Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Language Older Than Words*

I have heard and read from time to time about people, "whisperers," shamen, and others who communicate with animals. I have listened to experiences and stories of Native people in Alaska and elsewhere who assure that such understanding is possible, and even normal, if you are open to it. I never thought much about this subject in terms of myself until last weekend.

I posted not long ago about the habits of the Tortolitas, or Mourning Doves in and around my house in Mèrida. Well, after a brief winter respite, the courting and nesting behavior resumed a few weeks ago. Already I have chased several pairs out of my laundry and storage areas as they started to bring in bits of grass and twigs for new nests. Many times in the past they have nested in the mandevilla that grows over the archway between my interior patio and the dining/kitchen area at the back of the house. Just lately a pair resumed housekeeping there.

This arch has no door, so the kitchen and dining area are open to the outside on that end. When the Tortolitas nest in this foliage at the top of the arch, sometimes they mistakenly fly into the house instead of up and out of the patio area. This probably happens because there are two large screened doors in the far end of the room which let in a lot of light, even when closed. I assume the birds see the light and fly toward it, thinking it's a way out.

They've been doing that a lot lately. Twice Saturday I walked toward the kitchen to find a bird fluttering around looking for an escape route. Usually I open one of the back doors and the bird flies right out. However, the second time on Saturday that I found a bewildered bird there I was just arriving home, and the back door was locked. The door requires a key, even from the inside, and a glance revealed that the key was not in its normal place on the counter. I decided to try to move the bird back the way it had come in by edging around the room in its direction, hoping as it moved away from me that it would circle toward the archway and find the exit.

"Relax, I'm not going to hurt you."

No use. The poor thing, which I could see now was a hen, plump, heavy and looking as if she were carrying an egg, was exhausted. She flew haphazardly toward me, made a valiant try for the skylight, and after bumping into the glass spiraled to the floor. She rose, flew past me, and again was batting wings at the closed doors, agitatedly bumping into the mosquito screen and fluttering wildly. A feather loosened and twirled down. She went down again, following her lost feather to earth.

"Shhhhh. Rest. It's OK. Shhhhhhhhh."

As I moved closer, in a final desperate move she scurried on foot and tried to squeeze through the space under the door. Only her head would fit. Head kept low, she darted a little to one side and tried again, resembling nothing so much as a cornered rodent. At this point she seemed to be trembling, and I backed off to let her rest there on the floor, partially obscured behind a potted plant.

"Don't worry, you'll be all right."

After waiting a bit I approached the bird, which remained quietly on the floor. I continued to speak softly, then slowly crouched down and moved to within an arm's length. She didn't flee, but remained frozen and motionless; a survival instinct, I suppose. After a moment, I simply reached down and picked her up in my left hand, wrapping my palm across her back to pin her wings, with my fingers curling around her breast, leaving her feet free. I brought my other hand up and rested her feet on its palm. I could feel her heart racing, but she did not struggle or even move.

I continued to talk as I walked back under the arch where she has her nest to the open space of the patio. Once in the open I removed my left hand, and the little hen sat in my right, motionless, and slowly calmed down.

"You're not afraid anymore. I'm glad."

She stared at me, sitting with her underside nestled into my palm as if it were a nest. We stayed like this for several minutes, I think, but it's hard to say for sure. We just watched each other. All I recall is her dark, glinting eye, her warm, almost weightless body and the beat of her heart, which slowed as she relaxed.

"You know, I'm not keeping you. You can go."

After having remained completely motionless for several minutes, the little bird actually blinked and rotated her head as if to look around when I said this. I tilted my hand slightly. She rose up on her feet, and in an instant she was gone.

"Adios, Tortolita."

She left my hand but she didn't go far. As I write this at the dining table a couple of days later, she and her mate watch me from their perch in the mandevilla over the arch, a very short distance away.

In reality I can speculate but I do not know what happened on Saturday. Maybe the bird was so tired that she had given herself up to fate, frozen in terror. Possibly she is one of the many generations of Tortolitas that have been reared in and around my house, are used to seeing me, and knowing I am non-threatening have lost some of their natural fear of me. She might even have been one of the fallen, flightless chicks I've found and briefly cared for on a couple of occasions before returning them to their parents. It is nice to think that she could perceive from my approach and body language that I was not going to hurt her, or that she sensed my good intentions. Whatever the truth, the experience made me think again about the lore of human-animal interactions in historic and traditional cultures, and about why we have lost this ability.

*The title of this post is borrowed from the book of the same name by Derrick Jensen, a philosopher and environmentalist whose writing I have found interesting and thought-provoking. In the preface to that book, Jensen talks about an experience he had communicating with wild coyotes, which was the genesis for the book. The "Language Older Than Words," he writes about is human interconnectedness with our planet, and the ability to communicate with and interact with the natural world -- our home -- something that we have lost in the process of becoming "civilized." Jensen believes that civilization is doomed to failure and that we must re-establish that connection with and respect for our planet. It's a subject worth thinking about.


  1. Awesome blog. I love the title "A language Older than Words." It is very intriguing. I also like the thought of reconnecting with Nature as way to heal our planet, our journey on this planet.
    Great pictures, also. I enjoyed seeing them. Your house in beautiful and very connected with nature.

  2. I, too, am a fan of Derrick Jensen. I think I have read everything he has published, including articles in the Sun Magazine. I like the lens through which he views the world.


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