It happens every spring. As the snow and ice recede and expanses of bare earth and water gain more and more ground, the pace of life increases. This year, I walk the woods at least once a day with my daughter, me in tall boots, occasionally sinking into mud and puddles of thawed water, she in a backpack, occasionally patting me on the head to a chant of “Mama, Mama, Mama.” We see it all around. The creatures of the woods are busy.
We recently watched a squirrel eating a particularly large pinecone. He sat so straight, cone clutched in his paws, eating with an intensity that for all the world reminded me of my daughter. I’ve seen that look on her face as she works with precise focus to pick up pieces of carrot and broccoli and usher them towards her mouth.
She has also begun that timeless childhood tradition of identifying animal sounds. “What does a lion say?” we ask. The tiniest of grins flits across her face before she opens her little mouth to let out a guttural “Roar”. “What does a cow say?” That is her favorite. Her lips press tight. “Mmmmmmmm.”
While she now matches these sounds with a question, pictures in her books and the little toys we plop into her tub at night, roars, growls, hoots and screetches were her first utterances.
As we walk the woods and I see the earth wake up with a vibrancy sometimes startling in its volume, as I listen to her sounds, as I feel my own energy rise with the longer days and the brighter light, I am reminded of an incontrovertible truth: we are animals, after all.
Isn’t it easy to forget this most basic of facts? Perhaps it’s because we so often focus more on our thoughts than our bodies. Perhaps it’s due to the amount of time we spend with machines. Perhaps it’s due to the stories we tell ourselves about language and consciousness separating us from the rest of the natural world. Separate and not equal.
And yet. The majority of the moments in which I have felt most alive and most filled with purpose have also been moments that tie me most closely to that fact: I am animal. Swimming and feeling water all around me. Running through the woods. Mourning a death so deeply that the grief courses through my entire body. Having sex. Birthing my daughter.
When she was just a few months old, I had to leave to teach an evening class. My husband stayed with our daughter. At one point, she was crying. He paced the house, trying to comfort her, and suddenly noticed three deer on our lawn – a mother and two babies. Not wanting them to eat our fruit trees, he figured he’d step outside with our daughter and scare them away.
As he walked onto the grass, the two young deer did indeed flee the premises, stopping only as they reached the edge of the woods. The mother started to follow her babies, but suddenly stopped. She turned and looked at my husband, standing there in the dusk, holding our wailing daughter. And then she began to walk towards him.
As he recounted the story to me later, my husband shook his head. “She wanted to help me. I just know it.”
We are animals. We birth, we nurture, we feed, we mate, we die. It seems to me incredibly presumptuous to assume we are unique in loving, mourning, or understanding. Our separation from our own animal-ness and the rest of living creatures is a loss to us and a threat to them.