Tag Archives: anthropomorphism

The birds in our hands

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Every morning the pink breasted doves are waiting for me and their breakfast at the top of the steps, cooing like pigeons, and many mornings their cooing makes me think of Cher Ami.

Cher Ami, a black checker cock, was one of six hundred homing pigeons British bird fanciers had given to the American Army when they arrived to fight in the last six months of World War One. Trained pigeons were an indispensable part of warfare then. Cher Ami won fame when he became the last of the pigeons left with a doomed battalion fighting in the Argonne forest. Their commander, a hero named Whittlesey, had warned that the plan was a disaster before they began, but no-one was game to take on General Pershing and argue it with him. So as Whittlesey had feared, the battalion was surrounded by the Germans. When he sent a pigeon bringing their position to HQ,  US artillery came to their rescue and began pounding the Germans surrounding the trapped men. Disaster – they were actually shelling the trapped men.

Whittlesey had one pigeon, Cher Ami, left out of the eight he’d started with, so he sent a message: “Our own artillery is dropping barrages directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it”. After a few false starts, Cher Ami took off, and the Germans tried to shoot him down. He circled overhead before setting off through a storm of German shrapnel. Once he staggered and fluttered helplessly before gathering himself together and continuing his flight. One leg was shot off, but he continued on. Somehow he got back to HQ, dropping like a stone onto his left breast. He staggered on one bloody leg to the trainer who caught him. The capsule bearing the precious message hung by the ligaments of the wounded leg, and he had been shot through the breast bone as well.

Thanks to him, the artillery barrage was lifted and lives saved, though the heroes in the pocket still had several more dreadful days trapped, until un-aided by their own side, a handful of survivors made it safely out. Heroic Cher Ami lived for another year, was stuffed and now resides at the Smithsonian museum.

Human beings (not homo sapiens) have used pigeons for their purposes for some thousands of years. By crossing breeds, they’ve evolved fast pigeons who can do roughly 60 miles per hour, fast ones up to 110 miles per hour. Paul Reuter of the famous news agency used them, a pigeon took the news of Waterloo from Brussels to Britain, and even in the eighties, pigeons were being used to carry blood samples to and fro from two Southern English hospitals. Here in New Zealand an enterprising Kiwi founded a pigeon- post from Great Barrier Island to Auckland back in 1897.

Though people assume it’s just instinct that gets them back home, during World War One, while the French were pushing back the Germans from the Marne, they took the pigeon lofts forward with them, yet when the birds returned from Paris they always managed to find their lofts, even though they had been moved… intelligent too…

Pigeons are not the only birds men have used for their purposes. Here in NZ  the Maoris used to catch the male birds and trim the brush-like growth at the end of their tongues so they could train them to speak. They taught tuis chants as long as fifty words, keeping them imprisoned in the dark in a tiny cage till they were trained. Each poor prisoner, when able to do all the Maori cries and chants, was then imprisoned for the rest of his life in a cage, shaped rather like a Maori eel-pot, fifteen inches wide at the bottom, and thirteen inches high. The bird-cage was often hung at the entrance to a marae. This reminds me of the old Chinese men in long grey or brown robes, in Hongkong, who would solemnly take their caged birds for a walk in the parks, still in their cages.

Parrots too have always had a raw deal locked up in cages with their wings clipped. In Japan recently one escaped and a few days later ended up at the local police station. With a captive audience the intelligent bird told them his name and address and telephone number. His relieved owner then came to fetch him.

When Time magazine ran an article discussing the intelligence of animals and other creatures, they ended by quoting the example of a pet parrot being taken to the vet and having to stay behind for treatment. The bird understood he was being left, and began begging his owners not to leave him, promising to be a good boy. This is the exact pattern of small children left in hospital, and attributing the horror of it to what seems like punishment for their own misdeeds. The parrot had responded with the same emotional pattern as a human toddler, but the researchers described him as ‘mimicking human behaviour’.  This did not prove that birds and animals had feelings, the article ended.

I gave away a book on birds in disgust a few weeks ago. It was a detailed account of how they hear see, fly, etc etc. The book opened with a vignette of a white goose waiting by the side of an icy road beside its dead mate, somewhere in the frozen north. Three weeks later it was still there, still waiting, still grieving for its lost mate. The book closed by returning to this grief-stricken creature, and said, just like that  Time article, that neither this behaviour, nor that of the birds they had observed mating for life, returning year after year to each other, flying around each other, greeting and calling ecstatically when they’d been parted, proved that birds had emotions like us. So how do these heartless researchers explain what birds are doing when fluttering around the body of their mate killed on the road, hiding from cats in the garden, protecting their young, showing fear?

Scientists seem terrified to admit that other species have emotions like us. They call it anthropomorphism and think those of us who practise it are mistaken and merely sentimental. And though St Francis was allowed to acknowledge the feelings of all creatures, the rest of us are still supposed to accept Descartes’s malign thinking that since animals and other creatures don’t have feelings and don’t feel pain, they can be used for any purposes (there are still scientists who argue for this).

Descartes’s theories have influenced our society since the so-called Age of Enlightenment.  But if only we really had been enlightened! If we were, would we all be anthropomorphists? I suppose it depends on whether we come from our head or our heart.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Reverting to an ancient English tradition, we had roast lamb for Sunday lunch! I never do it with mint sauce, since originally the idea of the vinegar and mint was to disguise the taint of meat that wasn’t fresh, but I do like the mint, so I chop it up and stir it into the gravy. (When my seven year old son first encountered mint sauce at a friend’s house, he told me the meat was covered in: “yucky black tea-leaves!”). When putting the lamb in the oven, I rub the skin with salt to make it crisp.

I also make an onion sauce, which I suppose is some sort of throwback to the capers in white sauce that used to be served with mutton- a meat no-one seems to encounter in the west these days. I boil a large chopped onion, and drain the onion water, using it to make a white sauce which is then enriched with milk or cream and a good tasting of nutmeg. Then stir in the chopped onion – delicious with the lamb.

 

Food for thought

Accuracy is not a virtue; it is a duty.

AE Housman, 20th century English poet and brilliant classicist, best known for his poems in ‘A Shropshire Lad’.

 

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Filed under animals/pets, army, birds, cookery/recipes, food, great days, history, military history, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, world war one

Snails Have Feelings Too!

Not exactly breakfast at Tiffany’s but breakfast at the river cafe. And not exactly breakfast either – I preferred a freshly baked friand and two cups of coffee – my way.

I sat in the spring sunshine and watched the ducks, bottoms up, having their breakfast. The sparrows hopped so close that I could see the tiny inky black dots like a bib in front of the male birds’ necks. As I walked up the steps to the grocer, the scent of the miniature lemon bushes flanking the water-slide bisecting the flight of steps wafted past. The cherry trees were in that delicate stage of fading blossom with a faint green haze of leaf buds emerging. Altogether, so enjoyable that I decided to take my time going home.

Turning down a country road with a few houses at scattered intervals, I slowly drove down peering up long drives trying to see the houses at the end. One long and infinite drive was lined with poplars, the translucent apricot- coloured spring leaves just uncurling, shiny and shimmering with the sun striking through them, and their bunches of pale green catkins wriggling in the breeze.. On one side of the road was a meadow snowy with daisies, and a little further down, was another one sparkling with gold buttercups.

They wouldn’t gladden a modern farmer’s heart, but they did mine. Cows no longer browse on all the herbs and grasses that their system needs, they just get cultivated grass of one variety which feeds them: but this doesn’t give them the balance of minerals and herbs they instinctively seek out when left in organic fields with all these nutrients available to them.

I only know this from a farming friend whose cows needed copper injections, but when someone left the gate open, they rushed out and began browsing in the mixed grasses along the roadside. When their health improved immediately, he was converted there and then to organic farming. I also heard a radio programme last week in which an organic farmer said his vet’s bills dropped from over two thousand dollars a month, to a hundred and eighty a month when he switched over to organic.

Further down the road some horses were grazing contentedly in the sun, one beautiful palamino stretched out on his side soaking up the warmth. I hastily drew up at this curve in the road, for a big clump of deep blue Norfolk Island forget-me-nots had self-seeded and were sprawling along the verge. I snapped off two sprays which had gone to seed and put them carefully on the front seat so I could see if any seeds fell off.

Heading back I detoured to a tiny wharf on the edge of the estuary. The first settlers who came here in 1850 had landed their goods from Auckland here, and by 1880 this little wharf had been built. All the traffic into this region came up from Auckland and was decanted ashore here. A few years later, an enterprising local man built a shop out over the water next to the wharf, so that fresh goods could be taken straight off the boats, and this tiny space between cliff and sea became the hub of the area.

Now, only the restored wharf remains, and I stood there in the sunny silence watching the tide flow up the river, clear and blue. There were some huge shells down on the mud, so I climbed down the steep steps to gather a handful, magenta and maroon and plum colours merging into sherry and then cream. Big curved shells, and flat fluted ones, with not a chip or a mark on them.

As I stepped towards them, my black patent shoes sank deep into the mud, and I had a moment’s panic. But then thought, well you can always wash patent leather. I gathered a handful of shells, and then wiping the soles of my shoes in the grass, stopped in another bay with a tiny boat building industry, before driving home.

I put the forget-me-not stalks in a flower bed to dry and seed, but when I put the shells to dry in the sun, I found I’d inadvertently brought a muddy looking snail shell home too. I could see there was a live sea-snail inside, so put it carefully out of the sun to take back. It was only about an inch wide.

I was going to take it to the harbour, but then thought that was a bit unfair. If I’d been abducted accidentally by giants or aliens, I’d want to be dropped back home, so I did the same for the snail or crab.

Many people think it fanciful to attribute human feelings to other species, but since they can show fear and joy and all the other human emotions, why not credit them with other responses too? Some Christian authorities describe it as anthropomorphism, and use the term patronisingly and derogatively – okay for St Francis, but not for the rest of us!

But since we know that even a snail’s brain contains between 5,000 and 100,000 giant neurons, and they know when they’re being carted to market in a basket, and have lifted the lid in a concerted effort, broken out and escaped in recorded instances, can we really assume that any creature has no feelings or intelligence?

Elisabeth Tova Bailey wrote an exquisite book called ‘The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating’, a story about her companionship with a snail that came into her sickroom in a potted cyclamen. Snails, she discovered, lay eggs in different places, and visit them all regularly until their babies are hatched. So snails are maternal. The secret life of snails we can only guess at!

After reading her book I’ve been unable to put out snail bait in the garden. I either grow plants they don’t like, do companion planting, or in the case of petunias, put out some lettuce leaves by them at night, and they obligingly eat the lettuce leaves instead of the petunias. I know of a couple who go out late at night and gently gather up all the snails in their garden and taken them to a wild place where they can do no harm to a garden.

We don’t know what place snails occupy in the great chain of creation, but what we Are learning is that every creature seems to have a purpose. We are learning that now GM plants are bred with pesticides in them that kill off pests, good insects are also dying, and bumble bees who ingest pesticides, lose their sense of direction. In Africa where pesticides are widely used, not only are they polluting the lakes and rivers causing fish to die, and fishermen to lose their livelihoods, but the animals and birds that feed on creatures that have absorbed pesticides are also dying.

So it seems to me that every little snail and spider and insect may just matter more than we realise. That to tinker with the ecological chain, is as destructive to our planet as drilling for oil in the seas, burning down forests, clubbing baby seals to death, and all the other hostile acts that we perpetrate on our world. So I was happy to return my little captive to its home in this world – which is also our home – and the only one we will ever have.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

There was plenty of risotto left over from the day before, so before putting it into the fridge that night I had fashioned it into patties. The next day they had set so firmly I didn’t bother to roll them in flour, but just put them straight into some hot olive oil and butter, and fried both sides. The crispy outside, and soft tasty inside were delicious, and sprinkled with parmesan, I almost felt the leftovers were better than the original dish.

Food for Thought

Man is so made that he can carry the weight of twenty four hours – no more. Directly he weighs down with the years behind and the days ahead, his back breaks. I have promised to help you with … today only; the past I have taken from you …

From God Calling written by Two Listeners in the thirties. You can Google it and find the messages for each day. The language is slightly dated after 70 years, but the messages are still timely.

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Filed under animals/pets, cookery/recipes, environment, environment, food, great days, life/style, philosophy, spiritual, sustainability, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, wild life