Reading for the Ninth Meeting — ISLAMOPHOBIA

For our January 21, 2016 meeting we will read three books. Two by bitter antagonists, Sam Harris and Reza Aslan, and one by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Sam Harris is a well-known atheist author, who considers Islam a dangerous ideology (as he does Christianity and Judaism and other world religions). Reza Aslan is an author on religion and a popular defender of Islam against its critics.

Our group is more oriented towards our private search for non-supernatural meaning. We are trying to forge new connections and find a new language. This is what we might call a positive approach. I don’t want to get us into a negative, “anti-” mode. But I do feel that due to recent events and U.S. presidential campaigns, anti-Muslim bigotry has become ubiquitous. I think it is important to distinguish critiques of religion — understood as supernatural-based ideologies — from acts of bigotry and hate. Where is the balance of harm, in today’s climate? I feel it is an important moment to take this on.

Here are the books:

Islam and the Future of Tolerance, by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawas

No god but God, by Reza Aslan

Heretic, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Please write in with any more suggestions.

Setenay suggested another book, and it looks very interesting and thoughtful. It is In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, by Amin Maalouf. Please click on the title for a link to the PDF.

 

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Notes on the Eighth Meeting — ON BEING ANIMALS

Yann brought a number of delicious dishes, and we mingled around the dining room for a half hour. Then, as usual, we moved to the living room at 8:30 pm.

Anne’s Presentation

Anne gave a thoughtful presentation on Carl Safina’s book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.

She talked about how Safina challenges the long-time taboo against anthropomorphizing animals. In an admirable attempt to be scientific and rigorous, most researchers have focused exclusively on animals’ observable behavior, without informing their observations with what they know vividly about their own experience of being alive.

They have therefore, unintentionally or not, treated ghost crabs, meerkats, dolphins, lions and the like as mere automotons, going about their lives as discrete clusters of data instead of as potentially sentient beings.

As a result, we have neglected the inner lives of animals.

Safina says that perhaps, at this point, a little anthropomorphizing is in order.

To the extent that anthropoids, like us, share much of our genetics, chemistry, biology with all of the other animals on this planet, then we can begin to make some inroads into understanding their subjective states of mind, too, their emotions, their unique perspectives. We can began to see them as “whos” rather than “whats.”

Not that we want to anthropomorphize them merely as a metaphor for ourselves. This is Safina’s crucial point: it’s not to understand ourselves better; it’s to understand them better.

My Embarrassing Lapse

When, in this context, Anne mentioned that all mammals share a common ancestor, I felt an urge to speak up, to my infinite regret.

I asked how it could be, in that case, that we are told chickens descended from dinosaurs? Wouldn’t that be a different common ancestor, then? Silence. I gazed around the room, and my eyes met expressions that ranged from pity to incomprehension. Finally, Heather ventured a response.

“Tom,” she said, “Chickens aren’t mammals.”

“They aren’t?” I said, laughing to cover up my embarrassment. “Not even those fuzzy little chicks?”

“Not even those fuzzy little chicks.”

chicks_0

“Mammals drink milk. Birds don’t have breasts,” Devyani intoned.

“Not even — not even — penguins?”

“Not even penguins, Tom,” Heather answered, steady as ever.

At this point Yann had a gleam in his eye. Perhaps he was imagining what a penguin would look like with breasts? Or maybe he was just hungry for some avian meat? We’ll never know.

In any case, we moved on. For the record, I will never mistake chicks for mammals again, and I would like to apologize to the group for my momentary lapse.

Seeing Animals as Individuals

We talked about how humans share with all other animals — mammals and those who flock together — many of the same “deep brain” structures; the same chemicals such as oxytocin and serotonin and cortisol are active in the brains of many living things. Same, or very similar, neural wiring too.

So why, Anne asked, would we presume that our experiences of the world are so very special, so sophisticated, so distinct, compared to other animals?

Walden mentioned how he was struck by Carl Safina’s throwaway line that, of all species, only humans seem capable of “self-loathing.” He wasn’t sure if it is even true, but it haunted him to think that it might be.

Others objected that we likely aren’t even special in that regard. Dogs, for example, show a capacity for self-loathing — certainly they act guilty when reprimanded. Anne concluded her presentation by saying that research into other animals’ minds and distinct subjective experiences is so rudimentary, the field is so young, that many of these questions have not even been asked yet in a serious way.

“What is that shark doing?” is standard.

images-1

“What is that shark thinking?” is wide open.

Safina’s book is a welcome start, as he looks closely at the current research on elephants, wolves and killer whales, and tries to get under the surface of observable detail to the individuals within.

Homo Sapiens as “Special” vs. “Superior”

Yann spoke up to say that he still considers human beings inarguably “special,” in the sense that we have acquired spoken and written language, computational skills, abstract reasoning, record-keeping, and the consequent ability to control our environment far beyond other animals.

He insisted that it is nonsense to deny that we have “evolved more” than other animals over the last 150,000 years. Whereas they have remained largely static in their relationships with the earth and its resources, humans have advanced by leaps and bounds. The end result may be destructive and regrettable, but it is undeniable that we stand alone in our achievement.

He ended by saying that although he believes we are “special” under any reasonable definition of that word, he does not consider us morally superior in any way.

I pushed back, saying that Yann’s urging of a moral equivalence between humans and other species seemed too quick to me. Sure, if you define morality as something species-independent, something that exists apart from human needs and preferences, then we are not of greater “moral” value than other animals at all. No doubt, as he points out, we have done untold damage to other species — and continue to do so. So how could we possibly be considered morally “superior” (on a utilitarian calculus, or a rights-based calculus) if we consider the effects of our actions on all living things?

But here’s the rub. Morality, to my mind at least, is, whether we like it or not, a species-dependent term. For talk of morality to have any meaning for us, it must be limited to a certain species of bipedal primates called homo sapiens. When we speak of the “good” and the “fair” and the “just,” we are talking about our obligations to one another in a social setting, as fellow primates. Anything else is just a confused symbolic representation of our neurochemical urges.

So, contrary to Yann, I would argue that we are, inescapably, morally superior to other animals, on our own terms.

Just as elephants are morally superior to us, on their own terms.

Just as killer whales are morally superior to us and elephants alike, on their own terms.

Any attempt to create a universal morality collapses into incoherence. For what would be the standard that supports it? How would we reconcile the empathy — or lack thereof — of a crow towards a worm? The devotion of a mallard for his life-partner? The touching maternal instinct of a hairy tarantula towards her eggs? We couldn’t. We are, each species, morally superior on our own terms. Nobody protects a cluster of tarantula eggs quite like a mama tarantula. She means it, she really means it.

JGT_120925_01425 septembre 2012

As for “special,” which Yann does grant us… there I disagreed the opposite way. We may be morally superior, worthy of special pleading as it were, in my primate-centric view, but we are not, in this view, special in any important sense. Certainly we are different. We have language, nuclear warheads, skyscrapers and sewer laterals, true. But being “special” implies something intrinsically better, doesn’t it? Can’t we agree that humans are notably different from other animals on this planet without falling into the trap of feeding our egoistic urge to consider ourselves better?

In short, Yann holds that we are special, but we are not morally superior (in some impartial, universal estimation of value).

I hold the opposite: that we are not special — just different — but that we are morally superior (in our own species-dependent estimation of value).

Is this merely a semantic squabble? Or does it have consequences for our relationships with animals and the larger world? I think it does have consequences, as we will see when we come to the question of vegetarianism.

So if We Finally Accept That We Are Animals, How Will That Change Our Lives?

As Yann and I demonstrated our species’  seemingly insatiable urge to consider ourselves “special,” at the top of a Great Chain of Being, or, alternatively, morally “superior” (even if I acknowledge that this is only on our own terms) — the group started to inquire whether we can ever hope to drop this way of thinking entirely.

What if we were to see ourselves simply as one particular species of ape, noisy, randy, a little hairy, good at manipulating the natural world for our short-term gain (and long-term loss). Nothing special or superior at all.

What happens then?

How does that change us?

From Vegetarianism to Cannibalism and Back

Yann insisted that once we drop our claims to moral superiority we should all become vegetarians, on the basis of the suffering of animals in factory farms and the like. Devyani insisted that vegetarianism causes a great deal of animal suffering as well — as in India, where the clear-cutting of forests and damning of water sources and use of pesticides have all contributed to the decline of animal species. So even eating plants has its attendant suffering. I spoke up to say that since I favor primate concerns (again, since my morality is not universal, like Yann’s, but human all the way down), I am okay with eating meat, despite the suffering it entails. I would feel bad to see it up-close, and I try to buy organic, grass-fed for that reason and others, but my concern is not categorical against suffering of all kinds, when it gives me nourishment.

Walden spoke up to say that he thought there was a spectrum at play here. Certainly, he said, most of us can agree that nobody should kill an elephant simply for its ivory tusks (though millions upon millions across Asia and much of the world would disagree with this… Walden was, I think, meaning people in the room presently). Yet, he continued, some of the other ways that we exploit animals are more difficult to reject out of hand, and this includes the eating of meat. While reading Safina’s book, Walden stopped eating meat for three days, but then he resumed it under pressure from his wife. It gets harder, he argued, to make these distinctions as we move along the spectrum… away from greed and towards need.

I took another stab at the middle of the spectrum. I emphasized that I do care about another animal suffering, whether a cow, a pig, a chicken, or even a cat or a monkey. Yet my compassion only goes so far. It’s different when it comes to humans. I draw a line at human suffering — I consider it more actionable — for the simple reason that I can imagine myself in another person’s position so easily.

Perhaps it is other people’s ability to communicate with me that makes the difference? (A human behind a chain-link fence could argue his case against factory farming of his flesh for consumption; a cow can’t.) The fact is, when it comes to a cow… or a cat… there is a gap between us just wide enough for me to tolerate eating that cow’s… or cat’s… meat (for the record, I have never eaten a cat — but Yann asked about these more rare delicacies, trying to get me to budge my “morally superior” line away from humans).

Yann announced that the conversation was, to his surprise, making him swing to the opposite extreme of vegetarianism! Logic, he felt, compelled him to take the position that we should, and he would, if so inclined, eat human flesh as well as animal flesh. It was not clear whether it was a coincidence, but at this exact moment both Setenay and Anne, who had been sharing the couch with him, cleared out “to go refill their glasses.” Left alone, undeterred, Yann continued to insist that he would bite down on human flesh just as he would a ham sandwich.

I objected, again,  to his understanding of what “morality” means. He seems to base it on some false notion of finding a consistent and universal point of reference for it. In his case, perhaps he believes the basis of morality is logic? (I wasn’t sure.)  What I do know, I said, is that in my understanding morality is more of a loose association of social obligations, a constantly changing, fluid system of praise and blame. Eating his fellow human beings, though arguably logically sound, would have severe consequences for Yann in almost any social setting. It would pose a threat to the harmony and safety of the group. He would, therefore, find himself shamed, exiled, punished, shunned. It would therefore be “wrong.” There is no deeper sense of “wrong” available to us.

The shaming, the exile — these are not extraneous consequences. They are not merely the result of Yann’s impressive moral-logical consistency; this is, rather, how morality works in the real world. It does not operate in a vacuum. It operates in a social context (hence, as I say, it is, unavoidably species-dependent). Just to get his attention, I drew an unpleasant analogy to rape. In many cases it would feel good, right? If ruled by instinct alone, many men might choose to pursue it. But as in the case of cannibalism, such actions would not come without severe consequences. And hence most men do not, in most structured social settings, engage in rape (and thank goodness, many soldiers have become so acculturated and accustomed to not rape that they desist even in war or other chaotic settings).

Heather pointed out that our capacity for “othering” living creatures, be they animals of other species or sub-populations of our own, is enormous. She argued, therefore, that humans are easily led to cause immense suffering in many ways, cannibalism and rape being two of many possible examples of this. So Yann is right, she said, that there is no moral absolute that bars such practices. That is not the same, however, as condoning it.

I tried to steer the discussion away from these extreme cases of cannibalism and rape… back to our broader question:

How would accepting, really accepting, ourselves as animals change us?

The Animals In Our Lives

Tamara mentioned that she always has had deep and specific and meaningful relationships with animals, be they squirrels in the trees, dogs, birds. It gives her joy to encounter these other lives every day. Renee mentioned that when she was young she stared into the eyes of her grandmother’s horses, and as a result she has always been aware that they look back as much as we look at them. I talked about how my relationship with our skittish cat, Cozy, has changed, since reading this book. Whereas I had previously seen her behavior as merely that — behavior — now I see her run under the bed and I recognize that this is her character. I feel a wave of sympathy for her. I am aware that this is Cozy, and no other. She is anxious. The “who” of her finds my footsteps threatening, and she needs to take cover, regardless of the irrationality of such a response after years of living in this house with me. That’s how her brain responds, and it is real (cortisol released and all the rest).

I have taken to walking more gently when I can.

We also talked about zoos and pets. In both cases, as John Berger points out in the great article that Setenay sent in, we have framed animals in an artificial way. In zoos they are degraded and confined. In our houses they are domesticated and dependent, and to add insult to injury, wearing clothes and wristwatches in our children’s books.

I mentioned that I suddenly felt bad, while reading Berger, that we had spayed our three cats, Cozy, Rhino and Love Dolphin, when they were young. By doing so we took away their opportunity,  given to them in this brief life, for having kittens. Sure, there may be reasons not to have yet another litter of kitties introduced to the world, but this more general concern does not obviate the very personal, very intimate concerns of our particular cats, who would likely have enjoyed having their own kitties to lick and raise and cuddle. Again, here we go imposing our own morally “superior” primate outlook — save Berkeley from too many cats! — to enforce a definite loss in the quality of cats’ lives by spaying them.

If You Got a Chance to Hug a Killer Whale, What Would You Say to Her?

I posed a question for the group. If you found yourself swimming, naked, in the ocean, and a killer whale approached, and you discovered that, strangely, while hugging her close you could speak to her and be understood… what would you say?

I admitted, with sadness, that I would feel somewhat embarrassed to be a member of the species called homo sapien. I think I would have the urge to say, “I’m sorry for all we have done.” Yann agreed with this.

Gerry countered that once we accept that we are merely animals (and grieve for all of our grandiosity and exploitation of resources, and so on), then we need to step up. Why not aspire to be “Wolf 21” (an impressive wolf discussed in Safina’s book)? Why not be the best, most creative, most unforgettable primate you can possibly be?

“Do you mean like… Donald Trump?” I asked.

“I’m not going to specify what constitutes flourishing for any one, individual primate,” Gerry answered. “Sure, in Trump’s case, his public persona, his hotels, his money, may indicate that he is flourishing. In another person’s case, being ‘Wolf 21’ may look very different. My point is not to use our acceptance of our animality as an excuse for passivity.”

I explained that rather than make me feel passive, or a victim, when I acknowledge that I am “just an animal” it lifts me. For some reason it makes me more aware of the wide scope available to me, and all of us, in this life. It also reminds me that I cannot entirely control my circumstances, despite this wide scope. We have so many urges and chemical surges and language games to play and group dynamics to shape… and so many unexpected things will happen to us, too. I do want to be ‘Wolf 21’ (as soon as I figure out what that looks like to me — it’s a little clearer for Mr. Trump I think). So I didn’t think Gerry and I disagreed that much, after all.

As I write this it occurs to me that it might be useful to contrast two images.

One: a hairy primate. (I like how the stock photo says “Dreamstime” at the bottom. Is he dreamy? I can’t tell.)

hairy-man-portrait-18128684

Two: a marble statue of a human figure in its ideal form, as imagined by the ancient Greeks.

images-2

Both represent humans. Still, how do we get from image one to image two? How do we recognize our animal status but continue to dream of perfection? Are they both true? Can they co-exist? Or do they cancel each other out?

Can Helen of Troy be the most beautiful woman in the world, worthy of a ten-year siege of Troy, but also be (woefully? wonderfully?) a hairy primate with an attractive vulva positioned for reproduction?

The magic of sex, it occurs to me, is that both images converge into one, for a brief spell! The abstracted beauty, the idea of perfection, but also the specific and sweaty truth of the matter. Both supplement the other.

But I digress.

The Troubled State of Humankind

A few days later, I am forgetting much. (I recall a very interesting contribution from Steve, for example, with Gerry adding to it, but can’t remember the content of that particular discussion.) I do remember, however, that at the end of the meeting we got around to an assessment of human angst generally. Why, members of the group asked, do we seem to be the most troubled, the most ambivalent, of animals?

If elephants and killer whales (to name two species who, like us, have complicated social lives) show grace and love and loyalty, qualities we aspire to in our own primate relationships, then can we learn from them?

Will we ever learn to live more harmoniously with our fellow animals?

Someone pointed out that it is likely that the problem of self-loathing, of self-disgust, did not exist for homo sapiens for many thousands of years. We might have had bad days (surely we had bad hair days), but we didn’t feel ashamed at our own species.

It was with the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago, that we got shunted into close proximity and saw ourselves in a new light. We began to dwell on our viscous side, our manipulative side, our deceit. All of these qualities were always with us (they are with many animals), but now they became, painfully, more obvious. Frequent interactions with other humans can bring you down.

For a while we created a myth of progress and transcendence, as a kind of compensation. Our religions promised relief from our animal nature. But as we enter the 21st century that has become a stale dream. We recognize that despite some accumulated advances in culture, in some areas of the world at least — no public executions, no general tolerance for wife-beating or rape — despite all this, we are still stuck with ourselves.

So we seek in animals, perhaps, a lost innocence. An enviable ignorance, even. We wish ourselves back to a time when we were isolated enough, busy enough, verbally limited enough, not to see our own staggering limitations. Now we look around, glance in the newspaper, and all we can see is the status-mongering, the violence, the resource-hoarding. And it hurts.

Why do we look to animals? What can we learn from them?

After our discussion I would say that I still don’t know. Except for minor changes in my perspective (more sympathy for Cozy, who sits next to me right now licking her paws and looking nervous), I don’t know how my awareness of animals’ inner lives, and my acceptance of my own animals status, changes me. Yet, as I said at the meeting, I have an intuition that this awareness is at the core of a new kind of post-supernatural human morality… Much thinking and discussing and living still to do.

You? Write in with a comment to explain more about how recognizing yourself as an animal has changed you, if at all.

Thanks for a great talk everybody. I’m looking forward to our January meeting. Part of me feels that we we should pursue this subject farther.

I also want to address at some point, squarely, the role of anti-religious, anti-supernatural advocacy… in our age of open bigotry. Can they be made distinct? Can you be against religion but not give encouragement to those who preach hate against Muslims or other religious people? Interesting times. Troubling times. But then, what do you expect from a bunch of primates?

Tom

 

Some Additional Readings — ON BEING ANIMALS

I thought it might be good to add some supplementary readings for this meeting.

So I pulled some books of poetry off the shelf and looked through them for anything speaking to the relationship between humans and other animals.

Enjoy!

(If any other writings or poems or images come to mind, please send them in. I’ll add them on to the end of this post as they arrive.)

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Before we get to the poems, here’s a thoughtful chapter Setenay sent in from John Berger’s celebrated book, About Looking (1977). The chapter in question is entitled, “Why Look at Animals?”.

Click here —  John_Berger_Why_Look_at_Animals — for the link.

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ECHO by Lawrence Durrell

 

Nothing is lost, sweet self,

Nothing is ever lost

The unspoken word

Is not exhausted but can be heard.

Music that stains

The silence remains

O echo is everywhere, the unbeckonable bird!

 

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WHALES WEEP NOT! by D.H. Lawrence

 

They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains

the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent.

 

All the whales in the wider deeps, hot are they, as they urge on and on, and dive beneath the icebergs

The right whales, the sperm-whales, the hammer-heads, the killers

there they blow, there they blow, hot wild white breath out of the sea!

 

And they rock, and they rock, through the sensual ageless ages

on the depths of the seven seas,

and through the salt they reel with drunk delight

and in the tropics tremble they with love

and roll with massive, strong desire, like gods.

Then the great bull lies up against his bride

in the blue deep bed of the sea,

as mountain pressing on mountain, in the zest of life:

and out of the inward roaring of the inner red ocean of whale-blood

the long tip reaches strong, intense, like the maelstrom-tip, and comes to rest

in the clasp and the soft, wild clutch of the she-whale’s fathomless body.

 

And over the bridge of whale’s strong phallus, linking the wonder of whales,

the burning archangels under the sea keep passing, back and forth, keep passing, archangels of bliss

from him to her, from her to him, great Cherubim

that wait on whales in mid-ocean, suspended in the waves of the sea

great heaven of whales in the waters, old hierarchies.

 

And enormous mother whales lie dreaming suckling their whale-tender young

and dreaming with strange whale-eyes wide open in the waters of the beginning and the end.

And bull-whales gather their women and whale-calves in a ring when danger threatens, on the surface of the great ceaseless flood

and range themselves like great fierce Seraphim facing the threat encircling their huddled monsters of love.

And all this happens in the sea, in the salt,

where God is also love, but without words:

and Aphrodite is the wife of whales

most happy, happy she!

 

and Venus among the fishes skips and is a she-dolphin

she is gay, delighted porpoise sporting with love and the sea

she is the female tunny-fish, round and happy among the males

and dense with happy blood, dark rainbow bliss in the sea.

 

*

 

FROGES EAT BUTTERFLIES. SNAKES EAT FROGS. HOGS EAT SNAKES. MEN EAT HOGS by Wallace Stevens

 

It is true that the rivers went nosing like swine,

Tugging at banks, until they seemed

Bland belly-sounds in somnolent troughs,

 

That the air was heavy with the breath of these swine,

The breath of turgid summer, and

Heavy with thunder’s rattapallax,

 

That the man who erected this cabin, planted

This field, and tended it awhile,

Knew not the quirks of imagery,

 

That the hours of his indolent, arid days,

Grotesque with this nosing in banks,

This somnolence and rattapallax,

 

Seemed to suckle themselves in his arid being,

As the swine-like rivers suckled themselves

While they went seaward to the sea-mouths.

 

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THE TYGER by William Blake

 

Tyger Tyger burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

 

In what distant deep or skies,

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand, dare seize the fire?

 

And what shoulder, & what art,

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand? & what dread feet?

 

What the hammer? what the chain,

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp,

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

 

When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

 

Tyger Tyger burning bright,

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye,

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

 

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Three Poems by Emily Dickinson

 

42.

 

With thee in the Desert —

With thee in the thirst —

With thee in the Tamarind wood —

Leopard breathes — at last!

 

 

328.

A Bird came down the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass—
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass—

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around—
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought—
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home—

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam—
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

467.

 

The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met

Embarked upon a twig today

And till Dominion set

I famish to behold so eminent a sight

And sang for nothing scrutible

But intimate Delight.

Retired, and resumed his transitive Estate —

To what delicious Accident

Does finest Glory fit!

 

*

DOGS, SHEEP, COWS, GOATS by Gary Snyder

 

dogs, sheep, cows, goats

and sometimes deer, hear loud noises

crackling in bushes, and they flick

fly or creep, as rabbits do

does too, into warm nests. no talk

but chatters there, small throat sounds

ear-pricks, up or back. hooves

tinkle on creekbeds. who fears a talk-

less landscape, crowded with creatures

leaves. falls. undergrowth

crawls all night, and summer smells

deep in the bushes. crouch!

at the thorny stalks.

 

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Five more poems sent in by Setenay!

 

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HYMN TO LIFE by Nazim Hikmet

The hair falling on your forehead
suddenly lifted.
Suddenly something stirred on the ground.
The trees are whispering
in the dark.
Your bare arms will be cold.

Far off
where we can’t see,
the moon must be rising.
It hasn’t reached us yet,
slipping through the leaves
to light up your shoulder.
But I know
a wind comes up with the moon.
The trees are whispering.
Your bare arms will be cold.

From above,
from the branches lost in the dark,
something dropped at your feet.
You moved closer to me.
Under my hand your bare flesh is like the fuzzy skin of a fruit.
Neither a song of the heart nor “common sense”–
before the trees, birds, and insects,
my hand on my wife’s flesh
is thinking.
Tonight my hand
can’t read or write.
Neither loving nor unloving…
It’s the tongue of a leopard at a spring,
a grape leaf,
a wolf’s paw.
To move, breathe, eat, drink.
My hand is like a seed
splitting open underground.
Neither a song of the heart nor “common sense,”
neither loving nor unloving.
My hand thinking on my wife’s flesh
is the hand of the first man.
Like a root that finds water underground,
it says to me:
“To eat, drink, cold, hot, struggle, smell, color–
not to live in order to die
but to die to live…”

And now
as red female hair blows across my face,
as something stirs on the ground,
as the trees whisper in the dark,
and as the moon rises far off
where we can’t see,
my hand on my wife’s flesh
before the trees, birds, and insects,
I want the right of life,
of the leopard at the spring, of the seed splitting open–

I want the right of the first man.

 

*

 

LUKE by Mary Oliver

I had a dog
who loved flowers.
Briskly she went
through the fields,

yet paused
for the honeysuckle
or the rose,
her dark head

and her wet nose
touching
the face
of every one

with its petals
of silk,
with its fragrance
rising

into the air
where the bees,
their bodies
heavy with pollen,

hovered—
and easily
she adored
every blossom,

not in the serious,
careful way
that we choose
this blossom or that blossom—

the way we praise or don’t praise—
the way we love
or don’t love—
but the way

we long to be—
that happy
in the heaven of earth—
that wild, that loving.

 

*

 

WILD GEESE by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

*

DEATH OF A NATURALIST by Seamus Heaney

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst, into nimble
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.


Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
 
*

PAUL GOODMAN ON 9 KINDS OF SILENCE by Paul Goodman

Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each. There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.

*

 

BERTRAND RUSSEL’S NOBEL SPEECH (1950)
All human activity is prompted by desire. There is a wholly fallacious theory advanced by some earnest moralists to the effect that it is possible to resist desire in the interests of duty and moral principle. I say this is fallacious, not because no man ever acts from a sense of duty, but because duty has no hold on him unless he desires to be dutiful. If you wish to know what men will do, you must know not only, or principally, their material circumstances, but rather the whole system of their desires with their relative strengths.
Man differs from other animals in one very important respect, and that is that he has some desires which are, so to speak, infinite, which can never be fully gratified, and which would keep him restless even in Paradise. The boa constrictor, when he has had an adequate meal, goes to sleep, and does not wake until he needs another meal. Human beings, for the most part, are not like this.
They have infinite desires — acquisitivenessrivalryvanity, and love of power

 

*

 

A few more from Tom…

 

*

 

Snake by D.H. Lawrence
A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before
me.

He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of
the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
i o And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
Silently.

Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.

And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him? Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him? Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

Taormina, 1923

 

*

 

Animals by Robinson Jeffers

At dawn a knot of sea-lions lies off the shore
In the slow swell between the rock and the cliff,
Sharp flippers lifted, or great-eyed heads, as they roll in the sea,
Bigger than draft-horses, and barking like dogs
Their all-night song. It makes me wonder a little
That life near kind to human, intelligent, hot-blooded, idle and singing,
can float at ease
In the ice-cold winter water. Then, yellow dawn
Colors the south, I think about the rapid and furious lives in the sun:
They have little to do with ours; they have nothing to do with oxygen
and salted water; the would look monstrous
If we could see them: the beautiful passionate bodies of living flame,
batlike flapping and screaming,
Tortured with burning lust and acute awareness, that ride
the storm-tides
Of the great fire-globe. They are animals, as we are. There are many
other chemistries of animal life
Beside the slow oxidation of carbohydrates and amino acids.

 

*

 

Come Into Animal Presence by Denise Levertov

 

Come into animal presence.
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.
The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn’t
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm brush.

 

What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.
An old joy returns in holy presence.

*

Reading for the Eighth Meeting — ON BEING ANIMALS

For the meeting on Monday, December 14, 2015, we will read Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina.

In this book, Safina focuses in particular on the day-to-day experiences of elephants, wolves and killer whales, three species which — who — have highly developed social lives, as do humans.

By doing so, he draws our attention to the practice of considering animals as subjects instead of objects; in other words, to step outside of our human-centered worldview, established by thousands of years of habit. He urges us to see ourselves as merely one possible subjectivity among many.

If we learn to relate to these and other animals with the term “who” rather than “what,” how will that change us?

Certainly vegetarianism arises as a pertinent question, but there’s more than that, isn’t there? Does this shift in worldview change our self-understanding in a significant way? Are there notable effects on how we live our lives?

If I know that we are merely one of many species who feel and recognize joy, heartbreak, jealousy, loyalty, even stress… If I finally accept that my ability to describe such experiences with spoken or written words does not set me apart as much as I assumed, what then? Will this awareness flatten experience or heighten it? Will I act more primate, or less? (Or can we change that at all?)

Enjoy the reading. See you at the meeting.