Barbara King author photo by Sarah Hogg(1)Your new book is titled not Do Animals Grieve? or A Few Big-Brained Mammals Grieve Once in a While but How Animals Grieve.  How come?

I wanted to telegraph what we now understand: a wide variety of animals mourn when a loved one dies. Scientists have known for years about elephants who stroke the bones of the dead, and chimpanzees who become greatly distressed at the body of a loved one.  And very recently, we’ve learned from up-close observations new details about how these big-brained mammals and others, like dolphins, grieve in the wild.

Your book is a synthesis of memoir and cultural critique. Why did you choose this form?

Because the material demanded it—isn’t this what writers usually say? Except in my case it was because the stand-alone memoir was going nowhere. The agents I sent it to all said the same thing: “I like it, but …” Then they couldn’t tell me what else was needed. So I hired an editor, sent her my chapters, and chewed my nails until we got on the phone. And the first words out of her mouth were, “The most interesting part of this book hasn’t been written yet.” Not what I wanted to hear when I was almost done with a full draft!

 

What was the “most interesting part” she was looking for?

It turned out to be connecting the dots between my personal experience and the larger culture. Some synthesizing of all those years I spent in grad school studying history and religion and anthropology.

Midnight blue water rested at the horizon under a brightening sky, framing shafts of pine and fir at shore’s edge. Here on the southern tip of Lopez Island, off the coast of Seattle, the dawn air was cool and still, the only sound a few songbirds calling far away. I headed across the needle-packed yard toward a clump of pines. The bald eagle nest was right over there, Anya had said; she’d seen the chicks fledging just days ago, and they couldn’t be far away now.

I turned my binoculars toward the pines, eager to spot that huge platform of sticks three to five feet across. Eagles use the same structure year after year, weaving in more and more sticks for support until the whole can weigh a ton or more. Surely a nest the size of a mattress should be easy to find! I scanned the trees in one direction. Nothing. Puzzled, I looked the other way. No nest anywhere in sight.

Soon my neck stiffened from the upward gaze. I lowered the glasses and headed across the thick carpet of pine needles. The eagles would have to show up soon. Anya had said they were here, so I might as well wait.

This summer I sojourned to the Mt. Hood Wilderness Area in Northern Oregon. Over a span of four days I hiked nearly 40 miles and in the process endured soaking rains, too-little food and water, poisonous plants, venomous spiders, blood-sucking flies, and the possibility of an attack from bears, cougars, or perhaps even Bigfoot. At the end of the ordeal my feet were blistered and sore, my legs and back aching. In such a state was I that the meager prospects of a gas station sandwich and a Motel 6 seemed downright epicurean.

For many, this type of willful deprivation from modern comforts amounts to little more than masochism. As far as I’m concerned, such suffering is sheer joy when compared to the pain visited upon man by his fellow man. Concomitant with deprivation from society’s riches is deliverance from its ugliness.

 

“The drugs!  Ditch the drugs!  He’s coming!”

When Pete doesn’t immediately comply with my frenzied request to jettison the narcotics I grab his backpack and attempt to throw it into the brackish water.

“Take it easy man,” he says, wrestling the bag away from me. “We’re gonna be fine.”

Stanton has no reaction. He silently and expressionlessly pilots the boat from his position in the back.

Seized by terror I pull my knees into my chest, bury my face between them, and tell myself that if I don’t look at the boat creeping ever closer this nightmare will somehow end.

What made you want to write a book on beauty?

This world is a beautiful place.  Sometimes that is easy to forget.  I have always wanted to be able to explain this beauty as something objective, a fact, a quality about the way the world evolved, not just some subjective human opinion.  It turned out that realization of beauty was one of the motivating factors behind Darwin’s discovery of evolution, a fact that science seems to have forgotten.  I wanted to bring this history back into today’s discussion about what life is and how it got here.

 

You’re a musician.  What are you doing writing about visual art?

Right, I have no idea what I’m talking about.  But everyone around me is a visual artist—my mother is a painter, my father was an architect, my wife is an artist, I grew up with discussions of modernism and postmodernism and surrealism and impressionism all around the house.  Over the years I became fascinated with the idea that paying attention to abstract twentieth century art has led us to see nature in a new way, and I was surprised no one had written about this.  I really wanted to see in what ways art has specifically influenced science, and how it might have more influence in the future.

 

Isn’t the ‘beautiful’ a kind of old-fashioned concept when it comes to talking about art today?

So they say, but I believe that the most enduring conceptual/situationist artworks will be those that leave a direct aesthetic impression on the viewer.  They still have to be beautiful if these works expect to survive.

 

How does it feel to criticize scientists when you yourself are not a scientist?

Yes, sometimes scientists have gotten angry with me when I make outlandish claims like “you people are not asking the most interesting questions.”  Who do I think I am?  In my earlier book Why Birds Sing I was more critical of science when it comes to what it wasn’t asking about bird song, but now, six years later, I find myself collaborating with bird song neuroscientists trying to develop new approaches to analyze the deeper, musical structure of this beautiful natural phenomena, the kind of structure scientists previously refused to recognize.  So maybe my prodding is having a little bit of influence.

It has long been my belief that among the many human forms of knowledge—art, music, poetry, science, philosophy, religion—no one approach will encompass the others.  Often the practitioners of each seem to think theirs is the best or most total way.  That sense of primacy or entitlement can never be completely correct.  Our minds and senses are too diverse for that.

I want to explore how art might best influence science.  Too often when these disparate approaches are combined the blending is either too easy: “art and science both value elegance and creativity” or else too condescending:  “artists dare to dream and play Reality is far more nuanced and interesting than that.

 

There are a lot of pictures in your book, how do those connect with the words?

If you put all the pictures together and gaze at each of them for a while before moving onto the next, you may be able to get the same ideas as the words describe in greater detail.

 

What should science really learn from art?

The beauty in a moment’s creative expression may be unique and unrepeatable, but in that moment’s greatness can exist an important truth which must be accepted, even though it may never happen again.

Art can sometimes accomplish the impossible, and then science should not deny it but can try to explain it, as long as the method of explanation does not serve to remove the magic from the aesthetic moment.

 

What should art learn from science?

Art can learn diligence, perception of details, asking of questions, and perhaps above all the subjecting of any wild idea against the test of rationality or data.  Don’t just trust your instincts!  Don’t get stuck on your own ideas!  Look, listen, wait, think, scrutinize.  Your goal of expressing an essential insight that can be expressed no other way can easily take itself too seriously and not pay enough attention to the real world.  Science should teach you to question your own assumptions and really learn from careful attention to the way nature works, not just the way it appears.

 

What do you want the reader to get from your book?

To look up from the pages and see the world in a whole new way, where beauty is a fact, and science and art both conspire to reveal different aspects of this same, genuine fabric all around us.

 

What are you working on next?

Something much easier than a whole theory of art, science, and evolution!  Back to something I know more about… how to make music with bugs…. should be out in time for the return of the seventeen years cicadas to New York in 2013.  You can watch a preview here:

 

What is an environmental question? Shall I tell you what I think? A good one might be, why it is that a bee somehow looks like you’d like to stroke its back? Whereas a wasp, for instance, has a hateful quality apparent in its bifurcated, tapering abdomen. A bee has a solid waist, it looks like a corpulent, middle-aged geezer who has found what he is looking for and is happy to share it with you over a glass of beer. Or a portly woman doing a bit of gardening, possibly with a few buns on the go in the oven. Sometimes when one opens the newspaper to find that carbon dioxide emissions are up 8%, or some similar news story, it feels very disheartening – and does not inspire one very much.

 

In thirty-three years, I’ve never had an epiphany or a vision of God. Tongues of flame have yet to lick my scalp.

Instead I am frequently haunted by anti-epiphanies. Memories of when I thought I realized something – the right turn in a story, the best ending – but was wrong. These are my moments of rapture, re-living the conviction. I knew that was the right move; only it wasn’t. During these moments I feel I’ve got my finger on the weak link, my brain against the ropes, only to realize that I’m just touching the tail of something, the beginning of a reckoning. I’m aware that my brain is both failing and achieving, that it is wrong and right at the same time. There’s euphoria in that shifting compass. The infinite ripple of yes and no.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I almost got trampled – or gored, had it been in a goring sort of mood – by a bison. We had gone for a hike with our dog in the Absaroka mountains of Montana, just on the Northern border of Yellowstone National Park. Not more than ten minutes into our journey, we came upon the bison in the middle of the trail, grand as a monument.

Bison, you likely know, weigh about a ton. They’re generally pretty placid, though they can become agitated, which they demonstrate by raising their tails, along with various other signals. Sometimes they’re ornery because they have to fight a rival, or because it’s winter and they’re being stalked by half-starved wolves, or because biting flies and mosquitoes are sucking them dry, any number of possibilities. Life is hard in the Yellowstone.

Tourists who lack respect for the bison’s personal space add to its burdens. Yellowstone literature will tell you that many more people are injured or killed by bison in YNP than by bears or mountain lions.

When my husband and I saw the bison, we had no intention of getting on his nerves. There was space to get past him, but because of the dense forest, felled logs stacked waist high in some places, we would’ve had to get closer than was reasonable, so we turned around and went back to the cabin. We figured if we got out of his way for a while, he’d have plenty of time to finish his business and move on to less crowded trails.

A few hours later, we returned. We were right. There was no sign of the bison except for his heart shaped prints in the mud, and we completed our hike down to Soda Butte creek.

It was September, and it began to snow off and on. We crouched on the banks of the creek until we grew cold.

The hike back was quiet, only the jingle of the dog’s tags and our canteens against our legs. We’d stop now and then to clap our hands, a makeshift human-bear GPS system, even though we’d been hiking these woods for years and had never encountered a bear. It grew warm again and the sun burned our necks. Fifteen minutes or so from the trailhead, we came through a thick cluster of ponderosas, all tight in a bend. The dog’s ears went up.

It would be wrong to say we were surprised. How can one be surprised by something that weighs two thousand pounds and stands six feet tall? It was more of a certainty that settled into us. That by coming back we had screwed up. Screwed up big time.

We tried to get out of the way, but the animal bore down, coming up over a hill, the incline making it seem even larger than it was. I thought then how silly scary movies are, the way they try to jolt you with loud music and a monster jumping out from the shadows. True terror is something walking towards you calmly, without hesitation.

There was plenty of room for the bison to move around us, to avoid getting close, yet it continued lurching forward as if we were just a couple of spindly willows in the way. Trying to move as far off the trail as possible, we ended up straddling huge, crisscrossed logs like human kabobs.

YNP literature states that all visitors should maintain a safe distance of at least 25 yards from a bison. We were six feet away.

The story condenses in my mind from this point, shrinking into a sharp piece of gravel that bounces around my nightmares. The realization that there was nowhere for us to go. That despite seeming calm, despite his relaxed tail, the bison wasn’t stopping. That despite knowing a decent amount of information about bison behavior, my brain had failed me. The bison, you understand, was not stopping.

The great head darkened over us.

Our dog, who for years had made a practice of barking at bison through car windows when we drove through the park, kept miraculously still and silent, her tail stiff. Shh, I whispered to a dog who had never listened to us in the best of circumstances. Stay.

The bison regarded us, the tip of its black tongue rounding the lip and twitching up into wet, empty nostrils.

I didn’t pray. If I believed in anything, I believed in the bison. His choice. I felt something drain out of me, my blood congealing into a heavy clot in my stomach. The certainty of this. Now.

I had been convinced we were doing the right thing, leaving the bison alone the first time. That even now, as long as we got off the trail and gave him room, he would walk by us, unconcerned. Each step closer, he proved me wrong.

After a minute, the bison turned away, squeezed by us and headed down the trail, stopping occasionally to eat. His tail was down, swishing.

Perhaps it was a good day for him.

I trembled the entire way back to the car. My husband was as pale as I’ve ever seen him. Just at the trailhead, we ran into an elderly couple beginning their hike. They smiled at us.

“Be careful,” we told them. “There’s a very big bison blocking the trail up ahead.”

“Oh yeah, we see them all the time,” the old man said. “Just don’t get in their way, is all.” He chuckled and they disappeared into the woods.

When I tell the story, I always say how wrong I was, how foolish I was to assume an animal would behave a certain way, according to some television show I’d watched. How everything I thought I knew was wrong. My husband insists the opposite. “We’re alive,” he says, “because we must have done the right things.” I tell him we’re alive because the bison was having a good day.

One year later in the same spot, two people were attacked – and one killed – by a grizzly.

Maybe we were lucky. Maybe we were wrong and right.

Two wholly different riverbeds in the United States offer an official rock with a slide.

There are possibly more, and there may soon be less.But we would make sure to dip into these, one in North Carolina and one in Arizona, on our tour around the country.Because we’d been away from American natural spectacles and because an open swimming hole with a rock slide wasn’t actually supposed to exist in this new century, belonging to a rosier, bucolic past since replaced by concrete waterparks and videogame fitness.

(For John Rybicki)

John, I’ve been holding in the howling.
It wears me out to parties and dinner;
a cheap evening jacket, its pockets bulging
with receipts and bent daisies and freight
trains and God and nickels and it spills
from me, John.  The animal sneaks
through the tears in my seams,
it opens my mouth and it spits.
The stain on the sidewalk,
it looks like my face, John.

Used to be, I would bleed on command.
Now I’m chasing rivers with a spoon,
trying to save something for later.


There burned a pyre of memory of beloved trees, one sick but healing, others that fell through the air.

Earth sign with water rising, I tended the fire. If I were made of Kevlar, I would have climbed inside the hearth and stoked with toes and fingertips.

* * * * *

The medieval maw consumed the swamp chestnut’s branches. Before we moved to this house, the tree had been neglected for more than a decade. Its sapwood oozed and festered in the summer. Rotted pulp filled the gap of its triangular wound, the illusion of strength, the texture of sponge. I named it Stinky then for the homebrew scent of its fermented sap. In spite of its illness, slime flux mold disease, Stinky was sturdy, resilient. Its shade was nearly as valuable as its beauty, so it was spared, pruned of dead and dying branches. Twigs gathered from its canopy in the fall fueled the fire’s start. A stray leaf, large as a cow’s ear, flared red at the edges and collapsed.

That tree lives, sleeping now, its roots in the rain contained by the clay.

I always left the keys in the ignition overnight.One dawn, I made a futile attempt of starting the engine gently, to allow the others to keep snoring in the back and in the cabin over my head.The coast and shimmy of our home would lull them long enough to let me feel like a chance clueless steward of daybreak assigned to this return side of the continental divide.I had a little moment.The wilderness had little me.

With light yet to burst over the distant ridge, white fog hung in the forest we were emerging from, like ghosts had passed out only an hour ago and half-dissolved among the pines.Whatever else had happened, the wilds had taken over during the night all around us.

I confronted eschatology too young. Although benign compared to some beliefs, my Catholic upbringing placed me at the sidelines of Armageddon—strange references to a kingdom come, the Second Coming, Judgment Day. I got queasy at the mention of the Book of Revelations. Sermons and syntactically-strained Bible readings led me to infer a tremendous destructive end to all life, human, animal, insect, plant. There were drawings in books, filled with fire, angels and demons, a sea of the damned. For a child, it’s impossible to reconcile a loving Father with one who will kill every one of his children with wanton violence. Children also don’t grasp metaphor.

These arrangements of empty chairs are what’s left of celebration, argument, meditation, sleep and revelation.  They huddle together like still animals in the cold.  From a chair beneath a plane tree, the round tracks of a cane disappear into the gravel.

The single chairs are absent of their poets, readers and afternoon philosophers.

Those side by side and face to face are absent of their lovers, their chess players, the soon to be married and the just abandoned.

The great groups of circles and strange half-moons have lost their lecturers, their students.

All kinds of animals live at my parents’ camp. My parents go every weekend, wake up early and sit on the porch sipping their coffee and watching the animals go about their lives. While some homeowners along the lake try to run the animals off (the owls and geese leave too much poop), my parents pretty much love every last one that takes up residence in their yard. They’ve put up birdhouses for a few different kinds of birds, including purple martins and wood ducks. But they also loved the water snakes, harmless to humans, that could be seen swimming toward shore with a small fish in their jaws, trying to get on land to enjoy their catch.

But this weekend, we found a snake in one of the purple martin houses. Each of the houses is actually a cluster of little abodes for several bird families mounted on top of a tall pole, specifically for the purpose of keeping predators out. Around 9:30 a.m., I was out on the end of the dock, lying in the sun. Dad had gone out of buy groceries for the day. Mom came to make sure I didn’t fall asleep in the sun, and on her way, she noticed the snake. By the time Mom walked all the way to the end of the dock, got me and came back, the snake was totally inside one of the houses except for the last couple inches of his tale. We were sure he was still there by the way the mother bird flew frantic circles around the house. She’d dive in as though to attack, stop short, hover near the entrance to her house, then fly away again. She wouldn’t land on any part of the house, but she kept trying to attack and pulling up short of crashing right into the birdhouse like a kamikaze. Mom and I stood watching and cheering her on. “Go on, grab his tail! Pull him down,” we told her, unwilling to do it ourselves. Unsure of how we could help or whether we really should, we went inside.

Around noon, my brother John arrived. He’d driven down from New Orleans because it was rare for me to have a chance to make this trip home, so we hadn’t seen each other in about six months. John and Dad got home around the same time, and Mom and I told them about the snake. The four of us started to brainstorm on ways to get the snake out of the birdhouse. “Well, we can’t just shoot him,” Dad said. Our neighbor had a Purple Martin house, too, and a snake got in it, so the neighbor stood right under the birdhouse with his shotgun and shot through the floor of the birdhouse. He got the snake, but he also blew the roof off the house. John thought maybe we could use a water hose to flood the snake out and then shoot him. We agreed that this was a pretty good place to start, so we mobilized. John started pulling out the hose, Dad went and got his shotgun and a couple shells. Admittedly, we thought we were hilarious.

As we stood out there on the lawn, sweating after only the slightest exertion, we realized spraying the snake would only cool him off. He’d probably be grateful and perfectly content to stay exactly where he was. We tried anyway, turning the hose to the highest water pressure it could muster, but by the time the water reached the birdhouse window, a good 10 or 12 feet up, it must have felt like just a gentle summer shower to the snake. He stayed put.

Then Dad remembered that he had a fishing pole that could be extended until it would reach the birdhouse. He grabbed it and used the pole to reach into the birdhouse. I’m not sure what he hoped to accomplish that way, but he waved the fishing pole around once it was inside the birdhouse window. All along, our idea was to annoy the snake enough to make him get out of that birdhouse, but he must have just coiled up inside, which was a pretty good idea on his part. If the fall from the birdhouse didn’t hurt him, being shot once he hit the ground sure would. When wiggling a fishing pole at him didn’t help, we retreated to the house to think on it and have lunch. We sat around the kitchen table having red beans and rice with red wine. Soda or even margaritas might have been a better choice, but we like a drink with our meals, and the margaritas are so sugary they make my teeth feel all wrong. So we had a glass of red wine, and about the time we finished eating, our cousin Greg and his girlfriend Sally showed up.

We’d planned to probably fish or kayak around the lake or possibly take the boat out, or maybe just sit around sipping margaritas for the rest of the afternoon. I was thinking of lying out on the deck again later in hopes of reducing the glow from my lily white legs. But we couldn’t commence the lazy afternoon without telling them about the snake. Greg and Sally had a beer and the rest of us had our wine while we rehashed everything we’d tried through the morning.

Rejuvenated by our lunch and our new company, and questionably inspired by our wine, our troop of six marched back out to the birdhouse to try again. This time, I picked up Dad’s camera on the way out. First, John shook the birdhouse. Water, we had concluded, was too good for the snake, since he was most likely just a water snake who’d found his way up from the lake for a snack. But if the goal was to irritate him, then shaking the birdhouse would probably do it, and it did. He stuck his tongue out at us, but showed no signs of exiting. He must have known he was safer in there than out on the ground with us.

Greg then made a noose with fishing line, tied it to the end of the fishing pole, and pushed it through the birdhouse window. “Heeeeere snakey snake,” he said. “Stick your head in the hole.” He waved the pole around inside the birdhouse, and the snake dodged. Dad’s next idea was to tie fishing hooks to the pole and try to pull the snake out. That didn’t work, either. John went back to shaking it. We’d hoped to preserve the bird nests, in case the birds weren’t already too scared to come back after having their home invaded by a snake, but after being soaked with a water hose and shaken, parts of the nests were flying out of the windows, and it was clear that the fight was between us and the snake. The birds were gone, and their eggs probably were, too, as Mom had seen the gluttonous snake make his way from one window of the birdhouse to another, making his rounds and filling up. Now we were disturbing his afternoon nap, and as John shook the birdhouse, it seemed the snake wanted to unload some wares. We started to notice something bulging out the window, and at first we thought it was the side of the snake where he was swollen from the eggs he’s stolen. But then, out fell a bird. An adult bird that might have been sitting on eggs or might have gone into the house without knowing what was waiting inside. After the bird fell to the ground and the snake recoiled himself comfortably inside, we knew what had to be done.

Greg went and got some tools from the garage. Dad got his shotgun back out. I was still hesitant about killing the snake — hoped we could shake him out of the birdhouse and let him slither away, maybe even shake him right into the lake. But the others seemed sure he would continue to hunt our birds, and in any case, he had no business climbing all the way up that pole to get those eggs. That was the whole point of placing the house so high and away from trees. His being up there to begin with was a sure sign he had to go, I guess.Together, John and Greg dismantled the pole. Top-heavy, it immediately tipped over in John’s hands, so he went on with the shaking operation. We all leaned closer to see if the snake would come out.

After our day long standoff, we barely expected to see him, but then out he came, about half of him at once, all muscular — not flopping out like the full, lazy beast we expected. I grabbed hold of the camera and bolted back to the safety of the walk way. The snake hit the ground and kept moving, but before I could turn around to get his picture, there was a gunshot. The first one went wide, but the second shot got him, severed the head and first six inches or so of the snake from the other foot of his body. The upper part continued to squirm pathetically, so John chose to put him out of his misery with a third shot. I chose not to take a picture of the dead snake. I picked up my wine glass and went back inside, and that was the last I saw of our snake.