“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” — Henry Beston, The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod
Much as I love plants and am delighted to come across a new one, or an old friend, when on a walk or in my own yard, when I unexpectedly meet an animal there is always a kind of frisson — a shiver that’s mostly but not wholly pleasurable, an electrical impulse of complex emotion: excitement mingled with awe, awareness of “other” and “familiar” simultaneously, joy and wonder alloyed with not knowing what will happen in the next moment.
Anything from bird to snake to skate to bear prompts this feeling for me. Insects, including butterflies, don’t seem to — though I often find them charming and enchanting, and I am awed by their many abilities — and I imagine that’s because I do not yet fully comprehend their complete being. Not that I claim to fully comprehend any other being’s complete being (nor my own, when it comes down to it) , but with mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish I feel the thrill of kinship — not family kinship exactly (not that they are “brethren,” as Beston puts it), but our kinship as mortals, perhaps, as fellow travellers on this one earth — and, paradoxically, I recognise in the same moment that we are alien to each other. We can connect, perhaps, but a rabbit, warbler, fox, or frog is wild in a way that I — “living by complicated artifice” — will never fathom; and that wildness conjures a certain wariness (in varying degrees, depending on what I think I know of the animal) that, along with the awareness that we live together, briefly, in the same moment, lends a reverence and respect to our meeting, for me at least.
Below are some animals whose paths have crossed mine briefly in the last month. Of course, when I’m really stunned and the animal is as wary as I, and faster, I don’t get a photo, as with the groundhog at the Heritage Museum in Sandwich MA, the two 5-foot long black racer snakes in Wellfleet MA, and numerous birds all over.
In the garden in NH
Trail walks in NH
Coastal Rhode Island
Red-winged black bird (at motel in Middletown RI) with something to say:
It was almost impossible to capture any of the dozens of swallows flitting and dipping, and never landing, at Oyster Point at Trustom Pond NWR in South Kingstown, RI:
“When birds look into houses, what impossible worlds they see.” — Don DeLillo, from The Body Artist
With many thanks for your thoughtful narrative and beautiful photos.
If you haven’t read the Good Good Pig,by Sy Montgomery, I recommend it. Natalie