of zoomorphic indulgence. And of course we have zoomorphic aphorisms: A bird in hand is better than two in the bush. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. And there are countless colloquial or regional expressions. My brother-in-law from the mountains of Pennsylvania shared these with me: as fine as frog’s hair, raining like a cow peeing on a flat rock, and slower than a herd of turtles.

Zoomorphism and evolution

Zoomorphism and evolution

We use zoomorphic similes relentlessly, yet writers, editors, and readers alike view these expressions as unabashedly cliché: blind as a bat, busy as a bee, snug as a bug, sly as a fox, quiet as a mouse, scared as a rabbit, wise as an owl, stubborn as a mule, bray like a donkey, drink like a fish, and pee like a racehorse. Note that those similes describing nouns (people) use the comparative “as,” while those describing (people’s) actions use “like.” Some employ rhymes. Others simply aren’t true, the best known being wise as an owl, as scientists and naturalists claim owls are rather stupid for a bird (do they use a standard human IQ test to determine animal intelligence?). Regardless, the writing instructor and the editor will mark these common similes as cliché.

Not quite birds of a feather

Not quite birds of a feather

As we move deeper into our zoomorphic body of language, we arrive at our use of animal nouns to call each other names. He’s an ass, a jackass, a bear, a buck, a tom cat, a chicken, a sitting duck, a fox, a stud, a peacock, a swine, a pussy, a rat, a slug, a snake, a card or pool or loan shark, a paper tiger, a shellback, a weasel, a wolf, a lone wolf. She’s a bird, a cow, a fox, a clotheshorse, a butterfly. He or she can be a crab, an old goat, a silly goose, a lamb, a pig, a hog, a real tiger while they are sheep (see John Updike’s short story “A&P”). Note that a majority of the list breaks down on sexual lines and that many expressions are mean, vulgar, and/or chauvinist. Note also that these expressions do not merely compare, using the terms “like” or “as,” but rather out and out equate humans with animals. Other animal noun expressions referring to human life include catfight, chicken-scratch, doe eyes, dogs (meaning feet), eagle eye, hawk eye, paws, horsepower, lion’s share, piggybank, rat-tail, swan song, and swan dive. We might conclude at this point that it’s hard to think about ourselves without thinking about animals.

Old goat

Old goat

Our zoomorphic tendencies reach such depths of integration in our language that we hardly notice when the words we’re using refer back to animals. Many of our zoomorphic adjectives fall into this category: catty, clammy, bull-headed, crabby, doe-eyed, dogged, dog-eared, dog-tired, fishy, foxy, lionhearted, mousy, mouse-brown, owlish, piggish, hoggish, prickly, ratty, sheepish, slothful, wolfish, and raven-haired. Because animal names or characteristics have been converted to adjectives in this case, they tend to draw less attention to themselves as animal words and we hardly think of the animal when we use them. Yet the animals to which these words refer are nevertheless sorely used, whether they’re aware of it or not.

Bull-headed

Bull-headed

I’d suggest the deepest we go in our sublimating of animal words and characteristics is via our zoomorphic verbs, animal words describing our actions. These words are so deeply imbedded that they’re almost imperceptible when we use them. We ape, parrot, badger, paw at, dog, outfox, gull, goose, and rat on one another. We buck the system, clam up, crane our necks, weasel (equivocate), and crow (boast). We fish for items other than fish. We horse, monkey, and cat around (two-word verbs or idioms). We hog up the food and wine. We squirrel money away. We’ve taken a quality from an animal and applied it to how we act or move. By giving each other what we perceive as animal characteristics, we’ve taken the animals fully into ourselves. We’ve applied animal nature to our own nature where it means the most: our actions.

Lionhearted?

Lionhearted? (image by Kenneth Rougeau at kennethrougeau.com))

Similarly, we humans make a cacophony of animal sounds for which we’ve created words. We too howl, growl, hoot, hiss, bark, squeal, bray, crow, snarl, and purr, to list a few. The example of a braying human that comes to mind is Nick Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whose head is turned into that of a jackass while Queen Titania has been given a love potion to fall in love with him. And for a while she loves him all the more for his braying—till the potion wears off.

Meowing, hissing, purring?

Meowing, hissing, purring…

Other ways in which animal words have penetrated the human sphere can be found in a variety of expressions we use today: bear, meaning big cuddly, lovable man; coyote, meaning one who guides an illegal north across the border into the United States; cougar, meaning an older woman hunting younger men; mole, meaning a spy penetrating an organization or government; mossback, meaning an extremely conservative or old-fashioned person; and lemming, meaning a mindless follower. We also have such expressions as crying big crocodile tears, hens’ night (equivalent to men’s bachelor party), and monkey mind (busy, distracting thoughts that get in the way of clearing the mind in yoga).

Hanuman, Indian monkey god

Hanuman, Indian monkey god

Finally, many animal images and words have acquired great symbolic and cultural depth and weight. For example, the eagle is the symbol of the United States of America (since the eagle is as much a carrion thief as a raptor, I’m not sure what this says about the country). The donkey represents the Democrats while the elephant represents the Republicans. Hawks are warmongers and doves are peaceniks. A bear market refers to a declining economy while a bull market describes a vigorously growing era. In the New Testament, lambs refer to followers of Jesus. Fraternal lodges and sports teams boast whole menageries of animal mascot names, yet it’s ironic that the animals whose names they’ve commandeered can’t rise up against such blatant stereotyping because they can’t speak or write human.

Menagerie of animal men

Menagerie of animal men

Why do we make people animals or like animals? Perhaps the impulse derives from an inherent tendency to make fables of our selves. We may do it out of an infantile impulse to give concreteness to our abstract thinking, the way we use animals to tell stories to our children—or as Aesop did to convey his morals. Maybe debasing animals gives us a means to debase one another. Many of our animal words and expressions have a negative twist, which I would suggest says more about how we feel about animals than how we feel about one another. When we call a man a pig, what are we saying about pigs? That pigs are dirty because they eat slop and slop about in the mud? But do they trash our water, air, and land, our yards, cars, and houses, or our bodies and minds (not to mention outer space) as we humans do? Hardly. Then perhaps it’s more denigrating to call a pig a human than a man a pig. The fact that we don’t see it that way hints at a kind of human zoophobia, a fear of or hatred toward animals that comes clear through a study of our language. I remember how triumphant I felt when I read Part IV of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in which the horses are the masters and the humans the slaves—how language, irony, and satire can hold a mirror to our faces.

What are our thoughts?

How human are our thoughts?

In other words, we stereotype animals at least as much as we stereotype people. Yet animals have no recourse to fight back. They may forever remain the victims of our need to denigrate one another with their images and the words we attribute to them. Although there exist animal rights organizations, these groups are concerned with the treatment of animals and not the language we use to describe them or the fact that we use their names to call each other epithets or to suggest something negative about each other’s behavior or character.

Lamb Santa

Santa the Lamb

On the other hand, as much as animals enrich our lives on Earth (probably more than we enrich theirs), the language we borrow from them to refer to ourselves also enriches our language. Animals give our language color and expand it to include another dimension. Conversely, language, like a mirror, helps to remind us of our animal nature, true or false. Whether in anger we call a man an ass or with adolescent fervor refer to a girl as a fox, animal words have weaseled their way so deeply into our collective psyche that we no longer notice—and the weasel winks at us from beneath our consciousness. In the end, when we howl or growl “You animal!” there’s more truth in it than we might think.

I welcome comments and especially further examples of and angles on this subject.–r

Dangerous Thoughts

Sometimes in the morning, when I’ve gotten a good night’s sleep, as I’m listening to music, watching the birds at the feeder through the window, having my way with words, drinking a cup of coffee, I suddenly feel warm and fuzzy all over. I’m enveloped in a glow of satisfaction and completion. And I realize I’m feeling about as good as I can feel in a day, without introducing sex, drugs, and rock and roll (or chocolate) to artificially boost or even induce the sensation. In other words, for a moment, I’m happy.

Aglow (photos by Rick, Italy 2013)

Aglow (photos by Rick, Italy 2013)

But other times I feel downright irritable, with my wife, with my work, with my stressed-out body, with how hard it is to write. It’s then that I catch myself at my worst, when the monkeys in my mind are making havoc with my mental tranquility, not to mention with my work and relationships. I’m having dangerous thoughts. No, not thoughts as fatal as committing suicide or turning to serious drinking or running away for good (and at such a late date!)—but dangerous thoughts. I’m beating myself up with synaptic kicks and punches—and any one else in there who gets in my mind’s way. And I realize that I have these dangerous thoughts more often than just during these isolated funks. I have them more often than I like to think I have them.

Dangerous Thoughts

Dangerous Thoughts

Here they come! They come like demons out of hell. I’m afraid I don’t have anything meaningful or interesting to share. I’m afraid no one wants to read my writing. Do I think I’m some sort of authority? Who the hell do I think I am anyway, thinking I can be a writer—let alone a successful one? I may not be guilty of having actual violent thoughts, nor even hateful thoughts, since hate is so imbued in violence anyway, but judgmental thoughts, yes, and perhaps even cruel or malicious thoughts. Am I splitting hairs here? While I may not allow myself to indulge freely in self-loathing, I certainly work hard (yet fail) to suppress self-doubt. And while I brag that I’m not superstitious, I catch myself at “creeping superstition,” the sensation that, maybe, just maybe, the circumstances are lining up in my favor, that someone out there is looking upon me favorably when in fact there’s no evidence to support such a thought. Wishful thinking turns to hope which becomes a real possibility for a moment, when in fact I haven’t even lifted a finger or clicked a key. Creeping superstition. Dangerous thoughts.

Monster Shop

Monster Shop

Then there’s the arrogance, the secret vanities, those feelings of superiority I swing about me like a cudgel in my mind—that my philosophy is the ultimate view, the answer to the world’s problems—that I’m the enlightened one. If only they’d just look they’d finally see themselves for what they are and clean up their act—then they’d thank me for my wisdom! I even have a vanity about not being vain!

Enlightenment

Enlightenment

But aren’t I baring my soft underbelly here, lowering my neck for the sword’s blow, making a show of weakness? Won’t these self-admissions gain me doubt, disrespect, even derision? Good question! But I keep on trudging down the shadowy path where, nevertheless, I continue to catch glimpses of light. I believe in truth. I believe in courage.

Mouth of Truth

Mouth of Truth

So I catch myself at these dangerous thoughts. I suddenly hear the monkeys rough-housing in my cranium. I feel them tumbling and thumping against the inner walls of my skull. Now what? After all, what will I have left to think about if not these holier-than-thou, self-fulfillingly prophetic negative thoughts? Won’t an unbearably weighty silence suddenly fall like a clap of thunder on the vast cavern of my mind? And, hey, what does a peaceful, kind, loving, generous, positive, productive, considerate, thoughtful thought look like, anyway?

Skull in Hand

Skull in Hand

In yoga, the sanskrit word ahimsa, meaning “non-violence,” refers not only to one’s deeds and words but also to one’s thoughts. The dangerous thoughts I list above are no less mental acts of violence than greed, envy, and covetousness are mental acts of violence. But I’m not sharing these seedy secrets in order to bring world peace; I’m sharing them to bring peace—and freedom—to myself. That’s where it starts—with the self. I try to open spaces of time to observe my thoughts, especially those naughty, incorrigible monkeys rattling the bars of my tight little cage, and simply watch them till they settle down and go to sleep. To self-doubt I reply that while I can’t prove I can write successfully, neither can I prove I can’t. The self-doubt monkey yawns, lies down, and falls asleep. To arrogance, I ask myself how I like living in an ivory tower. Lonely up here? Monkey Superior stretches, lies down, and takes a long nap.

I am not my thoughts. I may have my thoughts—my thoughts may be mine when I have them—but they’re really just little word noises that blow like autumn leaves through the small dark vacuum of an otherwise vast and well-lit self. In mind, I can remain silent; silence is healthier than we think. Or in thought, I can be creative. I can look at the possibilities. I can solve problems. I can appreciate. I can analyze (if for the right reasons—that is, not to compare, but to understand). Or I can observe my thoughts and put the monkeys to bed so I wake up in the morning already glowing with happiness.

Happy Boar

Happy Boar