Listening to Lizards

“The easiest way to evade the tricky task of assessing the intelligence of spiders, and other lowly forms of life, is to follow the example of many observers and say that they have not got any; that their minds, such as they are, work in a way that is totally different from our own, that they cannot think at all.  This may be so, but such an argument postulates a knowledge of the mind of the spider that we do not possess, and to be dogmatically negative is just as rash as to be dogmatically positive.  No one knows the mind of a spider.  No one, if it comes to that, even knows the mind of his fellow.  We take it for granted that it works like our own, but we do not know…  [W]e must be quite sure when judging the intelligence of men and insects that the actions we study are conscious ones.  At the same time the subjects studied must be pursuing their normal lives.  Above all they must not have been subjected to demoralizing treatment.  We must not snatch them from their homes and fling them into prisons, or destroy their homes or massacre their children.  Yet this is the form that many ‘experiments’ on insects take, and if the subjects- in circumstances that would send most men into a lunatic asylum- fail to behave with cool and calculated sagacity they are given a black mark.  We will have none of that.” – John Crompton, The Spider

“Our imagination is limited by our experience.  It is difficult for us to imagine any feelings, affections, or enjoyments that might give value to another creature’s life wholly different from those that have enhanced our own.  An animal’s psychic state may differ in intensity or tone from ours, but it cannot be utterly unlike anything that we have felt without becoming inconceivable by us.  Among the experiences that might enrich the life of one of the more advanced animals, including many birds and mammals, are pleasure in spontaneous activity, such as flying and soaring by birds, gamboling by quadrupeds, swimming by dolphins; the comfort of companionship in a perilous world; affection for mates, especially among animals c0ntinuously paired; emotional attachment to nests and dependent young; aesthetic response to beautiful colors and melodious sounds; a bird’s delight in its own singing; the comfort of a snug dormitory nest on a chilly night; and in a small minority of birds, joy in a tastefully decorated bower.” – Alexander F. Skutch, Harmony and Conflict in the Living World

The word animal derives directly from the Latin anima, or ‘soul’.  Anima can trace its meaning to the Proto-Indo-European root form ane: ‘breath’.  Other related words include the Greek anemos: ‘wind’ Sanskrit aniti: ‘breathing’ Welsh anadl: ‘breath’ and Old English eðian: ‘to breathe’.  The historically understood connotations of this word lend animal the meaning, ‘being with a breathed-in soul’.  We are a notoriously forgetful people.

Almost everyone I know who spends most of their time with other animals, and absolutely everyone I know who spends most of their time with wild animals and without a Western scientific lens, has told me stories of remarkable interactions with these animals.  Ravens who have led lost hikers out of canyons, vultures who appear, silent and close, on the eve of journeys and deaths, a porcupine who sidled up to a climber at the top of a tree and sat on a limb, watching the sunset before sauntering back down, mountain lions, frogs, bears, beavers, and crows all speaking with the voices of men and women- these stories add up, and I am forced to question which I trust more, the popular literature or the word of my friends and the force of my own experience.  I have also observed that those individuals I know who have not spent considerable time in the woods on its own terms, unencumbered by tents and camp-stoves, and whose relationships with animals have been restricted to keeping them behind bars of Plexiglas or domestication, are the most ardent in avowing, in speech and behavior, the inferiority and mindlessness of all of the other species.  Oh sure, gorillas might groom each other and a jay might occasionally do something clever, but these are dim sparks of consciousness indeed, and the rest is mere instinct.  It’s worth noting that every human society on the planet, other than the very young and likely very short-lived globe-spanning Western one, has enshrined as a philosophical keystone the concept of animism, the understanding that everything is an animal.  I repeat: those who have made close and careful observation of the wild notice intelligent, reciprocal communication occurring constantly, while those who have restricted their attention to the laboratory or the linear study fail to notice these phenomena.  Perhaps we are seeing an ‘artifact of the observer’, as the sociologists might say.

The Maid^ language has no impersonal pronoun.  No gendered pronouns either, for that matter.  There’s one all-purpose pronoun, m^ (pronounced “m-eugh,” like you’ve just smelled something bad) that denotes any creature, person, or object (there being scant distinction between creatures, people, and objects in the language in general).  This is rather important, as it is impossible to depersonalize anybody while speaking Maid^.  Everybody is somebody; there are rock people (oh-maid^m) butterfly people (kapuslele-maid^m) grey willow people (hisdom chu’pi-maid^m) even lizard people (pitchak^-maid^m).  One refers to animals, plants, and what we in the West consider to be inanimate material (i.e. ‘without breath’) the same way one refers to human being people.  There is no version of the depersonalized English pronoun it; the concept is alien.  This is not an unusual way for human languages to be structured.

All of this is to say that when the lesser earless lizard-woman spoke to me, I listened up right quick.  My colleagues had been tasked with the capture of a lesser earless lizard for the collection at the Navajo Nation Zoo, and with no end of delight had found and cornered a choice specimen.  I was unenthusiastically blocking the path of the creature, making sure to leave a nice, large escape route.  I leaned in close, trying to goad the frightened lizard to safety, and then she stopped scurrying, pivoted, looked me square in the face and said, unmistakably, “help me.”  My colleagues were hooting at me to clap my hands over her tiny frame as I lowered my head to her eye level and hissed, “Run, I’ve left you a space!”  Calm for a moment and composed, the lizard-woman cocked her head and with frightened eyes said again, “help me.”  She could run, but not fast as her belly was fat with the summer’s eggs.  With my clumsy capering she could probably have gotten to safety well enough, but she stood there, stock still and well aware of the danger.  My colleagues pursued her into a clump of Russian thistle, the spines grabbing at our hands and bruising her skin.  “Let’s just get it over with,” I whispered, disentangling her body from the thorns and pushing her towards the collecting bucket.

Later, bouncing down the rutted road, bucket and lizard balanced on my lap, she continued to look up at me, not quite panicking.  “Get me out of here.  Help me.”  Here was a living, breathing, feeling, and by my own account thinking being in acute danger of life imprisonment for the dubious purpose of getting children who grow up in the country and play in the country and live in the country to love the natural world by giving them boxed animals to stare at.  Here was a creature born to run miles across the red dunes, who tracks ants by the shape of their footprints and stalks her prey like a miniature mountain lion.  Here was an opportunity to put my money where my fucking mouth was, and do the right thing.  And here I was, frightened of being rejected by a coworker I don’t much care for anyway, afraid of countermanding the distant authority who ordered that this odious thing be done, and terrified of making a scene.  That fear of going against the grain, even as my heart was calling me to cry out in a volume appropriate to the intensity of awful emotion, paralyzed me even as the lizard-woman leaped at the sides of the bucket, desperation big in her eyes and the feeling reverberating around the cab, “I am afraid, get me out!”  Improvising, and hating myself for my inability to act powerfully and decisively, I called the boss who had requested the specimen and convinced him, drawing on deep wells of bullshit fed by the memories of my academic career, that this lizard was no good for the collection.  What he wanted was a male, or a younger one (the younger ones not having been born yet, and the males particularly difficult to capture, unencumbered by eggs as they are).  Authority of jargon prevailed, and a little later I took the bucket and the much calmer lizard-woman out to a clump of sagebrush.  I reached in to lift her out to the cool sand, but she scrambled away from my hand, and looked back in fear.  Tilting the bucket, then, she climbed out, pausing to give me a look of pure mustard before walking into the shade.  We were miles from her home grounds, and I don’t know if she or her children will survive.  I didn’t have the wherewithal to suggest that we turn around and leave her where we found her; still more frightened of nonconformity than in love with the world.

It’s one thing to talk pretty stories about ecological reciprocity and nonhuman personhood, but if we don’t live as though those stories are true, then it’s all just gloss and affectation.  It’s very easy to arrive in the aftermath of some atrocity and render aid to the shocked survivors and mangled soil.  Much more difficult, and maybe more necessary, is to forestall those atrocities where the minutiae of their operation intersect with our lives.  Lots of small-scale events happen in all of our lives every day, each a chance for celebration or tragedy, depending upon our resolve.  I’m certain that I’m not alone in experiencing the painful dissonance between what we are often paid, or told, or otherwise expected to do as part of our daily lives and what we feel, always, in our hearts or know, deeply, in our minds and souls.  These moments of dissonance are good medicine for living, though the taste often lingers unpleasantly:  Listen, you!  The world is alive, we are all of us animals and we, I, must learn to act with wind in our souls.

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2 Responses to “Listening to Lizards”

  1. What a moving story! And how beautifully written. I hope the mother lizard found a safe place for her babies.

  2. I’m impressed as hell with that story. The way you managed to get her out of the car was one of the funniest and saddest things I’ve read in weeks.

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