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whatsthatsound On June - 27 - 2011

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left.”
– Einstein

My morning yesterday was like so many others, riding a crowded train out from suburban Tokyo to neighboring Yokohama for work. As usual, I would have to wait several stops before managing a seat. So as I stood in the cramped aisle in front of a row of seats and watched the scenery change, I happened to glance over at the kangaroo standing next to me. He was reading The Kangaroo News, and, since I don’t read Kangaroo, I could only get the barest notion from the photographs of what seems to be the major concerns of kangaroos these days. Some sort of major kangaroo sporting event is going on, as well as what looks to be some sort of territorial dispute in a place I assumed to be part of the Australian outback. When he noticed I was poking my nose into his newspaper, the kangaroo seemed a bit miffed, and ever so slightly folded his paper as if to demonstrate to me it was off limits. Not wanting to make a kangaroo angry, I quickly looked in the opposite direction and found something frightfully interesting about the ad for after shave lotion above the luggage rack.

I’m not quite sure which is more absurd; the scenario I just described above, or the fact that for the vast majority of human beings alive today, nothing even remotely similar will ever occur for them – an encounter with another species of animal, in both creatures’ natural environment, on equal terms. We have fashioned a world that has become so people-centric that some of us go through whole days without ever seeing another species from the animal kingdom. Those of us who don’t have pets might go a few days without even thinking about other creatures, aside from the eating of them. Many will not regard the food before them as a once living animal. Hamburgers and chicken nuggets so completely disguise the fact that This Once Breathed that it is as if food originates in supermarkets and restaurant kitchens. No other species lives like this on our planet; so isolated, so disconnected from other creatures. A hefty toll is being paid for this, I believe. In fact, I believe that one of the main reasons there is so much alienation, depression and other forms of mental illness plaguing the human species is because our relationship to our fellow creatures has become so distorted. We are a lonely species.

To see this loneliness given expression, we need only look at children’s stories and entertainment. When I was a child, my television friends were Bugs Bunny, Foghorn Leghorn, Daffy Duck, Scooby Doo and Bullwinkle. Especially Bugs. Now, Bugs is a funny fellow, as are the other characters I loved, but he’s nothing like an actual rabbit, even in appearance, is he? Why even depict him, or any cartoon character, as an animal? Why Mighty Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, Eeyore, the White Rabbit, etc.? Couldn’t they all be people? They basically are people, just ones wearing funny animal suits.

What does this tell us? That we long to reconnect to animals. We miss them, and as long as we do, we’ll insert them into our culture any way we can. On greeting cards, calendars, animated programs, children’s book illustrations, T-shirts, etc., etc. We’ll also put them in zoos, basically prisons for innocents, and go to gawk at them in an odd and wholly inappropriate gesture of reconnection. Our popular culture indicates a deep yearning within us to restore something beautiful that has been lost.

To be sure, the reasons for our isolation are clear and reasonable enough. Animals threatened us. Whether lions, tigers or bears, whether locusts, snakes or scorpions, whether disease carrying rats, flies or birds, we built our cities and homes to shelter us from the danger so many of our fellow inhabitants of this world presented. But we’ve gone too far. We have created a sterile, barren environment. Wherever you are, sitting right now and reading your computer screen, try to imagine this same spot of land five hundred years ago, and for tens of thousands of years before that. It was very likely a lush forest with a vibrant, cosmopolitan atmosphere of squawking, hiding, howling, hunting, slithering, jumping animals. The land pulsated. The animals had an alertness we can only dream about, knowing that every move they made or failed to make could be fatal. In this threatening world of predators and prey, still they managed to mate and raise children. Surrounded by creatures utterly different from them, they shared and persevered. Consciously or simply instinctually, they participated in life, just as their descendants still do in the vast but ever shrinking expanses of forest that yet survive on our world. But for us, our world has been reduced to slabs, boxes, and slick surfaces. We see a spider or cockroach run along our walls, or a line of ants moving back and forth across our floor and we nearly freak out. “EWwww! How did these animals get in here?”

Our isolationist course has taken us to, and perhaps beyond, the tipping point. The latest hypothesis to explain the disappearance of honey bees in some parts of the world is that mobile phone “noise” is disrupting the bees’ homing sensors. Once they leave the hive to gather pollen, they can’t find their way back. The hives die. It’s hard to proffer a more essential species than the honeybee. Most of the world’s crops depend on them for pollination. So, will it be mobile phones that ultimately do us in? If so, I see a profoundly sad irony in that. Our isolated, lonely species, robbing the planet of its life force, while we go on chattering, chattering, chattering among ourselves.

Written by whatsthatsound

Writer, Illustrator, Curmudgeon. Ferret Owner. Tokyoite, formerly Ohioan. Much nicer in person.

30 Responses so far.

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  1. Reincarnation_TPS says:

    We were better off as farmers or hunter gatherers…..

    No one understands the land better than hunter gatherers I’m sure.

    Domesticated animals helped develop the immune system of survivors of domestication….

    People from the Stone Age seemed to be pretty good astronomers; Stonehenge, the Maya observatory…..

    We may feel superior and think we are smarter…, but, we definitely lost something along the way……..

  2. Chernynkaya says:

    Whts, what a wonderful post! I think about this issue a LOT. I often think that in some essential ways, we moderns in industrialized places are ontologically different than those who live in nature. For example, I can’t imagine (well, I can, but poorly) what it is like to hear real silence. I once read something that posited that that is how God was able to be conceived of--in the desert--because that is where vastness and emptiness abound. The stars cannot be seen in a city. We have lost something vital, and that’s why we cannot save ourselves from destroying the planet. It was said that the environmental movement began when we saw our Earth form space--that we loved it. I think there is something to that. Whenever I see the Earth from space I am always struck by how heartrendingly beautiful is is, like a jewel.

    When I was very young, we visited relatives in the country. I remember laying on the grass at night and for the first time looking up at the stars. I can still see it in my minds eye. It looked like an immense dome to me. Or maybe that was because I was frightened by the vastness and needed to make it manageable. I do know it overwhelmed me yet I loved it.

    And years ago, when I was going through a rough patch, a dear friend suggested that I take off my shoes at every opportunity and stand in some earth for a few minutes. And around that same time, I read a book by Pema Chodrin (“When Things Fall Apart” I think) and she said she just takes a moment to look up at the sky when she feels scared. Both are helpful but really speak to a primal need we have to be more grounded and more placed in the universe, I think.

    • Reincarnation_TPS says:

      I love this post too. Maybe at the heart of our environmental problems is the fact we are no longer connected to the world and critters around us.

    • whatsthatsound says:

      Hi, Cher! I know what you mean about silence, and stars. For many of us, seeing the Milky Way is a very rare occurrence, whereas most of our ancestors saw it nearly every clear night.
      As for me, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen a wild animal larger than myself more than one or two times in my whole life.

      Yes, yes yes, about baring one’s feet and walking along grass and stones! I love to do that. I climb trees too! Taking off your shoes and climbing a massive tree with grasping hands and feet is a really enjoyable experience, great exercise, and not for the faint hearted! Going down is harder than going up, so one ends up in some pretty precarious positions sometimes. But feeling a strong wind cause a tree to sway, while clinging on to one of its solid branches, is a fantastic experience.

      Being an animal is not such a bad thing, is it? 🙂

      • Reincarnation_TPS says:

        We are animals. Homo Sapien Sapien to be exact. We share a common ancestor with our closest cousin, the Chimp…..

        and every other species you can think of…..

      • Reincarnation_TPS says:

        I don’t have a religious bone in my body…,

        but some days it has felt spiritual looking up at stars or looking through telescopes at Nebula, galaxies, and globular clusters…..

        • whatsthatsound says:

          I think many people have felt that experience. It is not limited to the religious, clearly. And the astronauts, looking at earth, seem to have been deeply moved by the sight of it, even though I imagine some of them were atheists. They were looking at Gaia, the largest “living organism” we know of, and that must have been awesome beyond description.

  3. escribacat says:

    What a great post, Whats. Very moving. I have to say that the two times I visited Tokyo I ended up battling a sense of depression — it’s a BIG city and there are a LOT of freeways and people.

    If I didn’t have animals in my life — the good and the sad — I don’t know if I could keep from going mad. I live with two greyhounds and a yowling kitty and play a major part in the squirrel and bird food chain in my backyard. I am never lonely. Sometimes a bit annoyed — like Sunday night when my greyhounds came bounding into the house at midnight in a cloud of skunk spray (third time since we’ve lived here). I was up half the night soaking dog and anything they touched in anti-skunk stuff.

    The other day I was out filling the bird feeder and setting out peanuts for the squirrels and I noticed a dead baby bluejay at my feet. He still had fluff on his wings. He had apparently left the nest and one of my critters must have got him while he was still in his vulnerable state (his neck was bloody). As I stared down at him, grieving a bit over his death and my role in it, a small shadow dropped from the tree and I heard a faint plop! It was another baby bluejay! I looked up and spotted an adult bluejay up among the spruce branches. I couldn’t believe it. The second baby lay there clumsily, obviously trying to recover from his hard landing. He too was covered with fuzz. He couldn’t move except to flop around a bit but otherwise seemed okay. I picked him up and put him in a safe place under some bushes where my critters wouldn’t get to him. Later, when I was searching for the access hole the #%@!$ skunk must have used to get into my yard, I noticed the baby bird was gone. I like to think he gathered his bearings and figured out how to fly away.

    • whatsthatsound says:

      Thanks for the comments, e-cat, and good to see you. I try to involve myself with animals even here in this neck of the megalopolis. I have Rosie, first and foremost. There are a couple of friendly strays that I give some much needed cuddle time to. They are obviously once domestic pets that were abandoned because they need the “skinship”. One comes up to me and plops on my lap without any hesitation at all, and complains when I leave.

      There is a family of frogs nearby, and I admit I let Rosie bother them sometimes. I wouldn’t if she bit, but she just likes to nudge them and roll them over and stuff. I know they hate it, but I also want to give her a chance to behave like an animal, rather than a hopelessly spoiled pet, sometimes. In the morning I have lovely birdsongs. In the evening, the bats come out and flutter about. Down by the river there are enormous carp, snakes, etc. And beautiful waterfowl such as great blue heron.

      So not all of Tokyo is totally urban and completely de-animalized. But, nevertheless, way too much so.

    • PocketWatch says:

      The way of natural things… only the strong survive, and rightly so.

      I sometimes think that humanity may not be a viable species because of this very thing. We, as a group tendency, try to keep the weak alive. As a species with a conscience, I consider this a good thing. As a species survival strategy, it may not be. I make no grandiose claims about right and wrong here, just trying to make an objective point.

      I DO believe that we have elevated the weak, venal, greedy, psycho and sociopathic, and stupid to high office and to the head of the corporatocracy, though. A VERY bad thing, IMO. Animals aren’t nearly so dumb.

      • I agree PW, but the key word here is conscience, something other species do not have. I also believe that overpopulation of the planet may one day be our downfall as a species. Most of our natural resources are finite. We rob Nature at almost every turn. Our attempts to separate ourselves from Nature are going to lead to some very bad things. I think we have over-meddled in the affairs of Nature to a dangerous point. Our constant striving to make ourselves more comfortable, make certain things more “convenient,” and medical technology that lengthens our lives artificially, all contribute to the danger. We shy away from physical labor by the invention of a multitude of labor saving machines and devices. So much in our lives is artifice and unnecessary. Nietzsche once said that man is an ungrateful animal. I know exactly what he meant by that.

      • Reincarnation_TPS says:

        Social Darwinist…..


        He may be on to something though…..

      • whatsthatsound says:

        PW, I feel that one of the truly sad things about our species is that we have become so “successful” that we now have millions of “extra” people, who have no clear sense of what their purpose in life is. In tribes, everyone is necessary in order for the tribe to survive. But in modern culture, we have aimlessness, addiction, and WAY too much time spent in front of the TV, because people are just filling time.

        I think in smaller communities, as you mentioned earlier, there would be less of that. I really enjoyed reading “Walden Two” by B.F. Skinner, when I was in my twenties. It may not be a perfect solution, but it was Skinner’s attempt to illustrate the best living situation for humans, and it involved very small communities.

  4. whatsthatsound says:

    It’s wonderful and delightful to hear about the wilderness experiences of PW and Ques. I am really happy that some of my Planeteer friends are able to have such deep and satisfying connections with other species.

    When I wrote, I wasn’t referring as much to those of us who are able to blog, and actually do have some opportunity to engage with nature if we choose to. I think what Q is doing now is absolutely wonderful (!) and I’m very happy to hear that PW is able to play “get back Honky Cat” and get back to the woods.

    I was referring to us more as a species than a nation. I’m thinking more of the poor of our way too big cities in developed countries, in Jakarta, Cairo, Calcutta,Manila, etc. These are ones for whom no such options exist, the most forlorn victims of “The Lonely Ape Syndrome”.

    I so agree with PW. How we should live in smaller communities. Although I love Tokyo, I am certain that if I ever manage to make a name for myself as an artist/writer and reach a level where I can pretty much live wherever I want, I will seek out areas like Q and PW describe. But for so many of us humans, that is not even remotely possible.

  5. Questinia says:

    Hi all! Big x’s and o’s all around. I am having the opposite experience from what wts is writing about. I have nearly eschewed all human contact and opted to primarily hang out with the wild animals near me. Saw a really big black bear in the back woods yesterday. I supped with a young couple of yellow-bellied sapsuckers tending to their noisy brood last evening while a bluebird to my right was attending to his. I touched a baby fawn by mistake while weeding in the tall grasses. Saw the tail of a red fox backlit by the setting sun as it scampered away on a stone wall.

    And the birds! I record them and am trying to learn who they all are. They’ve been waiting! Even in my office in NYC I heard a magnificent song and saw that it may have come from a bird from Venezuela called a turpial. I called up the head of the New York Audubon Society and am now having a conversation with him regarding how he thinks it’s probably a Baltimore Oriole cause turpials don’t migrate (but this bird, unlike BO’s, has yellow eyes!)

    I am making sure my tadpoles and salamanders are happy. If they’re OK, so am I.

    There is artifice in every species. It has just been elevated to the absurd with humans and, to me right now, politics is the ne plus ultra of that artifice.

    I’ve gone the other way! Is that good? Don’t know but I am living in a wilderness paradise and there aren’t too many summers in a lifetime. So I’ve decided to get to know how the “other half” lives.

  6. PocketWatch says:

    On a contrary note…

    Most of you know I have moved back to my home “Stomping Grounds” in the wilds of Northern Wisconsin because of several reasons having to to do with the economy, the job outlook in the Houston area, and general homesickness after 40 years of wandering in the concrete deserts of New York city and Houston as well as traveling the world in my work.

    I have noticed a thing.

    There is more diversity now in these woods than there was when I was a kid.

    I never saw a turkey buzzard here… I’ve seen two. A black bear was a rare thing to see outside of town dumps… I count seven that come into the back yard nearly every day. There are fishers here (imported to battle the porcupine explosion that threatened whole stands of aspen and birch), and moose. No such thing before. Wolves have returned. I know coyotes were around, but I never heard them. I do now.

    The bald eagles are flourishing (their numbers were coming back before I left), and the loons are taking over (is that a sign or a reflection in nature of what is happening in our politics?).

    At any rate, even though some towns have grown and expanded as would be expected, the wilder parts of the whole place seem to have gotten wilder, much to my delight.

    I wish that people could live closer to nature and realize that they ARE a part of nature, not a separate thing. Our language and word usage even reflects that notion. We talk of nature as a different thing than people. If I could remake the world, I would wish that we lived in villages and small towns, connected by benign technology, not in large cities and sterile high rises. It is my belief that humans function best in small and medium sized groups, not in huge aggregate numbers.

    At any rate, I’m glad I’m back to the place I love, and hope to make my independent way here. I like the fact that there are new things to discover and learn, as well as most things continue unchanged (old fishing holes, favorite parts of the woods to hunt in, small businesses still in existence and flourishing after all this time).

    They say you can’t go home again. Maybe, but it sure feels familiar.

  7. jkkFL says:

    The Lonely Ape- what a sad commentary on life as we know it..
    Here in FL- our primary products are tourism- and citrus. The bee catastrophe is well documented within the citrus community.
    Between the drought and the bee shortage, even more citrus growers are selling their land to developers.
    It is a critical issue, without much hope.. unless we can persuade the tourists to pollinate citrus blossoms.

    • whatsthatsound says:

      Hi jkk, haven’t seen you here in a while. Busy with the move, I assume?

      Florida is an ecosystem (or assortment of ones) that has been completely clobbered by human settlement. I am sorry to hear about the citrus growers -- hard to imagine Florida without oranges.

  8. Well done wts. An enjoyable read and also a sad one. I have seen coyotes on Cape Cod. Really. They have been so robbed of their natural habitat, that they have come all the way into the east, from great distances. I have been fortunate in the fact that I have lived in many different parts of America. Especially in California where I have had the good luck to see many different types of animals, in and somewhat out of their natural habitats. I once saw a real live road runner. Just several yards away. I once saw a mountain lion while backpacking with a friend. I used to go to the beach to watch Dolphin play with the surfers. One day, early in the morning, I saw a sea lion basking in the morning sun. Wonderful experiences, but also diminishing ones. Mankind needs to understand that we humans are just as much a part of Nature as all the other animals. We can’t continue to shut them out without someday reaping very large misfortune upon ourselves. I would have loved to live 200 years ago. Here is part of a poem by Walt Whitman that I really love;

    “I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and
    self contained, I stand and look at them long and long.

    They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
    They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
    They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.
    Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning
    Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of
    years ago.
    Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole world.”

    • whatsthatsound says:

      beautiful, KT. And it reminds me of a snippet of verses from Auden:

      “That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
      Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
      Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
      Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. ”

      About coyotes: I was really surprised to hear my friend who lives in Hilliard saying he can hear them baying at night. I never thought of them as living in Ohio, so I looked it up and found out they have migrated eastward, as you say. They are obviously very resilient; it is far more tragic to think of the species that were not able to adapt to our infiltration.

      I think we look upon this in nearly identical ways, and I appreciate your thoughts and comments.

  9. AdLib says:

    Very much enjoyed the article but wondering if The Kangaroo News has an Opinion page.

    I think that the primary reason that animals have been so popular as animated characters has to do with the attraction children have to them. My daughter went through a number of years where animals and the Animal Planet channel were her favorite things.

    They generally seem fuzzy and cuddly, the baby animals are so cute and they surround most pre-school kids in picture books, decorations and birthday parties.

    The personification of animals is frequent because human beings project onto other people and other animals (we’re animals too of course) their sensibilities.

    Consider anyone who has a pet, how they can look into its eyes and “know” what it’s thinking. I have a golden retriever who’s on the older side and I could have told you categorically when she’s looking at me and thinking, “Do you know how much I love you?”

    It was only after repeatedly seeing her give the same look to a piece of pizza on my plate that I re-considered my understanding of her thoughts.

    She does display “dog reasoning” though so I do see a thought process in things she does though I also see conditioned responses that one could easily misinterpret as something much more complex. Such as when she mixes me a martini, that’s only because she knows she’ll get a treat for doing so (just wish she didn’t hairs on the olives).

    I would add that it’s not just the connection to animals that isolates people but the disconnection from the rest of nature as well.

    For example, going camping can make one feel differently about the world around them. Sleeping outdoors, hiking up hills, cooking over a campfire, these are in fact echoes of very primal things that go back to the beginnings of us being human beings (though you wouldn’t have wanted to buy an RV back before they invented the wheel, the mileage was terrible).

    And seeing animals in the wilderness, birds and rabbits in nature does stir something inside of us, reminds us of a bigger picture of how animals are living their lives (mostly disconnected from us).

    Disconnection is a problem in the modern world, urbanization and technology can cause people to live in smaller and smaller shells, with other people and nature being walled off from them.

    Reconnection would seem to be rejuvenating to the soul, with all of those living around us, including our fellow animals.

    Time to feed my dog now…aw…look at those eyes, she doesn’t care about dinner, she just loves seeing me…it’s just a coincidence she’s pushing her bowl at me with her nose…

    • whatsthatsound says:

      Interesting, funny and wise (as always), mon capitan! I think the reason children are so fascinated by animals has precisely to do with what I’m writing about. Children are much closer to their own animal nature and at some level are probably a bit puzzled, subconsciously, about how lonely our human world has become. As we get older, the modern, de-animalized world just gets more and more “natural” to us, to the point where some people become completely indifferent to our fellow species.

      As for pets, as you say, we imagine we “know” them, but there are parts of their world we know nothing about. We look at our dog, sitting there on the floor, probably wondering when the next food opportunity will arrive. However, meanwhile, they are smelling things we don’t even have words for, and hearing sounds a block away.

      When it comes to creatures in the wild, most of us know next to nothing about them, when our ancestors HAD to know their habits and tendencies. Somehow we need to reconnect to that.

      Thank for the reminder about camping, too. I haven’t been out in the woods in far too long a time.

  10. ADONAI says:

    Good stuff, wts. I love animals too. And, yes, early man feared many animals but only out of respect for what they can do. It’s still difficult to “hunt” animals but it is far easier to kill them. Man used to respect the hunt. They ritually cleaned their kill and used every part they could. Many hunters consumed the heart as a sign of respect for the life this animal has given them. Many still do. We are very much missing that respect for the circle of life.

    Today we barely question where our food comes from. Whether there was care taken into the killing and processing of the animals who give us life. Even a coyote won’t eat a sick and diseased carcass. Are we vultures? People pack cattle by the hundreds into tiny cages and never blink an eye when many succumb to illness and injury. Hell, they probably still use the meat, which is not just disgusting but incredibly disrespectful to the process that allows us to survive.

    But I also think about extinction and the process of nature. Did you know many animals, especially mammals, reproduce far past the numbers their environment can sustain? If hunting was not allowed in most areas of the country, many animals would die of starvation. Mostly young ones. And, “in the jungle”, if you fall behind one generation you’re in trouble. It’s been the doom of many species. The answer is to spread or migrate. To consume more territory. Often times this disrupts an ecosystem and also causes extinctions.

    And that seems to be what we’re doing. We’re spreading. We reshape entire ecosystems to suit our needs and,as a side effect, species die. But this was happening long before our ancestors had ancestors. I used to think we would not survive being severed from nature. Now I don’t think we will. We are animals but there is no animal like us. We are on the verge of literally reshaping the atomic structure of anything we want to form whatever we need.

    Right now, we are one of if not the most adaptive species on Earth. We can reshape the earth to our liking. Remove mountains and bring water to the desert. I watched a guy spend 10 minutes turning an air tight gallon sized tin can and a plastic tube into a desalinization machine. 10 minutes and $5 worth of parts and he was drinkign water from the ocean. Nature is gonna hit us back eventually. And hit us back hard. But nature produced us and nature made us what we are. I think she would be proud. She still does far better work than us though.

    • whatsthatsound says:

      Hi Ad. I certainly agree we are a species like no other, and are capable of shaping nature to our needs. The desalinization machine you mentioned is a great illustration of that. But I just don’t think we are capable of taking ourselves out of the biosphere completely and starting over. We’re not THAT good, I believe.

      We seem to imagine that when a man and women copulate and the woman becomes pregnant, the woman’s body all by itself is capable of bringing out a full, healthy baby. I don’t believe so. All the time her body is pulling in energy and sustenance from the biosphere that billions upon billions of creatures are contributing to. If we were to build space colonies, as you wrote about earlier, I think you would soon have stillborns and babies with fatal birth defects. There wouldn’t be enough LIFE around for a woman to bring a child to term.

      But all of this is open for discussion and opining. I’m really glad you took the time to read what I wrote, and even more glad that you took the time to write your lengthy and thoughtful comments. I really value your input.

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