What the Raven Said

What will it take to convince a few billion people that destroying wilderness, natural habitats and our fellow creatures is not only harmful to humankind, but also irrational, morally repugnant, and instinctively insane? How can we give people who are completely disconnected from nature a sense of what they’re missing, what they’ve lost, forgotten? I don’t believe any of this can come from reading books, watching nature documentaries or trips to parks, farms and summer camps.

This connection and knowledge can only come from first-hand experience. The challenge is that there’s not much quiet, uncivilized nature left to experience, anywhere in the world. When it’s gone, the world that’s left, stuffed wall-to-wall with many times more people than it can sustainably support, will be, despite all its people and buildings and cars and inventions and noise, a lonely, barren and empty place.

Although I have always understood this at an intuitive level, it is only more recently when I have studied natural philosophy and moved to live in a protected wetlands area that I have also come to understand this on an intellectual and emotional level as well. And it is only when you understand it on an emotional level that you really understand it.

So I’m always intrigued to learn about people’s attempts to get others to understand this emotionally. I’ve written about several books that have been particularly helpful:

  • Jeff Masson’s books, especially When Elephants Weep, about the emotional and intellectual lives of animals
  • David Abrams’ The Spell of the Sensuous, about the process of reconnecting with nature and all life on Earth
  • Bernd Heinrich’s books, The Mind of the Raven, Winter World and Geese of Beaver Bog, about the grace and wit of wild animals
  • Susan McCarthy’s Becoming a Tiger, about how young animals learn in the wild
  • Irene Pepperberg’s work in Edge, about the astonishing language skills of some birds

The work of Jane Goodall and Joy Adamson and others could of course be added to this list.

Artist Andrew Campbell recently referred me to some new work being done in the study of animal communications. He pointed out the Interspecies.com site that has been tracking developments in this area for over a decade. If you’ve never had an extended first-hand experience with an animal in the wild, the article by this site’s author Jim Nollman titled What the Raven Said will give you a taste of what you’re missing. It’s a wonderful story, and I couldn’t begin to summarize it, so please take a moment to read it before you continue with this article.

The site also has a lengthy article on whale language. In introduces the reader to the idea that the natural language of whales and perhaps all ‘pre-linguistic’ creatures is not phonetic or syntactic but musical (and recent studies suggest that in humans language and music are processed by different parts of the brain). Going even further, it introduces the controversial ideas of Canadian biophysicist Peter Beamish (Andrew is a big fan of Peter’s), who argues that most animal communication, except in times of stress, is not “signal-based” like ours, but rather “rhythm-based”. This is because, he says, humanity has become so focused on linear time, and so constantly stressed, we have lost touch with another dimension of time he calls “rhythm-based time”, which is based on interval and personal context, rather than linear measurement. I don’t claim to understand the concept, and mainstream science doesn’t appear to accept it, though there is a lot of scholarly scientific work being done on it, and several scientific forums dedicated to it.

Beamish himself attempt to make this mind-boggling theory understandable by providing — surprise! — first-hand experiencesboat trips from his institute in Newfoundland where guests communicate with whales using the principles of rhythm-based communication (RBC). If he’s right, and RBC is going on all around us (including subconsciously, by us) it could explain how we transmit emotion, why we behave altruistically rather than selfishly, why we love nature, and even the possibility that what we call ‘telepathy’ is common in all life and has a scientific base.

Studying ‘animal’ and inter-species communication is one area to which, if I had a bit more competency and a lot more courage, I could see myself devoting my life. But trying to teach other animals our language seems to me to get it backwards, so I’m intrigued at the efforts of those who are trying to learn other species’ ‘languages’, starting with trying to learn what needs to be learned to even begin to understand means of communication that at first we find unfathomable.

For, once we can understand what the ravens and whales and wolves and dolphins are ‘saying’ to each other, we can begin to begin to understand how much wiser they are than we are about how to live on this resilient but ravaged planet. And how much poorer this planet becomes when we arrogantly destroy them and their world to make evermore room for a single, insensitive, homogeneous human culture.

And then, we can begin to begin to learn how to save the world.

Photo by david madison

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4 Responses to What the Raven Said

  1. Dale Asberry says:

    A coworker today used the phrase, “I will endeavor to persevere”. It was a line from Chief Dan George in the movie “The Outlaw Josey Wales”. In the scene, the Chief was talking about how he was honored by the President as a “Civilized Indian”. Both the Chief and Josey saw through the falseness and non-rhythm of such a statement. The reason why the Chief respected Josey though, was because he regretted having allowed himself to be subjugated by those in power while Josey had no qualms in just killing them and riding away.Vision statements and corporatespeak similar to the quote make me nauseous, literally.

  2. Lola Walser says:

    I would add a wonderful new book, Temple Grandin’s “Animals in translation”. I’m afraid that the majority of people still adopt the mechanistic view of nature, with human consciousness as the apex of creation and focal point of a lost Eden (with animals being mere robots and servants, if not nuisance to humanity).

  3. kerry says:

    Beautiful post Dave. How anyone could not feel the emotional impact of the loss of a species or harm to any animal is beyond me. But for those who insist on caring for their fellow humans first, then know that your own survival is also dependent on the degree to which you can keep your home planet intact!

  4. Simon Raven says:

    Nice. oh and BTW, quote:> it could explain how we transmit emotion, why we behave altruistically rather than selfishly, why we love nature, and even > the possibility that what we call ‘telepathy’ is common in all life and has a scientific base.duh! :) though that’s only part of it. i suppose explaining it from a scientific POV is needed for some people, i’m glad that at least some scientists are heading in the right direction, and seeing what life is: this beautiful, chaotic but ordered, mess of things, just expressing itself in any way, shape, or form it wants, just for the pure joy and experience and learning and growing of it.the universe speaks, we just have to slow down and pay attention.

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