Thursday, December 27, 2007

Lines of Relationship

It’s winter time in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia and the crows, starlings and gulls have gathered together into large flocks of their own kind. The gulls are feeding in the farm fields, searching for worms and other assorted edibles. The starlings and crows often join them. However the crows have adopted a whole new activity, unique to them. Many of the farms have nut trees, both hazelnuts and walnuts. The crows love these nuts, but it is a real challenge to open them up and access the fatty meat inside. In recent years however the crows have discovered a most clever way of opening them. One will often see the crows gathered around the country roads, especially around the busier roads. There, individual crows will either place or drop the nuts in front of oncoming cars. Now, this is not a simple and easy task, for if a crow puts it there for too long before the car arrives his neighbour crow will simply sweep down and steal the nut from him. So... the individual crow has to place the nut on the road just at the right time and place. Some crows land on the road and strategically place the nut on the pavement; other crows drop the nut in front of passing cars. Now clearly this is not a predictable and reliable activity, this is an activity built upon principles of probability, not certainty. There is no guarantee that the car will run over the nut, and there is no guarantee that one will be able to gather the resultant goods when a car does run over the nut, for there are always a host of other crows waiting to profit from somebody else’s luck. However, they wait on the sides of the road, sitting upon the power lines, circling tightly above, playing the odds like any good gambler.

I have read that the development of this type of behviour is quite recent. It was first noticed with crows on Vancouver Island. Now, the putting of nuts in the path of moving vehicles has become a prominent crow activity throughout the Fraser Valley, and, I am sure, other places also. What most fascinates me about this phenomenon is it seems to provide evidence that crows learn through something very much like culture. It appears that evolution has designed these birds to gather much of their requisite learnings through large social networks which also pass these learnings on through time to successive generations. At the very least -- something akin to culture has enabled these creatures to act responsively to a changing world.

Our uniqueness as human animals seems to be quickly dissolving. There was a time when we thought that what distinguished humans from animals was the utilization of tools. This had to be put aside for it was discovered that a number of animals also use tools. In fact, I saw this myself. As a child, for several years in a row, while growing up in Saskatchewan, I would steal a young magpie from its family every spring. I would look after the bird, befriend it and essentially become its parent. One of these magpies would participate with me in what I called “blueberry hockey”. I would hold a little stick in my fingers and the magpie would hold a stick in her beak and we would hit blueberries around on our driveway. The magpie would only do this for short periods of time then she would take the blueberry and go hide it away in the pulley of the neighbour’s clothesline. I often wondered what would happen to the neighbour’s clothes as blue juice was squeezed out and spread over the clothesline cable. My magpie friend had no problem utilizing a tool, even though it was just for play purposes.

It was not that long ago when we thought that human beings were unique, at least in part, because of their involvement in culture. However, it is now clear that other animals also live within cultures. One of the most obvious is the Orca, or Killer Whale. These animals live in three distinct groups in the waters around British Columbia – each group distinct by cultural habits. There are the resident whales which travel fairly predictable routes, following the salmon, which is their primary food source. They travel in large pods and are very noisy in their journeys. Then there are the transient whales which travel less predictable routes and feed almost exclusively on marine mammals. These whales rely on stealth and therefore travel in smaller pods and, when hunting, are virtually silent. One of these whales followed sea lions a good fifty kilometres up the Fraser River a few years ago. And also, there are those whales which live primarily far out at sea, only occasionally coming inshore. Their habits are still relatively unknown. One species, divided into three groups by ways of life which are embedded in what can perhaps best be described as cultural traditions.
Crows, orca, wolves, chimpanzees – all live within worlds embedded in what easily can be called cultural traditions. However, one of the things which distinguish the crow (and perhaps the wolf) from the others is that the crow's cultural realms appear to necessitate specific relations with us – with people. People and crow become part of the same cultural milieu. In aboriginal worlds these types of relations are clearly entrenched within their traditions, folklore, and ways of living. The animals are all in some relation with the people who share the land and water. However, in our modern world these relations are rarely acknowledged, at least not in a serious manner. Contemporary Western governmental and institutional traditions have a lineage of seeing animals as being undesirable, of getting in the way. This is particularly true of those creatures which have evolved to take advantage of our human worlds – such as the crow, the starling, the coyote, the rat, and recently even the Canada goose.

But in aboriginal worlds this was not the way these creatures were thought of. Turn for a moment to one of Bill Reid’s marvellous sculptures, the Jade Canoe , which resides within the international wing of the Vancouver International Airport; and also decorates the Canadian twenty-dollar bill. Reid is a Haida artist, following in the artistic traditions of the Haida people. The Jade Canoe is a large sculpture which invites the traveler within the airport to come up to it, to touch it, to walk around it, and experience its abundance and life. Within this large canoe is an assortment of creatures, including people, representative of the richness of life around Haida Gwai. It isn’t all sweetness in the boat, however, for all the creatures are crowded in upon each other, and some of the animals are actually biting each other. There is both conflict and cooperation in the Jade Canoe. What particularly interests me, however, is that all the creatures are there – yes, even the little mouse-woman is in the boat. They are all in relation with each other, and they are also all in some sort of relation with the people too.

In aboriginal traditions the relations with the animals can vary, for some animals can provide food, others clothing, but with all the animals, the relations are also of a spiritual nature. Animals, as well as plants, rivers, the sea, the land enter into spiritual relations with us. This should not surprise us, for it is not unique to North American aboriginal traditions, one finds similar types of relations, one could say spiritual relations, in some writers from the British Isles -- authors such as Melville, in Moby Dick; Coleridge, in the Ancient Mariner; and repeatedly in poems by Wordsworth, and others of his generation. Animals are not simply creatures which get in our way, they are not simply pets, or pests, or producers of food and clothing, they also are in relationship with us. We share their world. And this sharing of life and relationship is, among other things, a sort of spiritual connection.

I have heard it said that in the end, after human beings are all destroyed, the seagulls and the cockroaches will remain – survivors they are. But, I doubt this! For they both have evolved to live in responsive relationship with us. They need us. It is much more likely that if we go... so will they.

I want to imagine a world, I want to enter a world, walk within a world where I am in relationship with the crow and the seagull. Where, whether I like the cockroach or not, I can at least respect it, understand the relationship we share. I want to live in a world which is alive with thousands of lines of relations, connections with people, with animals, with things. I want to live in a world where the questions which plaque me, which plague us all can be understood and addressed not just by people, but where eagles and salmon and dragonflies also just might be able to shed some light. But this wisdom can only be experienced, can only be heard if we dare to acknowledge that there are lines of relations between them and us.

Let me end on a small, intimate story. There is a small lake near where I live where I sometimes like to walk and take photographs. This one September day I was alone there with the exception of one other car in the parking lot. At one point a small rabbit emerged from the blackberry bushes right in front of me and started to graze on the grass. He was just two metres from me. I sat on the grass, took pictures of him and chatted him up in a particulary friendly manner. He was most comfortable with me. We stayed together for about ten minutes. Then off to my right, two people appeared about thirty metres away – these were the people from the other car. My rabbit friend, as soon as he realized these people were nearby, immediately turned back to the blackberry bushes and disappeared. He hid himself in response to the presence of the other people. I realized at that moment, that this particular rabbit, for that particular moment, invited me into relationship with him. He allowed me into his world. And, he was not going to extend the same lines of relationship to the other people who were nearby.

It was Gregory Bateson who said we can’t truly know anything about any thing in particular, but we can know about the relations between things. I may not know much about the rabbit, or even about myself, but I can know that there were lines of relation between that animal and me in that moment of time. The rabbit offered relationship to me, and I responded to the gift he gave.

As our world seems to fall into a tragic place with phenomenon such as global warming, habitat destruction, and other influences which are devastating so much of our living planet, I suggest it is not first and foremost a political activism we need – and we certainly need that. No... I believe our top priority is to awaken to those lines of relation which tie me and the rabbit and the crow and the cockroach together. We need to see the crow placing the hazelnut in front of the car, we need to accept, for that moment, the rabbit’s generosity, we need to see the wolf biting the eagle in that Jade Canoe, we need to understand the relational power of Melville’s Moby Dick and Coleridge’s albatross, we need to awaken to lines of relationship which tie me, the animals, the land and the sea, and all of us together.

Just a simple move... just a simple awakening... to simple lines of relationship.

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