A Holy Procession of Animals
. . . .
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
--William Blake, The Lamb, 1789
EVERYONE COULD FEEL IT. Anticipation weighted the air as the Saint Francis Day church service unfolded at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Finally, the massive front door swung open. Into the largest of all cathedrals in North America flooded an early-autumn light, a light that illuminated the creature that walked first through the door: a camel, head held high, its single hump garlanded with flowers.
Anticipation turned to reverence, and twelve hundred people turned their gaze as one. Behind the camel and its white-robed caretaker came a royal yak, a tundra reindeer, a baby wallaby and a baby ape, and a black sheep named Marvin. A giant tortoise named Oscar rode on two pillows arranged on a wagon. Birds of prey, and a host of smaller creatures from bunnies to hermit crabs, were carried or pulled on carts.
Slowly, with calm and dignity, the Procession of Animals made its way to the front of the church. There the animals were blessed by waiting clergy. As much as the individual animals themselves, it was the animal-human relationship that was celebrated. The choir sang, and young girls lined the aisles, waving colorful flags. As the animals slowly turned to move back up the aisle, the human congregants sang and moved in harmony with the music.
As I watched the ritual, I saw how the joys inherent in sharing the world with animals lighted people's faces and enriched their voices. Throughout the church, people bent forward to whisper a word to the dog by their side, or to re-settle into their carriers a cat or a rabbit. People not only came to the ceremony in the thousands, they also brought their own animals along. When the service concluded, people and animals walked, two by two, into the cathedral's garden so that clergy could bless each pet with loving words and touch.
The blessing ceremony at St. John's is the most elaborate and famous of any in the world, but many smaller ceremonies in other towns and cities take place on the first Sunday in October, a day set aside to remember the patron saint of animals. People attend not to watch passively but to participate actively, to bring into alignment and harmony their love of animals and their love of God.
Rituals like this, whether focused on the Christian God or some other modern God or gods, mark an emotional connection between animals and people that stretches far back into human prehistory. Our species, Homo sapiens, became human by being with animals.
Deep inside a cave in prehistoric France, early Homo sapiens people gathered in near darkness. Artists in the group had adorned the walls with pigments, rich reds and jet blacks, in order to create spectacular animal images. Now the group assembled in dim light, singing and moving rhythmically together.
As they lost themselves in the pulse and the beat, some people began to experience a slightly altered consciousness and a heightened connection with the living creatures whose representations graced the walls. Hunters felt at one with the animals they would stalk the next day. A skilled healer stared at a half-man, half-bird image cruder than the others. Feeling the first stirrings of a transformation, he knew he would soon be released from his earthly moorings and in contact with otherworldly creatures and forces.1
In prehistoric Turkey, at the village of Catalhoyuk around 8,000 years ago, a man was buried together with a lamb. The bodies, one person and one animal, were kept slightly separate in death by an unusual, contorted position of the lamb and by the placement of a mat or blanket between the two. Yet, in a place where animals were routinely domesticated but not usually buried, the lamb was placed in a gravesite used traditionally for human ancestors: a pit dug beneath a house floor. In subsequent years, three other people were buried there as well.2
At around the same time in Israel, people at a place called Kfar HaHoresh constructed a large mosaic. The material used was not tile, but the carefully positioned bones of humans and gazelles. The image (when viewed from above) is the profile of an animal, perhaps a boar, an aurochs, or even a lion. Elsewhere at the site, a human skull was buried underneath the floor of a rectangular structure and just above a headless gazelle carcass.3
In ancient China, a hermit called Zhuangzi entered a game park and took aim at a magpie. Preoccupied with a cicada, the magpie did not notice Zhuangzi; neither the cicada nor a nearby preying mantis noticed the magpie. The magpie "swept down on its prey in high excitement and gobbled them both up." A feeling of compassion welled up in Zhuangzi: here in the certainty of death was the essence of life. For months, Zhuangzi felt depressed, but also enlivened by new thoughts: Life is about endless transformation, and death should not be feared; realizing this, Zhuangzi felt an "exhilarating freedom" that changed his life.4
In modern-day California, a small group of people shared an amazing encounter with a fifty-foot-long, fifty-ton whale. In the waters beyond San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, a female humpback whale became tangled in equipment used by crabbers, about twenty crab-pot ropes, each 240 feet long and with weights attached every sixty feet. Unable to free herself, and struggling to keep her blowhole above the waterline, the whale was in real peril.
When rescuers arrived by boat, they determined that the best hope of saving the creature would be to cut her free, working in the water. To swim and dive right near such a powerful--and frightened--sea mammal presented serious risk. The procedure to free the whale took an hour, but the mighty creature remained calm throughout, and emitted what rescuers described as a strange kind of vibration. Once freed, she did not bolt for the open sea. Rather, she circled her four rescuers in a way that struck them as joyful. She then approached each person and nudged each in turn. Diver James Moskito said later, "It felt to me like it was thanking us, knowing that it was free and that we had helped it. . . . When I was cutting the line going through the mouth, its eye was there winking at me, watching me. It was an epic moment of my life. . . . It was an amazing, unbelievable experience."5
These examples tell a fundamental truth about how we humans make sense of the world: we think and we feel through being with animals. Utterly unique to the human-animal realm is an emotional kind of mutual relating. Yes, the ever-shifting light on the walls of the ancient Grand Canyon or on the cypress trees swaying gently in a Tuscan breeze may move us profoundly. Yet neither the light, the canyon, nor the trees will ever actively engage with our admiring gaze, or with our emotions. They will never give back emotionally as animals can.
To feel that mutual kinship with another creature is a special experience, one that brings us into attunement with the whole world. It's a feeling deep in the chest, resonant in the heart: I share with all creatures a way of being in this world. All animals, in their own ways, struggle to live, and feel their lives in different ways. I belong here in this world, with them.
We know these things, and in a sense we may even take them for granted. After all, we live in a time and place where animals infuse our lives. We share our homes with animals, and make ourselves mentally and physically healthier by doing so. We vacation in national parks and other animal-rich areas because we want to witness our companion animals' wild counterparts and their behavior. Most of us eat animals and dress ourselves with animals. The sports teams we root for take on animals as symbols, and the cereals we buy are sold to us by talking animals. The tales we read to our children are inhabited by animals who impart wisdom; the poems, novels, and adventure stories we read may ignite our felt connection to nature.
But why should it be this way? Why are we humans emotionally invested in, and sometimes transformed by, close encounters with animals? Why does a multimillion-dollar pet industry in the United States thrive even in tough economic times? Why do most major cities invest in a zoological park and an aquarium? Why are sports teams--not only the Lions, the Tigers, and the Bears, but also the Jayhawks, the Mud Hens, and the Marlins--so often named for animals? Why are the television shows Animal Planet and Nature so enduringly popular? Why is an animated mouse named Mickey recognized instantly around the world? Why do our emotions at being with animals so often spill over into religious experience? In Being with Animals, we will journey through prehistory and history, and across the globe in the present day as well as the past, in order to answer these compelling questions. As we go, we will bring animals, emotion, and evolution together with religiosity, humans' expression of religious awe. We will look over the shoulders of scientists who offer the latest insights from anthropology, archaeology, and studies of mammals and birds.
For me it's a natural, bringing together these four threads. I'm an animal lover, and have been since childhood. My personal life revolves around family, which we define to include a rather stunning number of domestic cats (and the occasional rabbit). My professional life as an anthropologist is chock full of monkeys and apes; I lived for fourteen months in Kenya in order to track and observe baboons, and more recently have observed gorilla and bonobo groups closer to home. I teach and write about evolutionary matters, with a focus on humans as the apes who became upright walkers, speech talkers, and believers in the supernatural.
I believe that one of our most profound connections with animals lies in our emotional experiences of the world and each other. For one animal, Homo sapiens, that world of emotion became a world of religious ritual, and it fascinates me how that happened and what part other animals played as it came about.
And I love to tell animal stories. The stories offered in this book are grounded in three themes. Animals--the mammals and birds of which I write--are complicated beings. They may bond as friends, and offer to each other comfort in times of trouble. They may also snarl, snap, attack, maim, and hurt each other, even outside of the predator-prey context when they are just hunting for a good meal. No animals are "noble savages," expressing a simple ethic of goodness and simple compassion, and no animals are only efficient killing machines at work in a nature run red with blood. Like us, animals tend to express complex facets of their being. Like us, they have personalities and moods, and animal equivalents of grumpy mornings and sunny afternoons. All this is as true for animals when they go about their daily lives with each other as when they interact with us.
This complexity comes about because of variation. Even within a species, individual animals differ dramatically in how they tend to respond to events. Some of those differences probably stem from animals' genetic makeup. Genes matter! Genes may cause an animal to tend to be more shy, or more gregarious. Still, a resounding principle to emerge from recent science studies is that animals are highly responsive to the ways that they are reared, and to their immediate surroundings--just as we humans are.
Of course, we humans are animals. This is my second theme. It's only for simplicity's sake that I write as if humans and animals are somehow separate categories. The mutual relating we engage in with other animals transforms us, yes, but that transformation rests squarely in the common evolutionary trajectory that we share with other creatures. We, all of us, have evolved, and changed over time. Homo sapiens, those evolutionary newcomers in a scene choked with animals and plants in thriving prehistoric ecosystems in Africa, evolved to think and feel with other animals right from the start. To explore being with animals is to explore our own past, from hunting and gathering lifeways on the African savannas through Ice Age art through early settled villages in Anatolia and beyond.
And finally, being with animals may heighten our senses through a renewed appreciation of the beauty of evolutionary continuity or a deepened sense of God's hand at work in the world, or both. We find, indeed we create, our best selves through animals because it is only other animals who can offer us the transcendent experience of shared ways of being in the world.
This transcendence sits, ironically, side by side with the reality that some humans, in some postindustrial, frenzied, all-about-ourselves societies, have lost the knowledge--and the feeling, the visceral certainty that lives in the body as well as in the brain--that we are part of a community of animals. Yet lost cannot be the right word, because the knowledge and the certainty is there: hidden perhaps, but there nonetheless. It's just as the writer Thomas Berry says: "[Animals] provide an emotional intimacy so unique that it can come to us from no other source. The animals can do for us, in both the physical and the spiritual orders, what we cannot do for ourselves or for each other."6
Animals and emotional intimacy--and evolution. Let's start there.
Humans Emerging: From Savanna to Art Cave
. . . .
There is a wolf in me . . .
I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.
--Carl Sandburg, Wilderness, 1918
GALLERY AFTER GALLERY, the art dazzles. In one massive frieze, lions are depicted in profile. The strong lines of the tawny bodies, the intensity of the gaze, and the tautness in the neck muscles all combine to convey predator. Bison, rhinos, and mammoths are here also, as is a mysterious figure with the heavy head of a bison melded with the lower body of a woman.
On close inspection, the subtly masterful aspects of these images emerge to our vision. An exhibit catalog of sorts describes them: "One of the lions seemed to dominate the pride with its penetrating gaze; its head was drawn with darker lines. With theatrical effect, a horse had been placed at the back of a niche and some bison heads were superimposed like hunting trophies. A rhinoceros was endowed with multiple horns that suggested movement."
In a nearby room is another large panel. Here it's the horses that immediately draw the eye. Three horses are depicted with slightly bowed heads and peaceful expressions; a fourth, boldly darker in color than the others, stands serenely looking forward. Other galleries reveal a diverse zoo of images that suggests an intimate familiarity with the animal world.