Fragile strength

butterfly 41

Unfettered beauty

Riding the storms of Chaos

Fragile as a heart

There are few things as strong…or as fragile…as a butterfly. Their delicate wings can withstand both wind and rain, yet the touch of a finger can damage them beyond repair. Their physical strength starts early when, as caterpillars, they munch their way through leaves ten times their size before moving on to the next, decimating the plants upon which their parent laid their eggs.

They have another strength though, not visible to the irate gardener or passionate lepidopterist… they have the strength to yield to the inevitability of their own dissolution. Retiring to their homespun cocoon, metamorphosis occurs; they are dissolved into the component parts of their own being before their final emergence as beauty incarnate.

butterfly2

It makes you wonder about the strength of the impulsion of Nature…and whether the caterpillar is aware of its future. How much awareness does a caterpillar have? Enough to fear its transformation… or just a blind obedience to the urgency of instinct? Either way, the process is inescapable. They cannot hold on to their juvenile form… only let go and allow Nature to do her work and the inevitable transformation to occur.

We face the same fate as we live and grow… that too is an inescapable process. We can cling on to youth or to the past, to our illusions or to people, desperately trying to maintain the life and comfort-zone with which we are familiar and that conforms to our image of self… or we can let them go. Not everything that we release will fly away; sometimes they remain and in that there is great beauty, for what we then have we do not need to hold, for it is a gift freely given, not the product of restraint and a grasping hand.

butterfly

The saddest thing of all must be the butterfly collector. His strength, he imagines, lies in his knowledge and expertise… and in the completeness of his collection. In truth, he is more fragile than the flying petals he seeks to acquire; he imagines himself master, yet can only appreciate what he has squeezed the life from before skewering it with a pin, preserving its perfection by robbing it of life.

There are many who seek to ‘collect’ people, knowledge or a perceived truth in the same way. Seeing beauty flutter by, they seek to capture it in their nets, pinning it down so that it cannot escape them, yet all they are left with, to display to the world in their pride, is an empty and lifeless shell.

butterfly 3

When beauty chooses to land in our lives, it is a privilege. It is not something to try to capture, not something we should attempt to pin down. It is a gift, to be savoured, with gratitude and wonder, for a breathless moment and then let go, to fly free. Beauty, whatever its form, is as strong as the life we allow it… and as fragile as our fear. It will not always stay…it will not always leave… but our recognition of its inner life and freedom may help us find our own wings.

SE Ilkley 2015 saturday (93)

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.

DSCF1014

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. .

tiger

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?

DSCF1002

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.

DSCF1005

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?