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Talkier Than We Knew
A childhood hero of mine was a long-shanked blacksmith with the body of a badger and the eyes of a deer who could talk to the animals. Will Cramer was known as "the man who knows what the animals say." Chickadees clustered around his door; stray dogs came to the gate of his clapboard home as if they had heard through some mysterious grapevine that he would take care of them. Will lived in the valley of the Yellow Breeches Creek in Pennsylvania, down the road from my grandfather's house where my parents, brothers, and I spent our summers. Evenings, my brothers and I often sat on the porch railing of the country store and listened to the farmers talk about crops, the weather, and, now and then, about Will Cramer. "Will listened to a cow bawl today and told Jim Hucklefinger that she wanted to be moved to another stanchion." On another occasion Will heard a dog whine and told his owner, "Your hound wants his collar loosened."
The farmers did not quite believe Will, but did not discredit him either. They were all aware that some kind of communication went on between themselves and their chickens, cows, pigs, horses, cats, and dogs. If it wasn't exactly "talk," it was something akin to it. When the dog barked, they got up and went to see who was approaching the house, and when the cow bawled, they milked her. Communication is, after all, an action by one individual that alters the behavior of another, no matter how humble the creature or how strange the language. A toad excretes a noxious fluid when picked up by bird, beast, or man, that says quite unneatly, "Drop me." Most do.
Will Cramer not only altered his own behavior when the animals spoke to him, he altered theirs by speaking to them in their own language. He asked his dog Nick, who was standing at ease beside him one day, to play by getting down on all fours and spanking the ground with outstretched arms, as dogs do when they are sparking another dog to rough and tumble. He told the cow he wanted her in the meadow by uttering bovine sounds to attract her attention, then stepping in front and walking. In cow language, the animal in the lead is saying, "Follow me."
Anyone watching Will with animals would believe he had some gift not given to other persons, but he told me the year before he died that he just watched what the animals were doing or listened to their vocalizations, then observed what happened next. In other words, Will studied cause and effect, which is how all animal communication functions. A wolf leaves a scent of its presence and social status in its urine at the edge of its territory, and another wolf reads who it is with thoughtful inhalations and either turns away or, recognizing a friend, comes on. "Hello," we say to a person and wait to see the effect of our greeting before going on with the conversation or taking our leave.
Our remarkable communication system—our spoken language, with its infinite combinations of sounds strung together by rules—is so advanced, we believe, compared with nonhuman systems that most of us fail to recognize seemingly simpler dialogues. They are all around us: the cecropia moth calling in chemicals, the spider receiving and sending telegraph messages along a thread, the spreading tail of a peacock speaking of masculinity through a vision of beauty, the wolves keeping their space around them by howling in concert. The odors, poses, movements, displays, and the clicks, hisses, chirps, and bellows are communications. Animals, including us, speak in the four media of scent, touch, sight, and sound. Some messages use but one medium, some all four, but all media, all messages, are the self reaching out to be known by others.
Anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with animals recognizes a kitten's mew as a plea and a dog's bark as a warning. But they are only the tip of the iceberg. Animal communication has turned out to be far more complex than we had guessed until recently.
1920 was a landmark year in our awakening to the true meaning of the prettiest of all animal sounds in nature. That year British businessman Elliot Howard published his discovery that a bird's song is not the outburst of joy we in our innocence had supposed it to be, but a rather businesslike announcement specifically addressed to others of its kind. Birds sing to announce property lines, advertise for a mate, and proclaim ownership of a good habitat for the rearing and feeding of young.
Howard spent years wandering his estate, observing and charting the behavior of resident songbirds. Gradually his notes and diagrams took shape. A certain male bird was always in the same area, he sang from the same bushes and trees, and, no matter how long Howard pressed him, he never left that piece of land. Like himself, the bird had territory, and like himself, he defended it, not with words, laws, and guns, but with song. The seemingly pleasant little bird was threatening his neighbor with, "Keep off my property." Once Howard recognized this, everyone saw it—and with a deep sense of shock, not so much because birdsong was tough talk, but because it took so many millennia for intelligent mankind to recognize something so obvious.
The discovery of territorial behavior in birds hatched a host of scientific disciplines: ethology, sociobiology, animal behaviorism, cognitive ethology—a potpourri of names for fields in which men and women have put aside the study of conventional physical zoology to observe the thinking, communications, and social behavior of nonhuman animals. Now six decades of their observations have caused a flip-flop in our thinking. We can no longer speak of "dumb" animals. Most natural scientists believe today that the birds and beasts are not automatons, performing by instinct without thought or feeling, but creatures of intelligence and sensitivity that communicate in many ingenious ways. Will Cramer was right: the animals do talk, not only to each other but to us if we listen.
"Talk" and "listen" are impoverished words to use to mean communication; perhaps our reliance on speech explains why we spent so long noticing so little animal palaver. For instance, the oldest, and still most fundamental, medium of communication is chemicals. We are aware of molecule messages as the very few tastes and relatively strong odors we can discern. We consciously use sweets and perfumes in courting. But that's nothing compared with the chemical languages we are not aware of. Every cell of our body is in constant communication through the chemicals called hormones and neurotransmitters. One cell emits molecules of insulin, and another, receiving the word, knows to take up sugar from the bloodstream. Chemical language is most likely all life's mother tongue, for bacteria, from their position on the lowest rung of the phylogenetic ladder, speak in insulin and estrogen. Even plants talk chemically. The alder tree when attacked by insects sends out a chemical vapor that "tells" other nearby alders that insects are attacking. They respond by depleting their leaves of nutrients and loading them with insect-killing toxins. Bacteria speak through chemicals that keep them together where there is food and warmth and bring them together for rare matings. Scientists are only beginning to unravel chemical communication, but they are sure the lexicon includes the most essential distinction: self and other. Bacteria string along only with their own kind, each joining with others most like itself. On the other hand, a bacterium couples for sexual purposes only with an individual of its own kind that is not identical to itself. The first message might therefore be translated as "I am I," an announcement of species and individual self. Trading such messages, some organisms can apparently gauge their relatedness.
Andy Blaustein, at Oregon State University, recently demonstrated in laboratory tests that pollywogs recognize kin. A pollywog raised separately from its brothers and sisters, and then introduced to them and to unrelated pollywogs of the same species, chose to pal around with its own family.
We ourselves do not seem able to sniff out our degree of kinship, at least we are not aware of it, but apparently we give off a family smell. Nele, a great hairy dog belonging to my friend Sara Stein and very much a part of her family, ran toward a strange man who had parked in the driveway, tasting the air with her nose. Sara was surprised that the dog not only failed to bark at the stranger but bounded up to him in joyful greeting, tail wagging. She looked closer. The man was not a stranger but her cousin, a cousin that Nele had never met but who apparently reeked of relative. Although our chemical reception is poor compared with a dog's, we do receive and react to some odors, often unconsciously. The smell of a lover lingering on clothes when the lover is away fills us with longing, and the scent of a baby's head elicits tenderness. We no doubt send out odors that announce our sex, but our discernment is nearly subliminal, so we heighten the difference with "feminine" perfume or "masculine" shaving lotion. Few other animals need that hype. Invisible, silent, and unnoticed as these chemicals are to us, our animals easily sniff them out.
A pet red fox I raised had been injured by a man when she was taken from her family den, and ever after she bit or ran from all men. Women she loved, and said so by leaping softly into their lap and draping herself affectionately over their shoulders. It was important to her that she made no mistake, and I soon realized by her reaction of fear even toward objects that men had touched that the red fox could discern maleness and femaleness in the human species far faster and more accurately than I, using my own cultural clues to sex—clothing, voice, and hair. While I often ponder or make mistakes through my eyes and ears, the red fox's nose was instantly correct.
Chemical communication is probably behind dogs' almost eerie ability to read our moods and feelings. While camping with me and my son one summer my son's friend Seaver Jones thought he heard a grizzly bear snapping sticks as it came toward our camp. There was no bear, but Seaver's fear was so great that Jake, his dog, smelled it and raised the hair on his back. Finding nothing himself to fear on the wind, Jake licked Seaver's face and went back to sleep.
Seaver, of course, had no difficulty interpreting Jake's affectionate face lick.
Touch speaks forcefully and intimately, especially among mammals, whose strokes, pats, nibbles, licks, and kisses share a common heritage of motherly love. Mammal mothers and babies literally keep in touch, and so do lovers. But even turtles touch. Last June I watched a male box turtle in my woods approach a female at sundown and after a few surprisingly agile maneuvers for a rock-hard creature, climb upon her back and caress her with loving taps of his lower bony carapace. His touch spoke clearly. She mated with him.
We humans speak of love as we caress, of fear as we cling, of restraint as we grip, and of aggression as we shove. We evoke laughter by tickling. We also send messages to our animals through touch, conveying thoughts that perhaps we do not consciously realize we are saying. The pat on the head we give our animals is a substitute for "Blessings on you, little man," a condescending but reassuring gesture that says, "Remain a child. I'll take care of you."
And our animals speak back to us through touch, although they are not always saying exactly what we think they are. Cats' rubbing and dogs' licking are certainly affectionate statements, but the cat rubs against us to claim us as its beloved possession, and the dog licks us to express its lovingly subordinate position.
I go to the garden to touch talk with a spider, the wizard of tactile communication. I pull very gently on its web; the owner, a female spider, pulls back on the thread. Through her telegraph system she asks, "Who are you?" I could be a male spider or an insect to eat. I pull again, and this time I say with my clumsiness, "Human being." She replies that she knows I am a predator by running up another thread and hiding.
I try other things on her. I shake the web with a slim stalk of grass, hoping to say, "Food," then I sprinkle water to say, "The dew of dawn." I wait for her reply. She does not come out. I toss a katydid in her web, and this time she answers me by dashing out and killing it. I learn her definitions of the insects, for she reacts differently to grasshoppers and gnats, enshrouding each with a defining silk that virtually bears the insect's name. A thick band thrown from a distance is "bee," a broad swath wrapped at close quarters while her feet spin the prey reads "grasshopper," a single thread says "gnat."
To a spider, touch brings messages from a distance along the far-flung web of her communication system. Were a male spider to court her—by drumming his love tattoo from a safe distance before approaching his dangerous bride—she would receive the message in time to avoid harming him. But touch ordinarily requires actual contact, and smell, too, is commonly an intimate communication. The prime long-distance sense in higher land animals is vision. We see and interpret before we encounter. Visual signals, such as a stallion's proud posing on the rim of a distant hill, can be sent over greater distances than animal sound—miles compared to half a mile for the loudest noisemaker, the cicada.
Strangely, until very recently we remained unaware of visual signals of our own more subtle than a wave or a smile. Now, with our knowledge of "body language," we are in a better position to appreciate the expressive faces, poses, and gestures of other animals. Even bodily proportions speak. The proportions of kittens and puppies elicit a parenting response in us, and we say, "Aaaaw," and pick them up. What is talking to us are the large head and eyes, the small body, and short, plump limbs. "I am cute. I am helpless, hold me, care for me," the baby proportions cry out. We are not taught the message of proportions; it comes from deep in our nonintellectual being, down with loving and needing. Our animals also reply to babyish proportions with parental behavior, even when the baby is another species. Our bluetick hound, Delilah, had such a response to my son Luke when he was a baby. She licked and encircled him and leaped into his crib to curl warmly beside him when I was in another room. She did not do this to Luke's six-year-old sister or four-year-old brother or to me. That's baby power for you.
Adults display their power by posture, and these visual signals, too, are well-nigh universal. The signal is given by making oneself appear big. The wolf says "I am leader of the pack" by holding his head higher than the others. The gull chief throws out his chest and stretches his neck above his kin to announce his dominance. The male songbird puffs up his feathers to speak of his importance and aggressiveness. Kings, queens, and presidents are taught to carry themselves erect. Military officers thrust out their chests like pigeons to say the same thing—"I am dominant and powerful."
The opposite message—one that indicates a low position on the social ladder or an acknowledgment of inferiority in an encounter—is given by making oneself appear small or childlike. The wolf and dog roll over puppylike on their backs in deference, the low-order gull pulls in its neck and crouches, and the humble servant bows to royalty. These postures are extremes and therefore are easy to recognize.
But there are as well an infinite number of other communicative poses, including those of the face, that amplify, dampen, and even contradict "outspoken" messages. Many of our facial expressions—from smiles to frowns—are congruent with what we are saying: when a dear friend says, "I am so happy to see you," the broad smile amplifies the spoken message. We are aware that this is not always so. Even children pick up an insincere smile, despite its being coupled with the words "What an adorable child!" By filming people in stressful situations, such as getting fired, psychologists in California have compiled a "dictionary" of facial messages that contradict spoken statements. Written on these faces are such messages as "masked anger," "overly polite," and "resigned compliance." Facial expressions speak truer than words. Few other animals have such well-developed—or even as many—facial muscles as we, so a horse's or cat's face seems rather blank to us. To understand what they are saying, we have to learn to read ears, whiskers, the pupils of the eye, and the glint of teeth. They, too, can modify a voiced message. A dog growling with ears pricked is quite sincere in its threat to bite. A dog growling with ears lowered is as frightened as it is annoyed.
Excerpted from How to Talk to Your Animals by Jean Craighead George. Copyright © 1985 Jean Craighead George. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted February 16, 2012
I like this book really interesting if you like this you will like my side of the mountain thats her best book
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Posted January 19, 2012
Posted June 29, 2012