Animal Encounters

a sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove, co-minister
Paint Branch UU Church
July 20, 2003

One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human. — Loren Eiseley

CALL TO WORSHIP [adapted for web posting]

Summer is a time when many of us get out into the natural world. It stays light later, we tend to travel a bit more for leisure activities, we wander a bit farther from our door. And maybe we encounter things beyond our normal frame of reference.

This morning, in this sacred space, we will embrace wild animals, or at least the thought of and our experiences with them, particularly the larger ones. What motivates me in this exploration is how "the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part"—our 7th UU Principle—comes alive when I encounter another creature, especially one that has an eye that might catch mine.

The Loren Eiseley quote at the top of your order of service challenges us by suggesting that One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human. Are the eyes of animals also "mirrors to their souls," as it is said of human eyes? I can’t pretend to know if animals have souls, but I do know that such inter-species intimacy, even if fleeting, can be transformative. It gives flesh to the easily mouthed theory of interdependence, as do most encounters with wild animals, and that is what we will explore a bit today.

I call us to worship with awareness that our planet teems with life other than human; it is a big part of the beauty and energy of our world. But with each passing year, the continuation of certain human habits does not bode well for wild creatures, especially the larger ones. The natural balance is shifting as the animal world is changed by the sheer magnitude of our human presence, let alone our destructive behaviors.

So I, for one, try to think and care about and respect wild creatures, even if I don’t encounter them very often. The natural, interconnected world of nature and animals can teach respect in a variety of ways, ranging from transformative personal encounter to deep realization how certain human actions can lead to unexpected results, often not for the best. The interdependent web can be relentlessly honest, as unfortunate consequences often tell us over and over again. But do we ever learn anything? That's the question before us.

READING: "Thinking Like a Mountain" by Aldo Leopold

INTROA powerful testimonial about our interconnectedness with animals and the natural world comes from one of the early pioneers of the ecological awareness movement, Aldo Leopold, as found in his delicious little book of reflections and observations, "A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There."

Born in the Midwest in 1887, Leopold joined the US Forest Service in 1909 and by 1948, when this piece was written, he was a well-respected professional conservationist. He was also exploring a consciousness that was way ahead of his time.

He is generally credited with the first use of a phrase that has become something of a mantra for ecologists, which is also the title of this short statement, reflecting on a formative experience of his in the American Southwest.

Here, then, is… Thinking Like a Mountain, by Aldo Leopold [edited slightly]

From "A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There"
Oxford University Press, 1949

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.

Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the [rancher] a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet.

Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf…

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Since then I have lived to see state after state [eliminate] its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic [disuse], and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn…

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

So also with cows. The [rancher] who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolfs job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the [rancher] with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.

Perhaps this is behind Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among [people].


[Follows a short portion of "Wolf Eyes" by the Paul Winter Consort—a series of wolf calls accompanied by soft, evocative solo piano.]

Animal howls and animal eyes can pierce our superficial human exterior and reach powerfully within, dredging up shards of a deeper identity, intimations of a common planetary path. So much of our living is insulated from truly wild creatures, other than, say, birds and rodents and insects, that I suspect some of us may go years without having an face-to-face encounter with another life form in the earthy wild.

But even domesticated animals can provide a glimpse into this realm. I've had curious eyeball encounters with dogs and cats, zoo residents, cattle. Do you realize how big a cow's eye is? Check it out sometime. Loren Eiseley, in his quote, does not specify that it must be a wild eye in which we might catch our reflection; merely a non-human one.

A few years ago I was visiting a relative who had quite a menagerie of creatures, including a few working llamas. I was invited into their pen and it wasn't long before I felt a large presence just behind me. I turned around to find myself smack nose-to-nose, eyeball-to-eyeball with a llama whose head was at my level, barely inches away. I'm not accustomed to standing next to animals that are as tall as I am. And this one was right in my face, perfectly still, just silently staring at me. I was rather frozen, unsure if I was in any danger. Then, from nearby, my relative casually told me to "Exhale on him," which was rather easy because I was certainly holding my breath. After I exhaled, he was satisfied, I guess, and wandered away. Evidently that's just how llamas check you out, by your breath.

I wish I could say I was studying this big fellow's eyes for clues to our connectedness, but alas, I was merely stunned and hoping to escape in one piece. Nevertheless, it was a moment I won’t forget, to be sure. Did I see my true self reflected in his intense llama eyes? Well, I did see a bit of my life flash before me (before I exhaled).

What does Eiseley mean, to meet oneself by catching one's reflection in an eye other than human, especially if it's a wild eye? I think it's about expanding our personal, ego-laden identity—beyond this bag of bones that we might believe is all we are. By intentionally looking for a personal reflection in the eye of another creature, our sense of self is expanded, and maybe we more fully comprehend—maybe we feel, even—how we are interconnected with other life forms, other critters, even the wild ones who seem so set apart from us, so separate.

The challenge before us is to know that such separation is an illusion. Our planetary oneness may not be obvious to our untrained eye, but I believe it's possible to know something of oneness if we bring the intention to do so with us into encounters.

But this is a difficult task, not something we are taught. I was unprepared when the llama came nose-to-nose with me. I hope I'm increasingly less unprepared, at least. For me, this is a spiritual quest, to gain greater awareness of the mutuality I share with, say, animals—but to do so without anthropomorphizing them. Most of us grow up on cartoons that incessantly give human characteristics to animals, even FISH. So it's no wonder that our default position is to install human personalities and motives in the creatures we encounter. That's what we are taught (he says, having just enjoyed the animated movie "Finding Nemo" this past week).

A recent novel that articulates and demonstrates a depth understanding of animals without sentimentalism, is Life of Pi, early in which the author, Yann Martel, expresses a balanced attitude with this observation, from an encounter he had on a study expedition in South America:

The three-toed sloth lives a peaceful, vegetarian life in perfect harmony with its environment. "A good-natured smile is forever on its lips," reported [one researcher]. I have seen that smile with my own eyes. I am not one given to projecting human traits and emotions onto animals, but many a time during that month in Brazil, looking up at sloths in repose, I felt I was in the presence of upside-down yogis deep in meditation or hermits deep in prayer, wise beings whose intense imaginative lives were beyond the reach of my scientific probing.

Later, and mostly, Life of Pi is about a fantastic voyage across the Pacific by two shipwrecked creatures on a lifeboat/raft together: a teenage boy and a Bengal tiger from his father's zoo. Such a curious shared journey comes about because the cargo ship carrying the boy's family and many of the zoo residents from India to North America sinks and only the teen and tiger survive…together…alone…on the ocean…for seven months.

The bulk of the book is a compelling, if still fictional, account of this way-more-intimate-than-usual relationship between boy and Bengal, and it generally avoids the pitfalls of anthropomorphizing the tiger. For instance, shortly after they find themselves marooned together, the 450-pound feline sets his sights on the boy, who describes it this way:

…when [the tiger's] amber eyes met mine, the stare was intense, cold and unflinching…and spoke of self-possession on the point of exploding with rage. His ears twitched and then swiveled right around. One of his lips began to rise and fall. The yellow canine [tooth] thus coyly revealed was as long as my longest finger. Every hair on me was standing up, shrieking with fear.

As I read this, I imagined that merely exhaling on the tiger was not going to do the trick, and sure enough, the boy has to use almost every skill he remembered from his experience growing up around a zoo to establish a degree of dominance over the tiger that saved his life, in more ways than one.

It's a long story, but what may be most pertinent is, again, how important the eyes are. He explains the diligent training necessary to keep the tiger at bay, much of which had to do with providing water and food, just as in the zoo. But an essential step was also to make loud noises while never breaking eye contact. He calls this "badgering with my eyes (for, of course, with all animals, including us, to stare is an aggressive act)…" It was "psychological bullying. And it worked. [After a while, the tiger] never stared back; his gaze always floated in mid-air, neither on me nor off me. It was something I could feel…: mastery in the making."

This may well not be our goal with wild or semi-wild creatures we meet, unless our survival is at stake, but the book provides a sometimes brutally honest depiction of an extended encounter between human and non-human. Life of Pi makes for an unusual and illuminating story that carries more than a few bones of believability.

It may feel unusual because anthropomorphizing is so common among us when we think of and behold animals. But that attitude, familiar and tempting and even entertaining as it may be, is about merely projecting ourselves onto another being—not what Eiseley is suggesting, which is to catch one's own reflection in "an eye other than human." I imagine that in such an encounter, the non-human eye doesn’t necessarily change, doesn’t become like us; but it shines back at us a vision of ourselves that is qualitatively different and intriguing. Such a vision expands who we are, and in the blink of an eye we meet that larger being anew.

Let me tell you two more quick stories of moments that come close to this for me. Both episodes happened on the same trip into the Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands of Washington State during my very first visit up there, in 1982. I was attending a short summer course called "Whale School" on a post-graduate fellowship. A small group of us went to classes on marine mammology every morning and every afternoon we sailed on trimarans, looking for and photographing various pods of killer whales—orcas—that populate that gorgeous zone.

Occasionally they would stop and come around our boat, looking at us. I met an orcan eye once and remember my heart almost stopping, this time without any fear at all, just stunned by the encounter. I did not have language for "the interdependent web of all existence" then, but I certainly felt the interconnection. And from my studies, I knew there was an exceptionally large brain behind that eye. What was going on in there?

I also remember questioning my motives. Was this sentimentalism? Projection? Wishful thinking? No, simply an encounter with a creature that was very different in some ways, not so different in other ways. In all ways, I was moved to offer respect. I also observed that it was I who had ventured out onto their turf, so to speak, floating in their habitat.

Which brings me to my second story, same expedition. We were camping overnight on one of the San Juan Islands, in the yard of a small, now-mechanized lighthouse. It had been a long day, the sun was almost down, and it was my job to go find some firewood. So I trucked right off into the nearby woods behind the lighthouse. I was picking up suitable branches in an enclosed clearing when WHOOSH! A giant bird took flight not 20 feet from me.

It was a bald eagle that flew directly over me in the twilight. I cowered as I noticed both the huge wingspan and how loud those avian arms were. I did not get a bird's eye view, so to speak, but it was nonetheless a stunning visual and aural experience. Such proximity!—of which I was reminded when I took in another movie this past week, called Winged Migration, a European masterpiece that somehow films birds flying—but at close range from above and next to them. Very amazing and powerful images!

But back to the lighthouse in the San Juans, I returned to the group with some firewood, yes, but mostly very excited, stuttering, and humbled. What did I really know about the lay of the land and its denizens? Not much. Yet I make assumptions all the time: about my right to wander anywhere, my authority, my safety.

I also realized that I usually don’t have to worry much about encountering wild animals because there are fewer and fewer of them around anymore. The wild ones who do remain have either retreated farther and farther from human communities or the opposite—they hang around the edges of civilization, usually when desperate for food.

But ever since that eagle encounter, I've tried to enter wild places a bit more sensitively, more alertly, more respectfully and yes, more eager for further meetings with my greater, expanded self in the form of my fellow earthlings, non-human but related to me, profoundly.

May they find ways to flourish, despite all we do to prevent it. May our consciousness grow to include them as partners on this earthly journey. And may our deepening awareness of the bonds we share with each other and with all life help us to appreciate and protect the forms of life that are indeed very different yet nonetheless inseparable from us.

For the "salvation of the world" may depend on each of us remembering, or locating and understanding the wild parts of our own expanded selves, so that we may better identify with fellow creatures of the earth and then move to give life the shape of justice for all life.

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