Humans are remarkable animals, aware of their own existence and individual mortality as well as a corresponding, abiding loss. In the Garden of Eden’s articulation of this condition, freedom to act and personal knowledge impose a profound separation – from kinship with other creatures, from each other, and from unqualified divine blessing. Our relationships with each other and our social dealings are complex and often troubling, indeed – paralleling, it seems, our connections to other animals and the planet itself. Too often in practice, humans translate the subdue of Genesis 1:28 – “replenish the earth, and subdue it” – in a modern domination-based concept of “vanquish” or “conquer,” rather than in its ancient comprehension as “taming,” “softening,” and “bringing culture” (“enlightenment” as well as “learning”) to the land and all that dwell therein.
Many of my poems have explored encounters that cross over from a commonplace understanding of animal – “pertaining to the physical rather than the spiritual nature of man; carnal; sensual; animal appetites” – and move instead into meetings that at times even allow the other creatures to enlighten humans. Here, then, nature fits both the heart and essential quality of each sentient living organism. Observe the movement of animals closely, and one will acknowledge periods of play and even unrestrained exuberance, as well as caring. The word nature itself arises in the concept of “giving birth” or “being born,” and easily extends to the working of natural law as well. The brute – even the bestial human – may ultimately learn table manners for sharing in the feast of life.
Universally, people look to the larger animals – in some cases, not just as a food source but with a recognition of greatness as well. Even the names of professional sports franchises reflect this reality. Thus, it’s fitting to pay homage to whales and bears – giants of the ocean and forest – and the sense of awe they instill. In her book, Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore, Nancy Lord argues, from her own encounters, “The bear is like us yet is not us. Perhaps the bear is our connection back to something lost and still treasured, another way of knowing. The bear is nature and culture, together.” I believe the myths and tales of ancient peoples arise in this other way of knowing and soon lead us into an awareness of the abundant activity found in any healthy environment. My nature poems also present flashes from Amerindian, Biblical, and Buddhist voices – and hints that reach beyond my own observations in the American Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and Eastern Seaboard, to touch Africa and Asia as well. Soon, even the smallest creatures we can see have a story, as do imaginary monsters, with their fabrication from living animals.
Sometimes we are affirmed and comforted by other creatures; at other times, vexed, as happens with household invaders. Some remind us of liberty and potential. Others produce essential food, hides, fabric, and more. Because each species requires specific and unique qualities for its environment, there’s no escaping an awareness of place, either. Particularities of water, air currents, soil and rock come into play, as do plants and fellow species. In other words, animal nature is always complex, and always holds more to discover. Too often, we humans forget our connection to these realities; consider, for instance, the Biblical perspectives of “Widow’s Portion” (Mark 12:42 and Luke 21:2; 12:59, here returning its meaning from a tiny unit of money to its origins as an arachnid), and “Parting Motion” (invoking both the Serpent of the Garden of Eden, Genesis 3, and the Reed Sea, or “Sea at the End of the World,” as newer translations of Exodus 13:18 indicate in place of “Red Sea”). Even animal humor arises in this kinship (“Mockingbird Ding-a-ling”).
In this alternative way of knowing, the dialogue turns from being simply about animals to our own interaction in their universe. Obviously, we have much to discover there, about ourselves as well as about them.
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