Posts Tagged ‘Animals’

Speaking in Tongues: Gibbonese, Prairiedogese and other languages

April 20, 2015

Note: I wrote this little essay about a month ago, when New England was still under a thick shawl of snow.  I lost the essay, and just found it again.  So here it is.  

The day after New England’s first blizzard of the season, I saw tracks on the snow.  The snow was 2-3 feet thick, and except where I’d ploughed a canyon through it, was smooth as a blanket.  Looking carefully, though, I saw a single line gouged in the smoothness, from the elm tree all the way to the covered porch.  There is a space under the porch that is home to a mysterious animal, which may be a possum.  (When my dog was alive I always knew, from his excited sniffing, when our tenant was home).   There were rabbit tracks all the way to the front door, and a more delicate tracery of bird footprints.   These spoke to me of recent histories almost as explicitly as if each track, each footprint, was a letter or pictogram of a language inscribed on the featureless white page of snow.

That Nature speaks – that animate beings and inanimate things communicate – is perhaps no mystery to the scientist or artist.  The world is full of stories, although we humans seem to be disproportionately tuned to the exclusively human ones.  But animals, trees, protons and stars are always telling stories, and it is our loss that our selective deafness shuts out these other tales.  To the naturalist, the nibbled tips of a wild plant, or the change in flow of a stream, hint of certain animal presences.   To a geologist walking through a canyon, the colors, striations and textures of rocks tell a story of the earth’s past.  To a particle physicist looking at particle tracks, the intangible mysteries of the sub-atomic world are, for that moment and context, revealed.  There is an aesthetics of science that is missed by most non-scientists, and sometimes by scientists as well.  Ultimately what pure scientists do is to listen to, and interpret through mathematics and conceptual structure-building, the stories Nature tells us.

The stories told by inanimate things is truly fascinating, and is part of my work on creative new ways of teaching physics, but that is a whole other post.  Today, while snowbound during yet another storm too soon after the last one, I want to think about communication and language in the context of our non-human fellow earthlings.

I’ve seen cartoons about the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, on the “Are We Alone?” theme.  A human looks through a telescope at the stars, wondering if our species is an anomaly in the universe.  What I’ve always found ironic about this trope is that we are surrounded by other beings that are constantly communicating.  I am a fan of the search for life beyond Earth, don’t get me wrong — I think that the huge numbers of exoplanets discovered on a near-daily basis indicate that life, (‘intelligent’ or otherwise according to our standards), may be rather common outside of our little rock – but my point is that we are so arrogantly or ignorantly unaware of all that is being spoken around us that it would be laughable if it wasn’t also sad.

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On the Kindness of Strangers

February 2, 2015

Ah, the kindness of strangers!  We are having a second snowstorm, too soon after last week’s blizard, so I trudged out into the whiteout to get started on the shoveling, despite my annoyingly persistent respiratory sickness.  To my surprise I found that somebody had already started carving canyons out of the snow behind my car.  Yesterday I had left a note with my neighbor, whom I barely know other than the occasional hello, asking whether she knew someone whom I could pay for snow removal.  So it must have been her, I thought, and then I saw her coming toward me, shovel over shoulder, like a modern day knight-in-winter-gear.  She’s a cheerful woman, one of my town’s many Brazilian immigrants, who lives with her husband and stepsons and dog in the house next door.  I got a lovely scolding to ‘get back inside so you won’t get sicker’ and that ‘we’ll take care of it, there are four of us!’  So I thanked her profusely and went back inside.

It’s not the first time that I’ve been at the receiving end of altruistic acts from people I don’t know, or don’t know well.  One of my most remarkable and humbling experiences was at a convention several years ago, when a particularly virulent stomach bug hit, laying low hordes of attendees.  I was afflicted particularly badly, lying in my hotel room with high fever, far from home.  My roommate, understandably concerned about her own health, moved out.  I contacted one of the organizers to request some dry crackers and ginger ale, and the result was extraordinary.  Not only did this woman come in with a bag of edibles, but she re-arranged my ticket, and, because the hotel didn’t want sick people staying on, took me to her house, where she took care of me as a sister would, for three days.  We may be used to the tender care of a daughter when we have the flu, or the comforting touch of a mother when we fell sick as children – but a stranger who would go to such lengths is a rare phenomenon.   I lay on her couch and we talked about life, the universe, and everything, while she cooked bland stuff that I could eat.  She herself got a mild version of the virus later on, but not for a moment did she complain, or indicate in any other way that my presence was anything other than a delight.  I will never forget her.  Sickness, or the threat of sickness generally brings out the worst in non-sick strangers.  But then there are people like her, to restore my faith in humanity.  One day I will write a story in her honor.  I’ve already started exploring the theme of the kindness of strangers in my fiction (my Project Hieroglyph story ‘Entanglement’ being the first), but so far I haven’t written anything deserving of a dedication to someone like her.

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Re-Post: The Creatures We Don’t See: Thoughts on the Animal Other

March 22, 2013

Note: Back in 2008, the incredible Jeff VanderMeer invited me to guest-post on his blog.  Recently I had occasion to re-read this post, and I decided to post it here on Antariksh Yatra, minimally edited.  Unfortunately the post isn’t complete without the discussions in the comments, so here’s the original link.  

 

When I was around ten years old my family moved from New Delhi to the town of Patna, in Bihar, for two years.  Patna was a small, untidy, sprawling little town (relative to Delhi) and the area where we lived consisted of large, old-fashioned houses set among enormous gardens.  We stayed with my grandparents, and a little way from their house you could see fields.  Sometimes my brother and I would wake very early and go on a trek through the fields, pausing to watch a farmer and his bullock drawing water from a well, or looking at pond life in a ditch filled with rainwater.  In the evenings there would be kids playing cricket in the big maidan in front of the house, and my brother and I would be there too (it was in those days that I developed my now-lost skill as a fairly fearsome spin bowler).  Some of the pariah dogs that lived in packs in our neighbourhood would join in, especially if we were playing football (soccer).  Pariah dogs are descended from the earliest domesticated dogs — they are a tribe unto themselves, and live parallel lives with humans in towns and cities in India.  They are also beautiful, intelligent animals — you can see some really nice pictures here

 

One of these pariah dogs was a brown and white dog of noble bearing whom we called Moti (the word sounds like “more-thee” without the ‘r’, and means “pearl”).  As he was a regular on the football field, we became friends.  He would come over to our house if he wanted a meal.  Sometimes he would walk me home if I was late returning from a friend’s house.  There was a boy who lived next door who was friendly with Moti too, but he wanted Moti as a house-dog.  So he trapped the dog for three days in his house, spoiling him, feeding him delicacies and playing with him.  But at the first opportunity, Moti escaped.

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An otter in my garden!

April 20, 2009

Otter Napping

Otter Napping

 

Note: I wrote this piece yesterday but didn’t have a chance to post it.  At the end is an update.

 

This morning I was walking in the back garden with my dog when he suddenly got excited.  Instinctively I tightened his leash and from a bed of reeds there burst a long, sinuous dark shape with a rounded, muscular, tapering tail.  “Otter!” I thought to myself incredulously.  The apparition vanished into the bushes at the front of the house.

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