At the very same time that most people were watching the Super Bowl Sunday night, I was preparing a morning feast for my turtles, thawing some frozen rats for my pet snakes and giving my Chinese Crested dogs a good long walk before settling in to read to my young son from a copy "Birdology" -- Sy Montgomery's recent book on appreciating and getting along with birds.
While I have occasionally been accused of preferring the company of pets to people, I can't say this is true. What I can say, however, is that like many other animal lovers, I instinctively see the world as a tapestry of living things, between which the distinctions are less well drawn than biologists would have us believe. Perhaps this is the tai chi Daoist in me -- the devotee of that Chinese philosophy that exhorts us to get in touch with the Way of Nature and follow it as closely as we can.
I ran a few aquaria in my home for ages, but gave them up some years ago in an effort to simplify things a bit. Do I miss the gurgling sound of water trickling out of the filters as if down a tiny stream? I do, but what I miss more is the fluttering fins of the fish themselves, their movements as they swam or dashed for the safety of a tiny rock cave as I walked by. I find homes without pets sterile. Certainly, when a pet passes on or I give away a little tortoise to a friend, I can detect, ever so subtly, the change in energy in the room or part of the yard in which it once lived.
It turns out we've been keeping pets close to us for much longer than any of us would likely imagine. In fact, the practice appears to have started even before we started "keeping" grains -- that is to say, before we started farming. Recent evidence from the ancient Middle Eastern graveyard known as 'Uyun al-Hammam, or "spring of the pigeon," shows that before dogs were man's best friend, we closely shared our lives with other creatures, including foxes.
The graveyard is from just before the emergence of the Natufian culture -- perhaps the first true farmers. Such sites served communities in the area of what is now Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as far back as 14,500 years. In addition to foxes, the graves featured the bones of gazelles, cattle and even the shells of (I wasn't the first!) turtles. The human remains in one grave were apparently unearthed and moved at some early date, and, significantly, the bones of the fox were moved with them.
Montgomery's is not the only book I've been reading about the roles of animals in our lives lately. Lyanda Lynn Haupt's "Crow Planet" approaches the subject in a bit more detached and cerebral style. These days, most environmentalist/conservationist/world-in-crisis tracts pay more than lip service to the notion that our dependence upon the natural world is critical for our survival. The way I see it, however, the issue goes a lot farther (and a lot deeper) than interdependence; in fact it goes all the way to inseparability. Religious notions of hegemony over the natural world notwithstanding, (perhaps stewardship would be a more useful concept), we no more have dominion over nature than nature has over us. It turns out we're all pieces of one big system, and scientific disciplines from ecology and cosmology to quantum physics are proving it.
A few years ago, I went to see a traveling science show called "Bodies." It featured a preparation of the physical human body using the technologies of preservation and plastics. The exhibit rendered the stuff of us -- the circulatory system, muscles, connective tissue, bones, organs and skin -- in innovative fashion. I was particularly struck by the rendering of the nervous system. Instead of resembling a detached organ, it is actually more evocative of a jellyfish, with tendrils extending down through the spinal cord and out into the peripheral nervous system in such a way as pervade every aspect of our body.
Such integration represents a new understanding. This made me think of science fiction movies and TV shows of the 1960s and 1970s that represented the next step in human evolution as one in which our brains -- blessedly free of the demands and constraints of our bodies -- floated freely in a bubbling blue bath inside a big glass jar. So nurtured and unfettered, our mental powers grew so strong that we became telekinetic and telepathic, needing no hands to move objects around the room and no tongue or lips to speak our mind.
Now, of course, we know that this is nonsense. Brain and body are inextricable -- linked not only by the physical nerves, but by a symphony of signals, both chemical and electrical, that the body plays inside so as to render real insights, feelings, emotions and ideas. As it is with the brain and the rest of the body, so it is with human beings and the natural world. Like all living creatures, indeed like life itself, human beings are an expression of the forces and laws of nature (some say God) that underpin us; mystical and shamanic wisdom has been based on this knowledge for millennia.
Our desire to bury the dead with our pets is just one piece of evidence of just how long man -- free of the speed and greed of modern life -- has had a sense of belonging to nature, rather than ruling it. The irrepressible longing for the company of fish, caged birds, backyard pigs (and not just for bacon), goats, parrots, cats and, yes, even snakes, is an ongoing reminder. Why not improve the deplorable conditions in which many zoos and aquaria maintain their charges, then further extend our commitment beyond the animals in our apartments and houses to the ones in our larger home, spaceship Earth?