During my coffee break beside the stream yesterday, I was struck by the following words in Priscilla Stuckey's lovely collections of essays, Kissed by a Fox (and Other Stories of Friendship in Nature):
"If mind belongs to humans alone," she writes, "then stones, trees, and streams become mere objects of human tinkering. We can plunder the earth's resources with impunity, treating creeks and mountaintops in Kentucky or rivers in India or forests in northwest America as if they existed only for economic development. Systems of land and river become inert chunks of lifeless mud or mechanical runs of H2O rather than the living, breathing bodies upon which we and all other creatures depend for our very lives.
"Not to mention what 'nature as machine' has done to our emotional and spiritual well-being. When we regard nature as churning its way forward mindlessly through time, we turn our backs on mystery, shunning the complexity as well as the delights of relationship. We isolate ourselves from the rest of the creatures with whom we share this world. We imagine ourselves the apex of creation -- a lonely spot indeed. Human minds become the measure of creation and human thoughts become the only ones that count. The result is a concept of mind shorn of its wild connections, in which feelings become irrelevant, daydreams are mere distractions, and nighttime dreams -- if we attend to them at all -- are but the cast-offs of yesterday's overactive brain. Mind is cut off from matter, untouched by exingencies of mud or leaf, shaped by whispers or gales of wind, as if we were not, like rocks, made of soil.
"And then we wonder at our sadness and depression, not realizing that our own view of reality has sunk us into an unbearable solipsism, an agony of separateness -- from loved ones, from other creatures, from rich but unruly emotions, in short, from our ability to connect, through senses and feeling and imagination, with the world that is our home."
A little later in the same essay she writes:
"And here lies the crux of the matter: to say that nature is personal may mean not so much seeing the world differently as acting differently -- or, to state it another way, it may mean interacting with more-than-human others in nature as if those others had a life of their own and then coming to see, through experience, that these others are living, interactive beings.
"When nature is personal, the world is peopled by rocks, trees, rivers, and mountains, all of whom are actors and agents, protagonists of their own stories rather than just props in a human story. When Earth is truly alive, the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human."
In an essay on animal consciousness published in Lapham's Quaterly, John Jeremiah Sullivan notes:
"If we put aside the self-awareness standard -- and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy, proclaiming it the very definition of consciousness (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote something wise in his notebooks, to the effect of: only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to) -- it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed. This was made boldly clear when the 'Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness' pointed out that those 'neurological substrates' necessary for consciousness (whatever 'consciousness' is) belong to 'all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.' The animal kingdom is symphonic with mental activity, and of its millions of wavelengths, we’re born able to understand the minutest sliver. The least we can do is have a proper respect for our ignorance.
"The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an essay in 1974 titled, 'What Is It Like To Be a Bat?,' in which he put forward perhaps the least overweening, most useful definition of 'animal consciousness' ever written, one that channels Spinoza’s phrase about 'that nature belonging to him wherein he has his being.' Animal consciousness occurs, Nagel wrote, when 'there is something that it is to be that organism -- something it is like for the organism.' The strangeness of his syntax carries the genuine texture of the problem. We’ll probably never be able to step far enough outside of our species-reality to say much about what is going on with them, beyond saying how like or unlike us they are. Many things are conscious on the earth, and we are one, and our consciousness feels like this; one of the things it causes us to do is doubt the existence of the consciousness of the other millions of species. But it also allows us to imagine a time when we might stop doing that."
In addition to Stuckey's book and Sullivan's essay, I recommend Brandon Kein's "Being a Sandpiper" (Aeon); Stephen M. Wise's "Nonhuman Rights to Personhood" (pdf); and Karen Joy Fowler's brilliant and devastating new novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. (Avoid reviews of the latter if you possibly can. The less you know about the story before you read it, the more wonderful it is.)
Post script to the writers and readers who participated in last week's Poetry Challenge: There are still new poems
(plus poetry feedback and discussion) appearing in the Comment threads of last week's posts -- so I'll keep the Comments open for a little while longer. Do be sure to have a look.