All animals that belong to the same species are identical in respect of action and feeling; and thus they can know the actions and feelings of others by knowing their own.
—Dante, De vulgari eloquentia
One day last fall, my wife and I were walking down a gravel driveway that leads to an old tobacco barn on our farm. We were on our way to say goodbye to our children. My wife had been offered a job on the other side of the country, and while it was difficult to imagine leaving the farm we tend and the community we love, it was an enticing enough offer for the parents to go and check it out.
I am tugging two overstuffed suitcases behind me. Their wheels grumble and snag on the rocks that lie in our path. We stop for a moment by the pond, which is still and choked with autumn leaves. We had planned to duck inside to say goodbye, but we don’t need to: the children are playing outside, the youngest of them distracted by toys, and they hardly notice us. As we exchange hugs, we hear a sharp, unsettling chatter in the distance behind the barn. A moment later, a kingfisher bursts around the corner. As if intent on paying us a visit, the bird skims along the edge of the pond in long, looping curves. With another burst of chatter, it turns and alights on a limb of the pin oak tree that towers over us.
Out of one eye it stares at my family, crying out repeatedly in short, staccato bursts. It sits there for what feels like a full minute—long enough for me to drop the suitcases, pull each kid over, and show them. They each take a look, and then the kingfisher takes off, swooping down to the surface of the water, where it hovers for a moment and then slips away and into a thin stand of willow trees that rim the far edge of the water.
Kingfishers aren’t rare where we live. We see them once or twice a week at the pond behind our house. The pond lies between two gently rising slopes that make up our farm. Our house sits at the top of the southern slope, and from our back door, you could throw a rock and almost hit water. But the pond is girdled by a thin band of trees: pine, willow, maple, and oak. And so, despite its proximity to us, the pond feels safe to many species of wild animal. Otters, beavers, green and great blue herons, kingfishers, and other migratory birds frequent its banks.
On the day that the kingfisher visited us, the boundary between the hidden life of the pond and the family of humans who live close by suddenly became porous.
Lucky for us, the pond is still close enough to observe the traffic of these itinerant visitors. Sometimes they will stay for a while. (This fall and winter, for example, we got to watch a pair of otters rear their young.) But more often than not, an animal like the kingfisher will visit for a day, an hour, a few minutes, and then be on its way.
We’ve experienced kingfishers to be a wary species. Every time we see or hear one (and they are nearly always alone), we try to move in for a closer look. When we do, the bird will usually scold us with its odd, rattling call before disappearing through the trees. But on the day that the kingfisher visited us, the boundary between the hidden life of the pond and the family of humans who live close by suddenly became porous. We were used to watching wild animals, not having them interrogate us. And yet there the bird sat on a branch, like a totem, examining my family and chittering away, as two parents prepared to leave home and consider a move someplace else.
The Language of Creation
Is it possible for non-human creatures to speak? With what sense can we say that they communicate to each other, or to humans? As silly as these questions sound, recent discoveries in fields like environmental biology and cognitive ethology have made them less naive than they might once have seemed. Popular science abounds with examples of non-human creatures doing things once thought to be distinctly human.
For example, humpback whales have been observed not only to make very elaborate forms of communication over long distances but to “mark the passage of time by changing their songs from year to year.” Researchers have long argued that another marine mammal, the bottlenose dolphin, can have beliefs, feelings, and reasons for performing certain actions. And they have astonishingly sharp memories: in a pod of dolphins, a dolphin’s whistle can function like a name, and one study suggests that dolphins can recognize the whistle of other dolphins from whom they have been separated for twenty years.
Animals don’t need to have large brains to perform complex forms of communication, perception, and deliberation. Some researchers have argued that the decision-making of bees resembles a central nervous system whose parts have been scattered among individual members of a whole group. When bees decide to swarm and make a new colony, they will send out scouts to find new locations. When the scouts return, they perform dances before the rest of the hive. The more complex the dance, the more favorable the location. If enough bees return and perform the same dance—if, that is, they share enough consensus about the promise of the new location of a hive—the hive will split and form a new colony.
Forms of articulacy and perception extend to the plant world too. It is now well known that trees communicate with each other through hyphae, the weblike, subterranean fungal networks that can stretch several miles in different directions. When a tree is under attack from a pest, it can send signals through these networks to its neighbours and call for help. Some species can exchange minerals and carbon with each other in response to their own needs and the needs of others. Mathematical models have shown that a tree’s roots move in patterns that resemble the swarming of bees or the collective movement of a flock of birds.
Root development consists in the countless responses to felt changes in the environment, which in turn build and cascade down through the millions of individual cells of a single organism. Other plants, like the Boquila trifoliolata (a vine native to Chile), evidently possess a form of perception or sight. Scientists have observed the vine mimicking the leaf shape of an artificial plant made of plastic.
Rationality and communication, once considered the special province of humans, appear more like a continuum to which all living things belong rather than a boundary marker between humans and everything else.
In the absence of pheromone signals, how else would the vine know what shape to imitate, unless it could perceive them? Scientists have observed clusters of cells on the surface of the vine’s leaves that look remarkably like ocelli, or rudimentary eyes. Examples like this (and there are many more) suggest that the boundaries between plant, animal, and human are less fixed than they have been thought to be in the past. Rationality and communication, once considered the special province of humans, appear more like a continuum to which all living things belong rather than a boundary marker between humans and everything else.
This is not to deny the uniqueness of human beings in creation. But it does suggest that there might be a deeper kinship between human and non-human creatures than we might otherwise be led to believe. The question I began with is of a different order, though. How could a bird have spoken to us? Examples of non-humans doing human-like things only intensify the question of what this bird was doing. And it’s not clear that a neuroscientific explanation of the kingfisher’s brain or behaviour could help me either.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once quipped that if lions could speak, we would not be able to understand them. Despite the inauspicious circumstances of the event—the thought of leaving our farm and our home place, of ending our stewardship of this land, of saying goodbye to our children, if only for a time—I don’t think I could ever say with any certainty what the kingfisher meant. This is because I don’t understand the extent to which I share a world in common with the kingfisher. And yet, no matter how hard I try, I cannot shake the conviction that, in a moment of vulnerability and sadness, our family was being interrogated by this non-human creature.
Christ: Animal. Man. God.
In her book on animals in ancient Christian thought, Patricia Cox Miller describes a tension between early Christian doctrines of dominion and the way that theologians wrote about the relationship between humans and other animals. For theologians like Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, human beings stood at the top of a hierarchy of value in creation, having received a command from God to till and to keep the garden of Eden. Non-human animals and plants are irrational creatures: they cannot speak, and they have no share in contemplating the divine logos.
In spite of this anthropocentric teaching, Miller points to a remarkably varied theology of trans-species encounters that undermine the simplistic dichotomies of human and animal, rational and irrational. Although Augustine is quick to remind his congregants that humans are exceptional among non-angelic creation, there are countercurrents in his thought that push in surprising directions. Consider his exposition of Psalm 22:6, “But I am a worm, not a man”: “I am a worm, and no man. In what sense ‘no man’? Because he is God. Why then did he so demean himself as to say ‘worm’? Perhaps because a worm is born from flesh without intercourse, as Christ was born from the Virgin Mary? A worm, and yet no man. Why a worm? Because he was mortal, because he was born from flesh, because he was born without intercourse. Why ‘no man’? Because in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and he was God (John 1:1).”
As Miller points out, “Christ is both animal and God” in this passage. Taking the psalm’s metaphor of worms seriously (worms were thought to spontaneously appear from decaying matter, not through copulation), Augustine places Christ below the human in order to draw out the psalm’s implicitly incarnational logic. In virtue of taking on flesh, Christ is a part of creation as much as the lowly worm is. And yet Christ is also the Word through whom creation was spoken into existence.
One of my favourite stories of trans-species entanglement comes from a thirteenth-century text called the Fioretti, or the “little flowers,” of St. Francis of Assisi. It records an episode in which the saint intervened on behalf of the village of Gubbio, whose people and livestock were being ravaged by a rogue wolf. One day Francis walked outside the walls of Gubbio and found the animal snarling and bristling with malevolence. “Come hither, brother wolf,” Francis cried; “I command thee, in the name of Christ, neither to harm me nor anybody else.”
Instantly the wolf shut its mouth and came trotting up to Francis, where it curled up and lay at his feet. Francis excoriates the wolf for being a thief and a murderer. “But I will make peace between [the village] and thee, O brother wolf,” Francis proclaims, “and they shall forgive thee all thy past offenses, and neither men nor dogs shall pursue thee any more.” The wolf bowed his head, and “by the movements of his body, his tail, and his eyes, made signs that he agreed to what St Francis said.” Francis took the wolf inside the village, where all the people marvelled at what Francis had done. After delivering a sermon, the people made a pact with the wolf: they promised to feed it every day, and the wolf, “by the motions of his tail and of his ears, endeavoured to show that he was willing,” and promised never again to harm the village.
Later, 1872, when a church in Gubbio was being renovated, workers found the remains of a wolf’s body buried under a slab in the church. Perhaps the pertinent question is not whether non-human creatures can speak, but rather, as the novelist Amitav Ghosh has asked, “when and how did a small group of humans come to believe that other beings, including the majority of their own species, were incapable of articulation and agency? How were they able to establish the idea that nonhumans are mute, and without minds, as the dominant wisdom of the time?”
To See and Hear the Kingfisher
Theological hierarchies of the cosmos certainly played a role. But as Ghosh implies, the question of articulacy (who or what gets to speak, who or what cannot) lies at the heart of colonialism and the imperial expansion of early modern Europe. When large swathes of creation can no longer speak—when creatures, human or otherwise, are reduced to brute matter—it becomes much easier to abuse and exploit them. And so it seems that the question of who or what can speak “lie[s] at the core of the planetary crisis” the world is currently enduring. There may be no more urgent task, Ghosh writes, than restoring non-human voices to our stories and our lives. The Linnean name for the kingfisher that visited us is Megaceryle alcyon: mega, or large; ceryle, or kerylos in Greek, a mythical bird mentioned by Aristotle; alcyon is the Greek word for kingfisher.
It is more commonly known as the belted kingfisher. This bird is large and carnivorous, and unlike most species in the avian world, the females have brighter, more interesting colour patterns than the males. The one that we saw that day was obviously a female. You can tell the difference immediately by the chestnut-coloured band of feathers that run horizontally across the chest and flanks of the females. Why the females have a red chest is a mystery.
One theory is that kingfishers are highly territorial. In winter, females migrate south for winter. The males remain behind, guarding their territories. Maybe the red gash is meant to mark the female as a friend, not a foe, when birds migrate again in spring. The kingfisher is obviously a water-loving bird. You will typically find them resting on a limb or a power line that hovers over a lake, pond, river, or stream. From such heights they will dive straight down to the water and slam into the surface at speeds up to twenty-five miles per hour. And they will swim two feet underwater to spear fish with their bills. For this reason, a kingfisher is sometimes called biorra an uisce, or “water spear,” in Gaelic.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the kingfisher is its call. It is unique in the avian world. One expert likens it to an empty teacup rattling on a saucer. It sounds to me like a wooden rattle. Apparently I’m not alone in thinking this; a group of kingfishers (surely a rare occurrence) is called a rattle or a kerfuffle. Kingfishers build nests near their favourite hunting grounds. The nests are a strange, secretive affair. Male and female birds work together to find a vertical bank near water and then carve a long, narrow tunnel into it. Some tunnels have measured up to fifteen feet long. The tunnel terminates in a nest, where the females will lay five to six eggs per clutch. Invariably the kingfisher’s tunnel tilts slightly upward. That way, if flooding occurs, the water might cut off access to the tunnel but it won’t flood the nest, which lies at the end of the tunnel. There the young will remain, trapped in a warm bubble of air until the waters recede and the passage opens again.
The ancient Greeks had a different explanation of the kingfisher’s clandestine nesting habits. It was thought that the kingfisher couple made a raft out of fish bones and then placed a nest on top. Then, with the female having laid her eggs in the nest, the couple pushed off into open water. The female would hop on and warm the eggs on the bone raft until they hatched. This would happen around the winter equinox—the calmest weather of the year on the Mediterranean—and the kingfisher would return to shore seven days later with her young. In book 11 of Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid tells the origin of the kingfisher’s watery sojourn. On a journey to Delphi, where he hopes to consult the oracle, a king named Ceyx and his crew are overwhelmed by a storm and drown. Back home, his wife, Alcyone, prays to the gods for the safe return of her husband and sets about weaving new garments to give him upon his arrival. At night the gods send Morpheus, the shapeshifting son of the god of sleep, who has assumed the naked and waterlogged form of Alcyone’s drowned husband. Impersonating Ceyx, Morpheus tells her that he is dead.
Distraught, Alcyone awakens at first light and rushes out to the seashore where Ceyx first departed. Beyond a spit of sand she sees the corpse of her dead husband being tossed about by the waves. Recognizing it immediately, she leaps toward it and suddenly “beat the soft air with newfound wings”: the gods transform her into a kingfisher, “a sorrowing bird” “with a plaintive voice [that] came from a slender beak, like someone grieving and full of sorrows.” As Alcyone showers the body of her husband with kisses, the gods, out of pity, resurrect Ceyx and make him a kingfisher too. And so every year, around the winter equinox, Alcyone’s father, the god of the wind, stills the raging waters of the ocean and lets his daughter float peacefully on the water for seven days—halcyon days—while she hatches her brood.
The story of Ceyx and Alcyone is an etiology, a narrative that explains how a creature comes to be the kind of thing that it is. In Ovid’s retelling, the narrative discloses the origin of the kingfisher’s fondness for water, its mating and nesting habits, its rattling, doleful call. By reading Ovid’s myth, we come to an understanding of how the kingfisher came to be. But there is another strategy at work too. As we read about a queen who shares a name with the alcyone, the kingfisher, it is difficult not to feel drawn into a strange kinship with the animal that the suffering lover, Alcyone, becomes at the end of the story.
Our sense of what a kingfisher is deepens, and it becomes a creature with whom we might share some kind of understanding or experience. This narrative strategy is an obviously anthropocentric one. It’s rooted in the assumption that we might be able to know something about how a kingfisher inhabits the world based on what it was before it became a kingfisher. But the charge of anthropocentrism seems to be beside the point. Ovid doesn’t pull us away into our feelings about the human’s place in the world.
The story doesn’t trivialize animal life, and it doesn’t reduce the animal to a cluster of human-like characteristics. Ovid’s narrative ends by returning us to the kingfisher, a beautiful, and strange, but ultimately ordinary creature. It is a story of transformation, of being one thing and becoming another. Of course, the ending had already been hinted at in the very name of Alcyone. But in the course of the story, the kingfisher becomes a strange, sad, and uncanny thing. Alcyone, you might say, endures a second metamorphosis: the animal, the kingfisher, becomes an object of pathos and wonder.
We have to acknowledge that we, too, have experienced the vulnerability, loss, and decay that led to that constellation of features that define the animal.
There is a double movement, then, in Ovid’s retelling of this myth: the kingfisher is something uncanny, sad, and set apart, and yet in recognizing this strangeness, we find parts of ourselves reflected back to us in unexpected ways. We learn what makes the kingfisher unique and how it got that way. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that we, too, have experienced the vulnerability, loss, and decay that led to that constellation of features that define the animal.
The kingfisher, like all animals, has a body that suffers and dies (the tempest, the sorrow, the tears, the kisses). Through no direct fault of our own, we encounter variation and unpredictability, sometimes to devastating effect. And we inhabit a similar world: a world of tempests and unaccountable sorrows, but one that somehow finds ways to offer enclaves of solace, stillness, and peace to those who are lucky enough to find them. Porphyry, a third-century Neoplatonist, thought that humans and animals share an oikeiosis, “an origin of kinship.” He conceived of this origin in perceptual terms. Humans and animals both have sense perception, and while their participation in the divine logos or reason varies in degree, they share a relation of being rooted in the capacity to see and to be seen. One way of putting this is that they both have bodies, and having a body allows for the possibility of proximate or analogous experiences. Such is the constancy of the soul, Ovid writes, that when the gods turn a human into an animal, the animal retains some characteristics of the human.
The story of Alcyone suggests that the reverse can happen when we attend to the uncanny vitality of non-human lives. When we are attentive to the chasms of difference that separate the world of other species and our own, we often find the residue of our own experiences reflected back to us. It is in virtue of having bodies that reflection and recognition between species is possible. Animal bodies are not the inert, meaningless stuff of a Cartesian universe, but vibrant, luminous, and capable of expression.
I want to look at another poem about kingfishers. It, too, is concerned with language and how it might be that non-human creatures speak to us. It was written by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and it goes like this:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same;
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; “myself” it speaks and spells,
Crying, “what I do is me: for that I came.”
I say more: the just man justices,
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Hopkins’s poem opens with an image that lasts two and a quarter lines: kingfishers catching fire in the sun; dragonflies drawing flame from the same blaze; stones ringing out as the water tumbles over them. Hopkins quickly leaves this image and chases after analogies (the rung bell, the tucked string).
What he finds points to the principle that he is labouring to articulate from the very first line: “Each mortal thing does one and the same.” (“what I do is me: for that I came”).
Kingfishers, dragonflies, stones, a rung bell, the tucked string of a violin: they all say the same thing—namely, “‘myself’ it speaks and spells.” Hopkins thinks that the self-speaking of things is compulsive; a kingfisher can’t help but be the thing that is. It can’t do anything but present itself as it is because it can’t be anything other than it is. And what a kingfisher is is endlessly beautiful and fascinating, both on its own and in relation to the ensemble of other creatures (dragonflies, sun, fish) with which it interacts. Every creature, each stone, bird, or person, “find’s tongue to fling out broad its name.”
Every creature, animate or inanimate, comes into the world for a time to be exactly what it is, to express its unique being in its own unique mode of expression.
And that flung-out “name”—when we fully attend to it—is experienced as distinct, compulsively disclosed, beautiful, and gratuitous. Hopkins uses the metaphor of language repeatedly in this poem (speaking, spelling, naming). The metaphor signifies structure and relation: the “word” or “name” of a creature is the unique being that it exudes. That name belongs to a structure of being that is like the grammar of a language. It’s hard to catch it the first time you read the poem, but you can see this idea already at work in the two uses of “as” in lines one and two.
“As” is not chronological or sequential; it is structural. Just like kingfishers catch fire, so too do dragonflies draw flame. To put it more plainly: when the sunlight hits kingfishers and dragonflies, both absorb, reflect, and do interesting things with that light. But the way each creature does this is different. For Hopkins, every creature belongs to this language of being. It was a language first spoken by God in the beginning of the world, and it is being spoken again and again as a seemingly endless parade of beings, human and non-human, animate and inanimate, come into and out of being. All creation thrums with this language. It is being spoken back to God whether we hear it or not.
By implication, we humans are speaking the same language back to God whether we realize it or not. And it is a language that God delights in. This delight is the background condition of our existence—and indeed of all creation. It’s true that human beings are different from creatures like kingfishers and rocks. In virtue of being able to observe and understand elements of creation, we can listen to parts of the language that creation speaks that might be inaudible to other species. This happens in part through cultivating the habit of what Hopkins called instress, the virtue of attending to and looking deeply into the structure and beauty of things. (The act of instress is what I take the poem itself to be performing.) But it’s striking that Hopkins doesn’t disambiguate the human by calling attention to its rationality.
What humans do best—what they are intended by God to do best—is justice. Through justice, through right relationship with God and creation, human beings keep grace. As he puts it in the following line, the virtue of justice enables us to act like what we are—to act “in God’s eye what in God’s eye” we are. And what are we? None other than Christ, the Word of God who was spoken in the beginning before creation. Christ is the Word that was made flesh, made human, and who “plays in ten thousand places,” including the faces of each member of the human species.
Through the Word made flesh—the Word made human—all human beings participate in the life of the Word that spoke creation into being. We are continuously being drawn back into the act of creation and the language that creation speaks back to God. The point is not that Christ enables us to listen more closely to the song of creation. (It might be that he helps.) The poem cuts much deeper than that: through the incarnation we belong to the Word that is being echoed and repeated by every creature in creation. We don’t just get to hear the words of creation; we don’t just become one of creation’s words; we become a part of the Word, the Word that makes all other words possible. God delights in our creaturehood, in our belonging to creation. But he also sees in us—sees us as—Christ, his Son, who became what we are.
Through the incarnation we belong to the Word that is being echoed and repeated by every creature in creation.
Through this grafting, Hopkins suggests, the created order becomes ever more intimately drawn up and woven into the life of the Trinity. I have been exploring the articulacy of non-human animals in two ways. One is through attention to embodiment, or the ways that the bodies of animals can mean or signify different things. Attention, whether it be ecological or poetic, discloses the strange kinship we have with them. We cannot conceive of our lives outside the bodies that we have; we cannot conceive of animal life outside the bodies that they have. This recognition can reveal the curious ways in which our lives are entangled with non-human animal life. The second is through an exploration of a Christian doctrine of creation that takes the uniqueness of each creature as axiomatic.
Each creature, in virtue of its creation, participates in a language that circumscribes the created order. The word each creature speaks is related to, but unique from, that of other creatures. Despite our astonishingly successful attempts to wreck the created order, humans still belong to it. What’s more, when we are attentive to the beauty and uniqueness of creatures, we begin to hear and understand how the language of creation envelops and includes us—and how we might respond faithfully to the damage we have done.
These concerns lie upstream of the question that still haunts me—the question of what the kingfisher might have said. I don’t think we’ll never know. But it’s hard for me not to see our decision to remain on this land as a response, however feeble and uncertain, to our encounter with this bird. Our stewardship of this land isn’t finished yet. I can’t say for sure how long it will last. And while I have no illusions about what is happening around us—a warming, unstable climate; democracy on life support; a deranged and predatory global economy—it seems important to lean in and try to listen to what the creatures who call it home are saying to us.