Lord of the Deep. Trees and Plants. ~ Willow Willers

Reblogged from Willow, who continues to share her experiences at the Lord of the Deep weekend:

After the second Drama on the Saturday morning of the Silent Eye Workshop we had a break, then a presentation from Lorraine Munn on The Natural World and Man. Lorraine is a Druid and she is a mentor with O B O D and an ordained minister with the One Spirit Interfaith Foundation.
Lorraine spoke to us about how there is so much in Nature that is spiritual and it’s relationship to man.

Lorraine is a warm and knowledgeable woman who made us all stop and think. She suggested that we can learn a lot from plants and trees. Lorraine is very wise about trees she can commune with them.

 

Continue reading at willowdot21

Five minutes of film

He wasn’t feeling too good so I carried his breakfast through into the lounge where he was watching TV and sat down with him on the sofa for five minutes. He was watching a wildlife programme and, as the small polar bear weakened and failed through starvation, I watched through a veil of tears. My own son beside me, it was easy to recognise the encouragement in the way the ursine mother tried to raise her cub to his feet. That was bad enough. Realising the little one could no longer stand she and his twin snuggled up with the dying cub, sharing warmth and comfort; nuzzling him gently and curled around the little body. Just waiting until the end. I can’t even write it without tears.

There was the debate about how the camera crew could simply stand by and watch, filming the tragedy, but the general policy is that they do not interfere, only observe the natural unfolding of life and death in the wild. To have provided food, had any been available out there in the snowy wastes, would have inevitably meant the taking of one life to sustain another, and while it might be argued that some species face less of a threat of extinction than others, Nature has her ways and it might only have been a postponement rather than a salvation if the young cub was weak.

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I do not, for one minute, think that the cameraman watched without an ache in his heart, having followed and filmed the bears for so long. You could feel the human emotion in the delicacy of his touch as he filmed those final moments, capturing the body language of maternal grief that seems to carry universal understanding. It was so gently done that it is one of those sequences I shall not forget.

The next sequence of the film showed a seal pup washed away from the herd in a storm and the determination with which its mother and aunt searched for her…. And the very obvious joy and welcome all round when they found her. Sequences like these highlight how closely the threads of life are bound together and could teach us of our similarities with other species, rather than our differences.

It is very easy to say that we project human emotions onto animals and believe them to feel in the self-same way that we do, arguing that this is a human trait and we understand the world only when we see it through our own peculiar lens. This may be true, if a little simplistic; we can only see through our own eyes after all and at least the projection argues some attempt at understanding. .

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With domestic animals I have a feeling some of those humanly recognisable behaviours are learned as a form of interspecies communication. Ani, for example, certainly makes herself understood. The vocal signals we call language… the words my dog understands… may indeed be reduced by science to mere association of audible cues. But her own body language, eyes and expressions speak volumes, as do the range of vocal signals she expects me to respond to. I don’t think anyone who has ever shared a home with a dog would argue that communication happens. Just not on our normal terms.

The social structures and imperatives of one species may seem alien to another, and there can be no doubt some of the protective instincts of motherhood are attributable to the simple necessity for ensuring survival. Even so, I wept for the grief of the mother bear. We may well project human emotion onto other species, but this does not mean that they have no emotions of their own. Somehow, we still tend to see ourselves as separate from the animal kingdom. I suppose it is the difference between compassion for another’s emotions and feeling with them. While we are separate from other species, we cannot empathise, only look on with sympathy. But why not empathy, after all? Humans are animals too and if a human mother feels grief at the loss of a child, why not a bear?

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There are many well documented examples of grieving in the animal kingdom, particularly for the loss of mates and young. Stuart and I, walking back one night through the darkened city, watched a fox, desperately trying to get its mate to get back on its feet… but it had been hit by a car and was beyond help. To attribute grief might well be deemed projection, but not if you were there and saw the foxes. I also watched a sad farewell when a pigeon’s mate had died… and understood the grief. There are also many examples all over the internet of the strange inter-species friendships that develop; pictures of unlikely pairings where you cannot help but smile at the images, even though many of the stories attached to them hold the darker shadow of orphaned creatures.

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Those of us who live with animals undoubtedly read more into their expressions than behaviourists would allow. But I wonder if calling our understanding of animal emotions ‘projection’ is simply our way of continuing to distance ourselves from the creatures around us? We do not wish to see ourselves as animals and have historically taken the position that they are somehow ‘less’ than humans, particularly as their behaviour is learned, conditioned… not an emotional response from which they can learn… a least, not as we would understand it. Yet, is not our own idea of ourselves formed in the same way? Over the past few decades, much work has been done to establish whether or not animals are more than the organic machines science posited for centuries; do they have emotions and do they have anything we can accept as consciousness? To anyone who has lived with animals, this seems a little late in coming. Science, however, requires that proof be demonstrable, repeatable and conclusive in scientific terms before it admits to anything. Consciousness itself is still ill-defined and yet a number of animals have passed the tests designed to demonstrate self-awareness, while dogs have been shown to have an emotional range similar to that of a human child. It may be that we are not so very different after all.

To feel empathy for a mother bear or a bereaved fox is not projection, in my eyes. It is a simple recognition of fellow-feeling.

As I was researching this article, I watched again the short video of how the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone dramatically altered both ecology and landscape as the natural balance of predator and prey was re-established. Another thing I saw posted was the endangered species list, populated by some of our most beloved wild creatures… as well as top predators whose presence in the ecological chain affect the balance of nature in ways we are only just learning to understand. We share this planet with an unknown number of species. We do not even know how many. Species reach the natural end of their evolution all the time and become extinct… that is part of the natural cycle of life on earth. Yet the WWF estimates that the current rate of extinction is between a thousand and ten thousand times higher than it would be without human action. I wonder how long it will be before we ourselves are on the endangered list, having so far overset the ecological balance of the earth that it can no longer sustain us?

And what mother will weep for us then?

Thought without words

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“Love you!” says my granddaughter, wearing a huge grin and blowing soggy kisses She still can’t pronounce the words quite right, nor does she really know what they mean. She only knows they always bring smiles when she says them. She has learned them from the big people who feed, cuddle and play. The ones with whom she is safe and happy. She knows they mean something to do with that… but can have no real definition of the words at one year old.

Although she is never quiet and babbles away constantly, she has, as yet, no real use of language above the few nouns and verbs with which she navigates her world. She is learning fast, having grasped this concept of verbal communication. Expression and intonation she has already acquired and we have long, involved conversations, that are still communication regardless of the fact that technically, neither of us understands the other. Sometimes she will pause in her chatter, with her head on one side, as if she is considering what to do or say next. She reminds me of a puppy when she does that.

Dogs and humans communicate too, though there is a lack of shared language here too. We have learned to read their visual and audible language, though not always well. They bring all their senses to bear on understanding their humans and often seem to read us better than members of our own species.

I’ve often wondered how babies and dogs think. You have only to watch a small child or puppy working out a problem… like, for both species, how to open the forbidden cookie cupboard… to see that think they do. With children and dogs, you can almost see the cogs turning. But how do they think?

Not everyone thinks exclusively in words, even in the surface mind. Some think in pictures and process experience and problems that way. Other non-verbal forms of thought include kinaesthetic, musical and mathematical thinking. I am no expert…barely have a toe in the murky waters here… but I wonder if all these are forms of conscious thought, with verbal thought being the simplest to transmit and therefore the most commonly acquired.

I think verbally. A nice easy statement. I use the acquired tool of language to frame my thoughts. Dogs and small children have no access to that. But when I think about it… do I really use language in order to think or merely to translate the real thoughts into a readily transmittable format?

The surface mind uses words, dressing thought in such a manner that it is ready to go out into the world. They are neatly framed in the local language so that I can speak or write those thoughts, sharing them effortlessly. But are they the thoughts themselves, or merely their shadows? Does true thought accept the constraints of language, when the realm of imagination is wide enough to encompass more than just words? And if our verbal thoughts are merely shadows on the surface of the brain, then like our own shadows, how two-dimensional might they be in comparison to the original thoughts that cast them?

There are moments, lost in contemplation when an idea or concept that is usually hazy becomes crystal clear. For a split second, you know that you understand perfectly what you have sought. You know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this time, you really ‘got it’. But the instant that thought hits the conscious mind, it is wrapped in language, becoming clouded, fragmented… the flow of understanding becomes little more than the staccato reflection of a broken mirror and understanding is lost…at least to consciousness.

Perhaps it isn’t language that is the real constraint, but the limitations of the conscious mind.

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What could we discover if we could trace our thoughts back to their source and bring them back into the world whole?

Mankind has always used symbols to suggest in visual form concepts too abstract to translate into words. There are words associated with them, names, descriptions and meanings… there are stories attached to them, designed to engage the emotions and imagination… but the deeper meaning of a true symbol is difficult, if not impossible, to express. It can only be experienced and known.

Within the Silent Eye, we use this principle to teach through imaginative ‘journeys’; visual meditations based on an unfolding story designed to allow students to experience a scenario in the realm of the mind. We are working backwards from surface consciousness towards the source of thought, beginning with the crafted words, and painting them as moving pictures that the imagination and emotions can bring to life. The Companion of the School experiences these journeys at a level of thought beyond words… and what is brought back to the conscious mind from these meditations adds a new perspective to the way we see the world and the way in which we walk through our days.

The flow of thought, in this respect, may be said to resemble a stream within which our normal consciousness drifts like a canoe with the current, always flowing downstream. There are many techniques for meditation, such as the ones we use in the School, and these could be equated to giving the canoeist a paddle that allows them to explore and retrace their journey upstream to the source and move in a controlled manner on the stream.

We use a similar approach for our April workshops, spending a weekend living out a story in imagination and scripted drama. You could just call it playacting…but doesn’t every child begin to learn through play?

We may never know how the mind of a child thinks. There are theories galore and more studies and papers than you could read in a year on various aspects of their perception, learning and expression. There are amazing distinctions of tonal expression that are heard by a child, but lost once they have acquired language. What else do we lose when we allow words to clutter the pathways of the mind? Is the white noise of language masking the real content of our thoughts? And how wide a vista could we find if we still the incessant chatter and access the source of understanding?

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Family feeling

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There was no doubt about it, this was a happy fish. You might not have really paid much attention without the contrast of the rest of them, but against their small darts and lazy swishes, this one stood out. It zoomed across the pond, a silvery streak of energy, stopping just short of the edge, changing direction, revelling in speed and jumping clear of the surface for no apparent reason except that it could. There was an impression of indisputable joy in every scale and movement. A zest for simply being alive on a day of spring sunshine.

I watched for a long time… there was something in the argent streak of light and speed that drew an answering smile and an echo of its own joy in me too. The world fell away and we were kindred spirits for a moment outside time; its pleasure infectious. The fish reminded me of Ani when she runs and plays in the sun streaked fields… because she can. Ani too charges, stops, jumps and grins… and unlike the fish, her face has the mobility to express joy in a familiar way.

In the bushes the small birds chased. Mating perhaps, but it seemed to have no rhyme or reason other than play. I thought back to a video I had seen a while ago, showing a wild deer happily playing in a muddy pool. That too may, of course, have some scientific explanation… which is to say that animal behaviourists have decided that is what they think the deer is doing. To me it had just looked like my children when they were small, splashing around in water and laughing. It was having fun.

And then there was the kite. I have watched the great birds for so long now that I recognise the mode of flight… the steady glide of the hunter seeking prey, the mating ‘dance’ of the paired birds… the vigilance of the guardian when you walk close to a nest site. This was none of those… it was just playing with the air currents in the warmth of the sun. The feathers ruffled as it dived and swooped. Once again, the overwhelming impression was simply joy.

Joy is not an emotion we associate with birds and fish. Their facial expressions are alien to our own… they do not grin or weep, we cannot read their eyes. Dogs, for example, smile and frown. We can read their sadness, guilt and fear in much the same way as we can recognise those emotions in another human being. We have even, because of our long association, become adept at reading their body language. But the face of a fish is immobile and expressionless, its joys invisible to us to the point where perhaps we have not considered the sharing of such emotions.

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We tend to hold our own species as separate… better than… more advanced on every level, just because we can shape and manipulate our world on a grander scale, because we can communicate on a global level, perhaps, or because we have access to what we term the higher emotions. Yet termites build cities, bees construct huge geometric colonies… ants farm aphids and the trees in a forest communicate with each other. We have begun to recognise the complexities of language in other species… not always verbal… and the most cursory observation shows that animals too both love and grieve.

We have all heard the tales of the elephants who mourn the death of their kin. I will not forget the fox whose mate had just been hit by a car, desperately trying to get its dead friend to stand. There are tales of heroism and sacrifice by many animals… even though we tend to minimise those tales, thinking of them as natural instincts, unless they involve a relationship with a human being. Then we seem able to attribute them to love. Is that because we can recognise that emotion when it is part of our own journey or simply an arrogance that assumes we alone can love beyond self?

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Some things we know. Other creatures feel fear and pain, respond with the maternal instinct to protect their young, create dazzling displays to attract a mate… these are all observable behaviour. They are not, say detractors, in any way indications of emotions in the way that we humans experience them. The wagging tail that welcomes… the emotions are not the same, they say. We are just anthropomorphising… attributing our own emotions to these creatures. We should not read human emotion into the reactions of animals.

But as I watched that fish, grinning at its evident enjoyment, I was conscious that the detractors have a completely skewed view of the world that misses out one simple fact. We too are animals. Is it not arrogance of the highest order to think we are so much different from other species? Cannot our own fear and pain remind us that we share a thread of life? Is the instinct of the mother to protect her children any different in humans? Do we not create, with clothes… hair, make-up and shiny cars…. the same display as our fellow creatures, making ourselves as attractive as possible to a prospective mate? Even the word ‘attractive’ reminds us of why we value beauty.

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God forbid that we see ourselves as animals, though. We are the dominant species… Well, we are as a herd, perhaps, or armed with the tools we have created…but one on one with a hungry tiger, I doubt it somehow.

But even that view… that we are just another animal, holds the inherent implication that we are separate and ‘better than’; a kind of inverted snobbery that pays lip service to a recognition of our place within the natural order, as if by doing so our humility is in some way enough in itself to elevate us beyond being ‘just animals’.

“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Ah, but we have a soul, say some. By what right do we decide whether or not another creature has a right to whatever heaven, survival or spiritual evolution we envisage?Try telling a dog lover their friend is soulless…

How about, just for a moment, we strip away the accumulated prejudice of centuries and the overlay of religious creeds that tells us that the beasts were made for our service… that we have dominion over the earth? It is, after all, a convenient creed for a collective conscience that still likes to eat steak. Yet did we need that justification? Does an owl agonise or feel remorse for eating a vole? But then, it eats it all… there is no waste… and it eats to live, not the other way round.

Could we not begin, perhaps, to see the awesome beauty of the intricate dance of nature not as something to be observed, explained or controlled, but as something of which we are an integral part? Instead of seeing the creatures with which we share our home planet as lowly and somehow less than ourselves, perhaps we could come to see that the shared thread of Life… that indefinable quality… is equally sacred and that the emotions we, as animals, can feel, might just be shared by other animals too.

Perhaps it is through a shared access to joy that we can see the inherent divinity of our world. Perhaps then it would be possible to recognise the joy of a fish for what it is.

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