The attraction to powerful animals is universal, a response to the mystery of who we are, as humans, as well. To perceive and honor their presence – in the wild, especially – places us within an ecological harmony and health.
But what characteristics essentially define animal life, as distinct from plants? The reliance on oxygen, rather than carbon dioxide, for one, and self-locomotion, for another. At our core existence, each of us may proclaim: “I breathe; therefore, I am.” Thought and emotion come only later. To inhale, moreover, sparks an associative leap – from air to spirit, with its dimensions of inspiration, literally, “breathing in.” Or God, breathing into the muddy nostrils of the first human in Eden.
In general, the animals in these poems move through places where I’ve lived or visited repeatedly – sometimes surfacing through Native stories, sometimes as chance encounters, sometimes by evidence they’ve left behind. (Once, while handling a what I thought was a large, striated rock on a friend’s fireplace mantel, I was told it was a mastodon tooth he’d found on a mountain many years earlier.) Who will regard these creatures intently and not marvel at their distinct intelligence and grace? (Let me confess some others defy any admiration I can muster; who has heard wondrous tales of garden slugs, for instance?)
Bears and whales – giants of the forest and ocean – appear early in one sequence of my poems, along with the sense of awe they instill. In her book, Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore, Nancy Lord argues, based on her own neighbors, “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.” The whale, on the other hand, reminds us of deep mysteries we may never penetrate and places we cannot venture unassisted.
We 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 in which the other creatures sometimes enlighten humans. Here, then, nature fits both the heart and fundamental qualities of each sentient mobile organism. Observe their movement closely, and periods of play and even unrestrained exuberance, as well as caring, become evident. 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.
We will recognize that animal nature is always complex, and always holds more to discover – around and within us.