Sunday, May 17th, 2015
When you live with animals, you either get frustrated because they are constantly doing things that are so extremely un-human (and often these things are not especially endearing), or you realize that you must try to accept that they are fundamentally different. And that is that.
I am not always successful at the “that is that” approach, but I do think that giving it the old college try is a good thing. Many humans have had instincts beaten out of them by millennia of “civilization”; but animals, even domesticated ones, still retain a lot of the wild. We’re lucky to live in close proximity to this, for I think that it helps us see better.
As a reluctant graduate student some many years ago in Michigan, I was fortunate enough to attend a course taught by Pete Becker called “Language and Culture” He was one of those professors that can turn an entire education on its head and, at the same time, enable all the things one has learned thus far to come bursting out like daffodils in spring – in totally unexpected ways. To put it plainly, he turned on lightbulbs. You could see them going on “ping ping ping” throughout the lecture hall at every one of his remarkable classes. One of his favorite sources was Ludwig Wittgenstein, and one of the favorite quotes was from Wittgenstein was this – it may bear reading more than once:
“One thinks one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing around the frame through which we look at it.”
As a linguist and one who lives and works with animals, I have thought about this over and over again. We animal lovers tend to anthropomorphize our favorite friends. Probably they don’t mind a whole lot. But the likelihood is that they are thinking and understanding quite different things from what we assume.
I think that trying to understand what others experience without imitation, judgment, or the need to react, is one of the sagest tasks any human can undertake.
Recently I realized that our sheep Parsnip has become almost totally blind. She has been here so long and is so robust and so utterly herself that it has not occurred to me, oddly, that she has aged a great deal. She’s always sung off-key opera, but lately she’s been more vocal. She’s always been a wild thing – a “real sheep”, if you will. But over the winter she declared herself part of the “old folks club” and got to eat hot mash and chopped forage every night with Spenser (13), Miss Bea (20, now passed away), and Dee Dee Donkey (42). Parsnip is pretty fat, grows healthy wool, head butts those who get in the way of her food, and generally gets around. I didn’t realize until lately that Parsnip is 14 years old – this is quite elderly for a sheep. I also didn’t realize until one night I saw her bumping into a fence, that she is functionally blind.
I am not sure that Parsnip really likes me. I don’t think she likes humans in general and I can understand that point of view. In fact, it’s only recently that she permits me to hand-feed her molasses cookies; either I’ve made headway in our relationship, or she’s come down in the world. For Parsnip is really a sheep’s sheep. All her life, her friends have been sheep. She does not make the mistake of cross-species intermingling. Jasmine (RIP), Miss Bea (RIP), Spenser, and Kimiko have been her closest friends at this farm. They are the ones she hangs with, tells about her day, takes naps in the sun with, and with whom she makes the decision to venture out into the lower pasture in search of new grass.
But now that she is blind, things have changed. She gets lost, sometimes disoriented. The garden is now scary, the pasture, often inaccessible. Sometimes at night I have to lead her back to the “old folks club” for her dinner and while she lets me touch her (a relatively new development), she does not trust where I’m taking her.
Trying to see the farm from the perspective of an animal who cannot see is an amazing exercise. I fret, wanting to protect her and guide her, lead her around – and she wants nothing to do with any of this nonsense. I watch this old broad who has remained true to her nature despite numerous temptations to become a “pet” stoically pretend to all and sundry that she is not blind, refusing to admit she has a disability. She baas out to her friends who, sadly, do not always respond. She walks carefully, finds hay and water and, eventually, her friends. She is still 100% sheep. A brave, blind sheep. I have now put a bell on her friend Kimiko (who is more active than Spenser who, frankly, prefers to sit on the couch in front of the TV all day) so that Parsnip has an aural point of reference.
But still, I now see my farm differently – a place with fences and gates that need to be navigated, obstacles like feed bowls and buckets that can trip an old sheep. I need now to go to that word “accommodation” and really understand what that means. Parsnip does not care. She will not notice if I make changes on her behalf. She does not want my pity or my help, although I expect she is glad when I put down her hot mash in the evening. This is not the first time that I’ve felt a deep love and empathy for an animal who gave me the cold shoulder, and it’s a lesson – things really are “that is that”. Parsnip is a sheep who has no desire other than to be pure sheep. It is I who am granted the privilege of her company. Those who live with animals can, indeed, sometimes feel the slight brush of angels’ wings as they grace our earth.