The Birds of Summer

Oh no! It’s one of Patricia’s Nature posts! What, is William asleep at the keyboard? What about those other guys over there — how can they just let this happen month after month? Somebody call her to repentance and make her write something Mormon, woncha?

Heh, sorry! (But not really.) I just don’t see the diff. All those who believe love of nature to be a form of idolatry, proceed at your own risk!

Somewhere between the full ear and the red leaf, summer’s song flies south.

Several days ago I sat on the back porch talking on the phone with a friend. A young black-chinned hummingbird whirred around me, looking for the nectar my presence on the porch had often signaled during the summer. Alas, I had taken the feeders down to encourage our birds to migrate, the black-chins to wintering grounds in Mexico in the general area of Mazatlan and Manzanillo and the rufous hummingbirds to points farther south.

I have since discovered that this belief that hummingbirds won’t migrate if there’s food around is utterly false. I should have figured that out when most of our birds left before I took down the feeders. One of the pitfalls of stewardship is that sometimes we act in good faith without knowing what is actually necessary or true.

Still the — don’t laugh — pain of imminent separation needled me. Hummingbirds are found everywhere in Utah, but this was my first year playing hummingbird hostess, and I had fallen completely and irretrievably in love with my flamboyant, high-speed guests.

When we noticed the birds’ arrival in spring, my daughter designed and manufactured homemade feeders and put them up, filling them with the recommended 1-to-4 nectar mix. Our second-story porch acquired the ambiance of a rowdy bar as gangs of tiny, feathered brawlers swarmed to feed, joust with and body slam each other. Since we left the doors to our porch open all summer, our entire upstairs rang with the birds’ trilled war cries. My son remarked the racket sounded like speeded up starship battle scenes from Star Wars.

Taking an exact census proved impossible, but at times we counted fourteen hummers zipping like iridescent meteors around the feeders, their sheeny throat patches flashing colors I don’t think we have names for. Coppery-orangy-red? Ruby-glitter-red? Opalescent deep violet? Sometimes I averted my eyes to control the effects such colors had upon me.

The kids discovered that if they sat very still and laid their fingers along the feeders’ rims the birds would perch on their fingers to dip into the nectar. I asked my daughter if she had seen the hummingbirds’ tongues. She had, of course. “They look like transparent threads,” she said.

This is why I moved to rural Utah — so my children would mix with other species. And mix we all did. Early on, I removed three hummingbirds from the house: Two became trapped in the kitchen skylight and another caught its beak in the weave of a window screen. A few others flew in then found their own way back out. Eventually we learned not to place the feeders so close to the back doors and the birds learned they didn’t want to come inside after all.

In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv says, “… a room with a view of nature can help protect children against stress, and … nature in or around the home appears to be a significant factor in protecting the psychological well-being of children in rural areas.” I suspect my own no-holds-barred involvement with wildlife where I grew up may well have charged my sanity batteries to where I was able to make it through long stretches of trouble. So it is perhaps out of a very old instinct that I have led my kids back to another nature-rich environment that has had great meaning in my life, not just to replenish myself, but also to dip their lives in what remains of the fullness of this Earth just as Achilles’s mother Thetis dipped him in the river Styx.

By summer’s end, I often felt hummers’ wings graze my hair as birds chased past. I watched them fly beneath my arms as I leaned on the porch railing. Bright summer day after bright summer day, our family enjoyed their antics and elan. One adult black-chinned male caught on quickly to my role as nectar-bearer, drinking from the feeder while I filled it. One morning I was late replenishing the empty feeders. As I stepped out the door, this bird zipped up to my face then back to the feeder, urgency flying off his tiny person in sparks. He drank straight from the container as I poured from it.

As summer thinned out, our hummingbirds grew fat and sassy. They seemed to be in great shape for migration and well-satisfied with their seasonal visit. Most of them left over a week ago, but a few stragglers, like this little one, hung back. I broke off my phone conversation and gestured south toward the Carrizo Mountains in Arizona. “Go! Fly south! That way!” I said.

I had allowed my children to touch the birds — or rather, I had allowed the birds to touch my children. That’s how children learn — using all their senses. That’s how they learn to love. Birds, too, in the ways birds learn and love.

But except for incidents of necessity where I rescued birds in the house, hand-carried them outside, and felt their hearts beat fiercely against my closed palm, I’d had no direct contact. It was enough for me to share their space, to trust their competency in high-speed flight, and to feel the touch of their eyes as they appraised my intentions.

But at last the urge to say thank you and goodbye and Godspeed got to me. I stretched my hand toward the bird perched above me on the wire. “Ohh,” I groaned. It was a poor sound for expressing my full range of feeling, but there it was. To my surprise, the bird flew down, halting, hovering, to my fingertips and probed between my fingers with its beak. Just a twinkle of contact, but the sudden force the surprise and delight provoked in me shifted the meaning of my whole day.

Today the porch is quiet. We’ve seen no hummingbirds at all. As if to take the edge off my sweet sorrow, cliff swallows have moved onto the power lines around our house as they prepare to migrate, bringing this year’s brood of fledging aerial acrobats with them. The swallows fill our yard with their sparkling flight and twittering conversation. Yesterday, as my daughter and I hung over the porch rail wondering at the whirlwind of swallows streaking around the yard, one bird banked and dove through the six-foot-wide space between us and the back of the house, traversing the entire 20-foot-length of the porch, flying equidistant between roof and floor. Following its flight, we reeled 270 degrees on our heels and became part of the birds’ dance past us. “Wow!” my daughter said, breathless. I felt the tweaking of her attention span on several levels.

Involvement in Nature trains the eye and deepens language. In fact, language, as it has developed in humans, can be seen as one of Nature’s creative strivings and thus as a flourishing wilderness in its own right. Can it be doubted that any failure of involvement in Nature affects how we form our human bonds and how we worship the Creator of this place of burgeoning relations? Also, our art manifests the quality of those bonds and relations. I’ve listened to my chidren tune their own words to describe their experience with the natural world that now surrounds us, often relying reflexively upon metaphor. From my own childhood I brought to the human landscape all the depths of wonder and feeling Nature inspired in me. Translating such emotional involvement into human interaction didn’t always go smoothly. A mentor perceived my frustration at not knowing whether to hold back in feeling or in expressing depths of feeling. He spoke gently, as if pitying my condition: “My dear, it’s all right to love, and to love deeply.” These words provoked a rush of pent up belief and emotion, releasing me from a terrible spell that had deprived me of full human form.

Now that I understand that hummingbirds know their own business very well and don’t require my assuming responsibility that isn’t mine to assume in the first place, I’ll put the feeders back up and see what happens. In the meantime, we’re looking forward to the return of the birds of summer whose colorings and manners of flight appear to have evolved to carry summer’s spark from hemisphere to hemisphere and to fan fires of wonder in humans who bother to look up and pay them even the slightest attention.

Author: Patricia Karamesines

Patricia has been described as a poet, a novelist, a folklorist, an editor, and a literary critic. Certainly at times she behaves as if she were any and all of these and a few other things besides. Patricia grew up in the rural Virginia countryside, where she imprinted deeply upon the local flora and fauna. When she left the East to attend Brigham Young University in Utah she brought her impressionability with her, transferring it, perhaps irrevocably, to the desert Southwest. A literary nature journalist by nature, she does tend to write about the natural world … a lot. Whenever she can, she travels to the desert, the nearest place where the infinite becomes the obvious, and wanders from shimmering horizon to shimmering horizon (within reason). A firm believer in the dynamics of language, how language does things to and for people, and in the power of narrative for pro-creation and re-creation, and in the abilities of all language to multiply and replenish or to exploit and ravage, she is a constant explorer of The Possible. Her opinions are fluid, apt to change with the slightest revelatory experience or if, as she’s said elsewhere, magic words are uttered. She truly believes that she is always wrong and that the point of her life is to become less wrong—for her, a liberating concept. Patricia lives (at last!) in southeastern Utah with her husband Mark and their three children.

42 thoughts on “The Birds of Summer”

  1. I miss the hummingbirds of Southern Utah.

    Thanks, Patricia.

  2. William, don’t you have hummingbirds where you live? A quick look at my bird guide shows that Anna’s hummingbirds, Costa’s hummingbirds, Allen’s hummingbirds, rufous hummingbirds,some black-chinned hummingbirds, maybe some Calliope hummingbirds sweep into your area seasonally. Probably other kinds come through from time to time. If you haven’t been putting out feeders you might consider trying next spring and see what you get.

    Besides hummingbirds, Bullock’s Orioles visited our feeders. That was interesting, too.

  3. Thanks, Patricia. I enjoyed your essay. You brought to mind the birds of my summer: abundant waterfowl. This year, my first in a new place, I have taken particular pleasure in the disciplined flight patterns and rhymthic in-flight communications of ducks and geese. And my pointing two-year-old’s exclamation, “the geeses!” And the moment at a play (at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, theatre situated on the Boise River) when an actor had to hold his line while a “v” of geese flapped and honked its way through. Not bad engagement with “nature” for city/suburb dwellers! Indeed, your post had me thinking about the implied line between “nature” and everything else. Maybe that’s a discussion for another day—I don’t want to detract from your lovely essay—but certainly one we should eventually have.

  4. Ah, what a lovely post! I live in a largish patch of woods in the middle of suburbia, and I feed birds, squirrels, chipmunks, racoons, neighborhood cats, possums, foxes, and occasional wild turkeys, coyotes, and hawks. The wonder and delight of breakfasting with these creatures and the fun of watching them throughout the day fill my home with warmth and happiness. I haven’t done hummingbird feeders because I already have trouble with ants, and I don’t want to encourage them. Also, hummingbird feeders are higher maintenance than thistle or sunflower seed feeders. But you tempt me to try it. =)

  5. Shawn said,

    “Indeed, your post had me thinking about the implied line between “nature” and everything else. Maybe that’s a discussion for another day—I don’t want to detract from your lovely essay—but certainly one we should eventually have.”

    Me:

    Actually, Shawn, part of the reason I write these posts is to prod and poke at those implied lines. (BTW, why do you say “implied”? IMO we’ve gone way beyond implication in our dominance and exploitation rhetorics.)

    I do think that the “natural” division we humans believe separates us from the “natural world” is an artificial construct. As I watch how other species interact with each other and as I experience here and there moments where other species involve me in their business, I begin to suspect that we are not only the loneliest creatures on the planet but also that we are the most unaware of our loneliness. We dress it up as the responsibilities of stewardship or progress or higher intelligence, but deep down we may be suffering the effects of social isolation born of a dysfunctional relationship with the world around us.

  6. Tatiana said:

    “I live in a largish patch of woods in the middle of suburbia, and I feed birds, squirrels, chipmunks, racoons, neighborhood cats, possums, foxes, and occasional wild turkeys, coyotes, and hawks.”

    Me:

    What! No bears? I’m not sure what all we have here yet. Turkeys — yes, seen them and heard them. Coyotes –definitely, we’ve heard them every night lately, and this morning I enjoyed a good coyote chorus just as the sun rose. Possums — don’t know. Hawks, eagles, ravens buzzards, vultures — an abundance. Yesterday my daughter and I watched a hawk harass a flock of crows settled in the junipers across the back pasture. The hawk wasn’t hunting, it just seemed to get a kick out of diving into the junipers and provoking the crows, which flew up in black clouds each time, cawing their protests.

    “I haven’t done hummingbird feeders because I already have trouble with ants, and I don’t want to encourage them. Also, hummingbird feeders are higher maintenance than thistle or sunflower seed feeders. But you tempt me to try it.”

    You’re absolutely right, hummingbird feeders are higher maintenance and when you have them you need to take care of them so that your hummers stay healthy. Because our feeders are totally open, I washed them before refilling them, which amounted to twice a day.

    In the garden among the vegetables, I planted a three-foot wide and twenty-five foot long swath of flowers for the hummingbirds’ benefit. Once the garden matured, several of the birds took up residence there, perching on the tomato cages and corn stalks and frequenting the flower patch brimming with poppies, cosmos, pineapple sage, black-eyed Susans, bachelor’s buttons, four o’ clocks, rocket, etc. The scarlet blooms of two so-called Anasazi bean plants that my neighbor seed-shared with me were a smashing hit, too. Next year I’m planting a lot more flowers for the birds.

    But having them come to the feeders on the porch has its benefits. I saw birds flying along the porch railings and up and down its supports picking off gnats and other small insects. Anyone who has dealt with the pugnacious no-see-ums can appreciate the value of this service. BTW, nectar merely fuels hummingbirds for their bug-hunting forays.

  7. “I begin to suspect that we are not only the loneliest creatures on the planet but also that we are the most unaware of our loneliness. We dress it up as the responsibilities of stewardship or progress or higher intelligence, but deep down we may be suffering the effects of social isolation born of a dysfunctional relationship with the world around us.”

    You seem to idealize “other species” and their interactions while taking a rather dim view of people. Is this warranted? All of us (people, critters, trees) inhabit the lone and dreary world. Might “fallen” be more appropriate than “dysfunctional” to describe the world around us (including us)? Are we saying the same thing in different ways?

    I mean, I like wild, beautiful things, particularly naturally ocurring ones. And I would like to spend more time hanging out with them. But no amount of pretending to be back in the garden of eden will put me there—let alone pay the bills. Of course, some people do get paid to chill with plants and animals. I sometimes envy my late grandfather (dairy farmer). But alas, the family dairy ceased to be profitable a long time ago and I have been relegated to the position of a sometimes lonely, sometimes bored, overpaid symbol manipulator. Fallen but functional.

    P.S.: you use the words “dominance” and “exploitation” as if such things are unequivocally bad. Not so!

  8. “You seem to idealize ‘other species’ and their interactions while taking a rather dim view of people.”

    Okay, I’ll bite. And your reasons for saying this would be …?

    “Might ‘fallen’ be more appropriate than ‘dysfunctional’ to describe the world around us (including us)? Are we saying the same thing in different ways?”

    Occasionally I rely on the usual meaning for “fallen world” to make a point, but actually, I don’t look at the world as “fallen,” with the possible connotations of having lost position with God or “having lost primordial innocense and happiness” (Amer. Her. definition). I used to, but after continuing thought on human progress and spiritual awareness I have come to think of the world as “rising.” Not “risen,” with all its connotations for having attaining a perfected state, but “rising,” which is to say, I don’t believe the frontier for human development (progress, consciousness, what have you) has closed or come anywhere near closing, and that’s without figuring post-mortal progress and development into this equation.

    “But no amount of pretending to be back in the garden of eden will put me there—let alone pay the bills.”

    No way am I going Back to the Garden http://www.motleyvision.org/?p=249. Wild, beautiful, free-ranging horses couldn’t drag me. Check it out: “Peace of the sort that we romanticize exists in the big ‘G’ garden arrests development. Peace, defined as the absence of tensions and perhaps even of choice, keeps us childish and dependent.”

    “P.S.: you use the words ‘dominance’ and ‘exploitation’ as if such things are unequivocally bad. Not so!”

    I said, “IMO we’ve gone way beyond implication in our dominance and exploitation rhetorics.” I was merely suggesting your word “implied” understates the situation. Clearly, it pleases mankind to believe that God made man “to have dominion over the works of {His} hands; [He] has put all things under his feet: All the sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field: The fowls of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.”

    Sometimes I wonder if human agency is the flower of this world, the farthermost and possibly most ingenious extension of this creation’s drive to create. As such, perhaps it has in part developed (or exists, or has always existed but its nature is still unfolding) to aid other species in making choices as they strive to take the next step in their individual and collective evolutions.

    I don’t think we have the language yet to describe what we might still be out there on our frontier. Words like “dominance” and “exploitation” have their pragmatic, “un-bad” meanings but may one day become relics of our language.

  9. You know, now that I think about it — we have seen a hummingbird or two nosing around our juniper bush. I admit the feeders thing is mainly laziness on my part. Plus the fact that my mother-in-law has drilled into me correct feeder practices.

  10. Wm,

    Perhaps your family has space/time to plant a small hummingbird garden. Then you not only get the hummingbirds but also any miscellaneous other birds, bees, and butterflies that might be around plus nice colors, scents, and plant matter for your little ones to experiment with. Adults might benefit, as well.

    http://www.hummingbirds.net/attract.html

  11. Patricia, I have the same feeling about the purposes of our connections with other species. I act in the role of a god of sorts to them, to my wild things, by providing for them, and because I’m more powerful than they in so many ways. Because there are many things that I see and understand about their lives which are beyond their ability to know. I feel a responsibility to (in my role as a god) represent godhood in a way that is good.

    I suppose you might view it as parenthood, alternately. When I take on the role of a mother to my various animals, (and they definitely respond to us as though we were their parents) I want to be a good one.

    There is a neighborhood cat who took 3 years to let me pet him. He’s very shy. Now he loves me and runs to see me any time I go outside. He has signs of a flea allergy, and I have some magic stuff that will get rid of the fleas if I rub it on the back of his neck, that I bought for him. My quandary now is, do I put this stuff on him, which he probably will not like, and won’t understand the purpose for? I have built up his trust gradually over the years, and this will erode it again. On the other hand, I see that he is suffering from the fleas, and I can fix that easily. So what do I do? (He’s not my cat. He just hangs around. My own cats I treat when they have illnesses, and they accept it well, though they don’t like it much.)

  12. The question is, to what extent we should honor the agency of small creatures which we have under our power, and to what extent we should do what’s good for them, by force if necessary. It’s a difficult question.

  13. Tatiana,

    I’m sorry I didn’t get back to this thread earlier but for the first time in a three weeks I had a chance to get out and hike today and I took it!

    In #11 and #12, you use the word “power” in an interesting way:

    “I act in the role of a god of sorts to them, to my wild things, by providing for them, and because I’m more powerful than they in so many ways.”

    And:

    “The question is, to what extent we should honor the agency of small creatures which we have under our power”

    In order to carry on in this conversation I need to understand the connection you make between godliness and having power over others. So I’ll ask the obvious question: Do you believe that the condition of having power over others or of being more powerful than they are is a distinquishing characteristic of godliness?

  14. I think power is the ability to act, to cause effects, to accomplish things that we intend to do. Power, in this sense, is the ability to apply our agency to the world, or to other beings, and implement our choices.

    Yes, God is powerful, and gods are powerful beings. Knowledge and understanding are powerful. It is by understanding (e.g. I see the typical pattern of hair loss on Pete’s hindquarters and know that it shows he has a flea problem) and knowledge (e.g. I know that the magic elixer when rubbed on the back of a cat’s neck will keep fleas off for a month) and power (I’m larger and stronger than Pete, and can force him — at least the first time — to accept this treatment, which I know he wouldn’t choose on his own) that I am able to carry out the desire of my agency, (that Pete would be healthier and more comfortable). The problem is that Pete will almost certainly never understand the connection between the unpleasant and probably smelly stuff on the back of his neck, and the lack of fleas. He will choose, I feel nearly certain, to have no such treatment.

    I do think that intelligence, understanding, knowledge, and power are all aspects of godhood. Godliness is perhaps better defined as the wisdom to know the right way to apply those things to the universe to bring about Good. In this case, I have been given the power, and I’m trying to decide the most godly use of that power. Following God’s example would mean offering the medicine to the cat, and accepting his decision about whether or not to take it, I suppose? That’s what I’m not sure about.

    For my own indoor cats, I do use force. They accept me as their mother, and sometimes, even if it’s unpleasant, we do what mom says because she knows best. That may be simply because I’m not emotionally strong enough to watch them suffer and die with troubles I can fix, while standing by and doing nothing other than trying to coax them into taking medicine that I’m sure they won’t ever agree to accept. My own cats, then, I have decided to treat as children for the duration of this life. They seem to accept that relationship, and to choose it. They come tell me when they are feeling bad, for instance, instead of hiding so I won’t try to give them medicine. But Pete is different. He is shy and has only come to trust me after years of contact. Do I betray that trust by doing something to him that I know he doesn’t want? Or not? I wish I knew the right answer.

    My understanding of God may be deeply informed by my outlook as an engineer, actually. Sometimes we don’t realize when we see things differently than other people. Do you not see power as a characteristic of godhood? I see God as the divine engineer, artist, healer, maker, builder, and parent. The conclusion I draw is that he chooses not to use his power to force us to do things, that he makes it a point not to.

    Should I conclude from that that a good parent never takes their child to the doctor, though? That is surely wrong. In order for a child to live to adulthood, we have to do some things by force, for instance, we have to prevent by force the child from toddling off cliffs, etc. There are situations and relationships in which free agency is overruled for a higher good. In our relations with animals, when are we justified in using force? For me these questions are all tied up together.

  15. Thanks, Tatiana, for answering my question as a question and not taking it as a challenge (as some around here seem inclined to do). As an aside, I think that the question is a great gift in our language; I rank it up there with the metaphor as a way of getting across to meaning and as a way of getting meaning across.

    Sooo … tell me if I’m in the ballpark: When you say,

    “I act in the role of a god of sorts to them, to my wild things, by providing for them, and because I’m more powerful than they in so many ways.”

    And:

    “The question is, to what extent we should honor the agency of small creatures which we have under our power”

    you’re not automatically equating power with control. That is, a person may have power and exercise it but it doesn’t necessarily follow that a person exercising his or her “power over” something or someone (as you say it) is controlling that someone or something. For you, exercising power seems to run more along the lines of exerting influence.

    Is this close to your meaning?

  16. Well, yes, it can be both. Obviously I have the power to force my cats to see the doctor, something they would under no circumstances do on their own. =) Also, I have power that people have given me to influence them, which is dependent on their agency and can be withdrawn at any time. Also, inanimate objects can be controlled by my power, as when I design a system of wires, devices, and machinery which will gracefully carry large products in a factory from the point of manufacture to the warehouse. I can choose how best to use my power or influence in any of these arenas. Forgive me if I”m not answering what you”re asking. I am not sure I understand what your questions mean.

  17. I agree that questions and metaphor are both amazingly powerful aspects of language, as is writing. Humans are more godlike than the other animals in large part because we have these tools, along with our ability to learn and understand, which I guess I would call intelligence. Intelligence is the light of God, so I wonder what God’s language is like. =)

  18. Okay, so at times, for you, force and control are part of exercising your power over other things, animate or inanimate. So if you attempt to exert force or control (or influence) over something or someone but fail does that mean that despite your higher intelligence and understanding you have been rendered essentially powerless? If you try to dose your cat friend with flea medicine and he defeats you does the power then transfer to him because he has achieved his ends and you haven’t?

    Another question: one of the qualities we seem to ascribe to godliness is the willingness to permit and even foster free will within the godly realm of influence. It’s an important belief in Mormondom that “God will force no man to heaven,” etc. And I can’t think of any example in Christ’s life where he forced healing upon or induced any other form of well-being in anyone who did not seek it. Likewise, God doesn’t force anyone into better health. So, what is it we’re doing when we force our children or other small creatures “under our power” to do that which is right, based upon our “higher intelligence” and understanding? Are we being godlike or are we merely being something we _believe_ to be godlike?

    Am I suggestint we shouldn’t take our ill children to the doc unless they request it or treat our pets with unpleasant-tasting medicines they don’t ask for? No. By all means, take them and dose them! I do. But I do wonder if in cases where we force or control others’ choices “for their own good” we are actually engaging in something that’s rather less than godly, something that, while it assumes, perhaps, a godly beneficence, dearly lacks the finesse of godliness. If we have to exert force or control, perhaps that actually testifies to our having a degree of _powerlessness_ in those circumstances.

    Of course, there is the really, truly, nasty side of forcing people to do things “for their own good,” but I don’t think we’re talking about that here. I think that when we act for what we believe to be good in this world we do the best we can and look forward to doing better.

    I’m no authority on the nature of God or free will or engineering. I am just in the habit of wondering if things mean what we think they mean. I like to wonder. Wonder keeps me going.

  19. Tatiana, I enjoyed what little I read of your essay while I was stealing a moment at work. I’ve just recently discovered this web site.

    I admit I skipped past most and read the final paragraph, and I just wondered if you could help me. I have kept out of fiction-writing since I became converted during my military experience because the genre seemed to demand an evolutionary and secular humanist mindset (I am now working on a couple of novels that are futuristic, interplanetary and yet do not fit that mindset).

    What is the significance of talking about birds’ evolution, and using the work “humans” instead of “people.” The distinctions may not seem important to some, particularly for human vs. people, but the language we choose tends to reflect our mindset.

    Is it because ardent nature lovers — the kind who write about their love, at least — use this language and you have adopted the lexicon of the genre, or is it because you choose to look at creatures as evlolved rather than created? As for “Humans,” are you avoiding the word we now consider gender exclusive, “man” or “mankind,” or because you simply don’t think of using a crossover word like “people”? Have you recognized that “human” is a word that means man as an animal distinct from other animals, but excludes him as a creation based on the divine template of the Creator?

    Let me add that I find your love of animals inspiring. Nibley was the grand soul who turned me on to the notion that the Utah culture of callousness toward animals — at least, in hunting everything for sport — was not pleasing to God. I later found statements by Joseph Fielding Smith and others, and of course the ancient scriptures themselves, confirming these things.

    I have many people get exasperated at me over my hyperanalysis of language. But language is the tool of my profession and I can’t help being vitally interested in why people choose one word over another.

  20. Preston,

    First, welcome to A Motley Vision. I hope you peruse all contributors’ past posts as well as their present offerings to get a good feeling for the full range of topics, intentions, and discussions that take place here.

    You said,

    “I have many people get exasperated at me over my hyperanalysis of language. But language is the tool of my profession and I can’t help being vitally interested in why people choose one word over another.”

    And

    “I admit I skipped past most and read the final paragraph …”

    Me: I, too, value close textual analysis. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone apply the word “hyperanalysis” to a technique that skips the body of the text under consideration!

    For instance, you ask, “What is the significance of talking about birds’ evolution?” Are you addressing this question to me because of something I said in the body of my essay? If so, I’m afraid the answer is, “Gee, I don’t know what the significance of talking about birds’ evolution is because I know very little about birds.” I’m not sure what in my post raised that question for you because I don’t recall addressing the topic of birds’ evolution. It must have been something you _didn’t_ read in the essay. :)

    You also ask what is the significance of my choosing the word “human” over “people,” “mankind,” “man.” Your question seems to rise out of a belief that the word “human” belongs exclusively to secularist lexicons so it can’t carry the full sacred weight of man’s actual nature and relationship to God, the Creator, the Great I am. Choose what word you like in your own writing as part of your portrayal of man’s intimate connections to God and I will take the responsibility to understand your use of that word within the context of your writing. That would be the analytically responsible thing for me to do.

    BUT! Just for the record, “human” is often used as a synonym for the word “person,” and the word “people” is commonly defined as “humans as a group” of one sort or another. Your definition of human as a word that excludes man as a creation based on the divine template of the Creator” appeared in none of the dictionaries I consulted. Could you provide a reference?

  21. “Of course, there is the really, truly, nasty side of forcing people to do things “for their own good,” but I don’t think we’re talking about that here.” That’s what I don’t know. Would the one who is using force (if they are truly sincere) actually realize the extent of the nastiness? I think I judge the right balance by the extent to which my animals seem traumatized by the experience.

    I want you to understand, because of something I think I may detect in your tone, that I am reduced to a quivering wreck sometimes by having to do these things, that every mother must do. I don’t enjoy controlling people or creatures in the least. I only do it sometimes because the alternative seems worse, for instance, to watch my beloved child (feline) suffocate to death gasping for breath because I’m too timid or fearful to force her to breathe albuterol through a face mask using an aerosol chamber. The problem comes when we really are at the limit of our understanding, and knowledge of how to make things better. When doing and not doing, all choices are ill. When in spite of our best efforts they still die, perhaps even hastened by some of our choices, made with imperfect knowledge.

    Worse than using force on a tiny helpless creature, is using force and being mistaken, causing harm instead of healing. :( My God, may she forgive me my mistakes!

  22. Patricia,

    I wouldn’t have latched on to “human” without “evolution,” but with the two together I wondered if you were taking a secularist approach or if you were just steeped in the terminology.

    By the way, I did not claim to be hyperanalyzing your text. I am hyperanalyzing words. I think the context of one paragraph is enough to ask about the use of the word “evolution” when praising nature, when it also appears in the context of an LDS web site. I’m surprised that you say it was used thoughtlessly, that you don’t know what you meant by it. I believe you are honest, and to me that says you have an evolutionary outlook. Words that fit our basic worldview are words we don’t labor over; they come quickly and naturally and, yes, thoughtlessly.

    I’m not accusing you of being an atheist. I know a great many Mormons who attempt to believe in evolution and the scriptural account at the same time. I consider this to be a contradiction, but do not think it makes people bad or unintelligent if they’re caught in the contradiction.

    My take on the use of “human” is not based on a dictionary definition excluding divine origin, it’s based on an observation of language-use patterns among certain writers and speakers. Like any writer, including yourself, I choose certain words for their flavor. And the word “human” is frequently chosen in favor of “people” because it is more clinical and less — and I recognize the irony of the term — humanizing.

    My questions are for the purpose of feeling my way in this forum, to learn its culture. I appreciate your help in introducing me to it.

  23. It would be highly rude of me to intrude into this friendly forum and be argumentative and disruptive. If my comments are out of place here please let me know and I will withdraw.

  24. Tatiana,

    You said, “I want you to understand, because of something I think I may detect in your tone …”

    Getting at the tone of posts and comments is part of the difficulty of working in this medium. I understand something about and share in the stress you feel as you try to figure out what is best for those in your care.

    You said, quoting me: “Of course, there is the really, truly, nasty side of forcing people to do things ‘for their own good,’ but I don’t think we’re talking about that here.” That’s what I don’t know. Would the one who is using force (if they are truly sincere) actually realize the extent of the nastiness? I think I judge the right balance by the extent to which my animals seem traumatized by the experience.

    I think it’s always wise for us to sit back and take a close look at our motives for doing something, especially when we take on the responsibility to try to help someone. One of the points of my post is that sometimes “we act in good faith without knowing what is actually necessary or true.”

    But when I said, “Of course, there is the really, truly, nasty side of forcing people to do things ‘for their own good,’ but I don’t think we’re talking about that here” I was referring to outright abuse whose purpose is to manipulate and/or control in order to obtain or maintain power or to do harm for the pleasure of doing harm. Many people who engage in such behavior tell their victims that they are doing it for the victim’s “own good.”

    I have a severely handicapped daughter. I put hours into her care every day. I do the best I can for her, and after spending years in the healthcare “system” I have discovered that we, meaning “people,” “humans,” haven’t come very far in how we treat the brain-injured, in part because we don’t understand the brain yet and in part because we still hold very old ideas about the worth of individuals who can’t hold down jobs or who we perceive can’t contribute to the community good. Someday we’ll know more — perhaps even enough to prevent the kind of injury my daughter suffered from happening. We may even come to an understanding about the value of having such people among us. I look forward to that day, but in the meantime the work I do with her I do in a pall of stress of the sort your describe here:

    “The problem comes when we really are at the limit of our understanding, and knowledge of how to make things better. When doing and not doing, all choices are ill. When in spite of our best efforts they still die, perhaps even hastened by some of our choices, made with imperfect knowledge.”

    My close questioning of your comments 11 & 14 was related to your idea about power and your description of your god-like relationship with your “smaller creatures.” I just wondered if you were actually expressing a very human lack of power in your relationships rather than a god-like possession of power.

  25. Preston,

    I had to do a word search to find out where I used the words “human” and “evolution” on this thread because I could not recall using them in my essay “The Birds of Summer” and I thought you were referring to my essay when your raised your questions, especially since you said,”I enjoyed what little I read of your essay while I was stealing a moment at work.” Now I see that I used the words evolution and human together in comment #8 and it was this comment you were responding to and not my essay. My apologies for the confusion. In this sort of forum the best way to reduce confusion (you can’t completely eliminate it) is to refer to the comment by number and/or cut and paste the portion of language that caught your attention. Then follow that up with your response. Like this:

    Preston: “By the way, I did not claim to be hyperanalyzing your text. I am hyperanalyzing words.”

    Me: Actually, you said in comment # 19, and I cut and paste to quote: “I have many people get exasperated at me over my hyperanalysis of language.” I took “language” here to mean my language or the “text” of my essay, especially when you mentioned you read (a little of) my “essay.”

    We’ve started off in a muddle. But given your comments here and on the Chris Bigelow Interview thread, it appears to me you’re scanning these threads for words that raise flags for you, words you have objections to. Given your comments # 19 and #23 on this thread, I believe I understand your position on the words “evolution” and “human” quite clearly and find no reason to discuss those matters further. Is there something else you’d like to comment on, like perhaps the essay itself or the lack of Mormon nature literature in general? For instance, you raise this point in comment #19:

    “Nibley was the grand soul who turned me on to the notion that the Utah culture of callousness toward animals — at least, in hunting everything for sport — was not pleasing to God. I later found statements by Joseph Fielding Smith and others, and of course the ancient scriptures themselves, confirming these things.”

    Might you want to develop these thoughts more, or is this all you really have to say on the subject of Mormon behavior toward the natural world?

  26. Patricia,

    I’m diappointed that you don’t want to discuss your use of “evolution” more, but I’ll take that as your silent consent to the correctness of my surmises.

    Thanks for educating me on how to better refer to passages, and I apologize for my carelessness in causing the muddle.

    You are correct in observing that I look for red flags. I am a bit of a reactionary.

    I am actually very interested in the morals of treatment of aniimals. Here in Arizona there is a proposition on the November ballot to require hog and cattle raisers to allow their animals — particularly young pigs and calves being raised for veal — to provide enough room for the animal to stand up and turn around. Signs around town here proclaim “Prop 204 is Hogwash.”

    I have to thank you for your posting because it got me thinking of things I hadn’t considered for a while, and I decided on Monday that I would vote in favor of the proposition. We have dominion over the creatures, but parents have dominion over their children as well. Dominion doesn’t grant the right to be cruel, and in Leviticus even the manner of killing an animal for sacrifice is prescribed, and is meant to be as humane as possible.

  27. Patricia,

    More language analysis. Although you might have different thoughts than your words indicate, “Mormon behavior toward the natural world” is a phrase that leaps out at me because of the term “natural world.”

    How are people not part of the natural world? I take your meaning to be, how should LDS people treat animals and what should their attitudes about preserving the beauty of the land and forests, etc., but to me I see everything as God’s creation and therefore worthy of respect. Naturalists have invented terminology that divides the world into people and nature, with nature being of inherent worth and people of dubious worth.

    The non-human world can only be called “natural” in two senses I am aware of: that beasts are controlled by their implanted nature but exercise little reason in comparison with human capabilities; or that it operates according natural to laws that humans violate because of their manipulation of technology that allows them to survive beyond their natural capabilities.

    I was impressed by an address given by an Elder Alexander (don’t recall his first name) at Weber State U around 1999 where he pointed out that the first commandment given to Adam was to dress and keep the garden. He then made the statement, and I must paraphrase slightly from imprecise recollection, that “The highest state of this world is not to leave it in a condition of untamed nature.”

    This is where I depart from the naturalists. I believe in having nature preserves, so to speak, and mountains are so gorgeous on their own that it would be a shame to cover them with buildings.

    But God has made the earth that it may be inhabited, and its purpose is to serve as the schoolyard for his most noble creations, his own offspring, mankind. He has given us creatures and plants and great mountains and oceans, rivers and forests to beautify his world and cause us to have joy in the wonder of his creation. But we are not here merely to prove our reverence for the earth the way we find it. We are also directed to subdue the earth; hence I believe in the building of dams, levees, drainage basins, breakwaters, etc.

    I think by cramming people into smaller and smaller yards in our master-planned communities, and our worship of public “open space” and “green space,” we are robbing people of their own open space and ability to be in contact with nature through a plot of grass they can call their own. And if we grieve to think of the world covered with buildings the way it will be — President Faust encourages us to believe that the world can handle a trillion inhabitants at once — then we are losing sight of the main purpose of the world’s creation.

    By all means love God’s creatures, have joy in them, treat them well. But remember, mankind is his chief creation and the greatest source of glory.

  28. Preston,

    “We are also directed to subdue the earth; hence I believe in the building of dams, levees, drainage basins, breakwaters, etc.”

    Ah, we may have been given the earth for our use, but remember the commandment regarding the earth had two parts: “multiply AND replenish”… it’s that replenish part people sometimes forget. We ARE meant to give back, too.

  29. Sorry, folks, for falling out of the conversation, but our internet went down Wed. night and we didn’t get it back till this morning (Fri.), but I had to go to work then and couldn’t pick up the thread again till now.

    Preston said, #27 above:

    “I’m diappointed that you don’t want to discuss your use of ‘evolution’ more, but I’ll take that as your silent consent to the correctness of my surmises.”

    Heh, well .. . that your “surmises” are “correct” is only one of several possibilities for what my silence on the subject could mean, Preston.

    Looking for common ground where we may meet in this discussion, I found this:

    “but to me I see everything as God’s creation and therefore worthy of respect.”

    Me, too. Including and especially people (you know — humans?), with all their problems and imperfections.

    And here:

    “But God has made the earth that it may be inhabited, and its purpose is to serve as the schoolyard for his most noble creations, his own offspring, mankind. He has given us creatures and plants and great mountains and oceans, rivers and forests to beautify his world and cause us to have joy in the wonder of his creation. But we are not here merely to prove our reverence for the earth the way we find it.”

    Me, too. Absolutely agree. Except I might take it a step farther. Beyond taking joy in the creation, humans are especially gifted to take part in the creative energy this world generates and to participate in that energy, acting in creative, productive, pro-active ways for the betterment of it. Having joy doesn’t take it far enough for me. Causing joy or making joy possible for others might get us closer to what I have in mind.

    “I think by cramming people into smaller and smaller yards in our master-planned communities, and our worship of public ‘open space’ and ‘green space,’ we are robbing people of their own open space and ability to be in contact with nature through a plot of grass they can call their own.”

    Me, too.

    “But we are not here merely to prove our reverence for the earth the way we find it. We are also directed to subdue the earth; hence I believe in the building of dams, levees, drainage basins, breakwaters, etc.”

    Preston, I don’t believe we’re here merely to prove our reverence for the earth either; I find the very idea ridiculous. The purpose of my “nature” posts is to raise the question, “Do we know as much about how best to improve, or as Teri put it (thank you, Teri!), ‘multiply and replenish’ the earth as we think we do?” Most of my nature posts explore this question. Read the essay: You’ll find two paragraphs that raise this very question right to the essay’s surface.

    I suspect you might have jumped to the conclusion that because I wrote this post about nature that means I don’t like humankind and then interpreted what you read of my words in that light. I’ve certainly seen people make that mistake before. The truth: I have a passion for people, a nearly inexpressible passion. My nature posts, along with my other posts and writings, are expressions of my feelings for my fellow man. Oh, and before the _absence_ of a word trips one of your red flags — and of my feelings for GOD.

    Allow me to make a suggestion: Try reading the posts and the comments on this site all the way through rather than merely scanning them for words or ideas you think might be objectionable based on what you imagine that certain lexicons signify. While some groups do co-opt perfectly free and vibrant language for their own purposes, rendering it foolish and flat or manipulative, language is more alive and active than that — hence poetry — and conversation is for more than simply agreeing or disagreeing. Among its higher functions: exploration and progression (as in “eternal”).

  30. Patricia,

    Thanks very much for your reply. I am happy to know we have so much in common; I am so used to getting beaten up by intellectuals, and I wanted to know if this was going to be one of THOSE sites.

    I look forward with great anticipation and pleasure to reading more of your posts — that is, ALL of the post when more posts come along.

  31. Patricia, in comment 25 you said, “I just wondered if you were actually expressing a very human lack of power in your relationships rather than a god-like possession of power.”

    I see God as also acting under a great number of constraints of various kinds, from the laws of physics to the things it is permissible to do to those in his power. The analogy holds up, for me. My cat Drive By would meow at me if her heating pad inadvertantly got turned off by a power blink, to ask me to turn it back on. She was fully aware that I could control the light and temperature in the house, the volume of music or lack of music, and a great number of other things. Sometimes cats think I have more control and influence than I do, as when my childhood cat, whom we allowed to go outdoors, would complain to me about the weather if it were raining or too cold, with complete faith that I could fix it for her. I wonder if we don’t do something similar, sometimes, when we pray to God that he should fix this or that thing which could be impossible by rules we don’t understand.

    It’s funny that I think we (you and I, Patricia) can’t communicate with straight exposition, but must use stories. My view of God, for instance, allows that he can place a hurricane exactly where he wants it to be, or cause one person’s house to be miraculously saved from a hurricane. These things are possible (for an advanced being) given the laws of physics that we now know (random quantum fluctuations of the vacuum plus the butterfly effect from chaos theory). Perhaps in your view, God doesn’t take such a direct role in things.

    Tonight there was a mother racoon, with two babies tagging behind her. They are so adorable! She was continuing the tradition of generations of her family, I’m sure, teaching them about the magic bowls that refill with Purina Cat Chow each day. Actually they know that it’s me doing it, and even where I sit in my house, as I discovered one night when I forgot to put food out, and was sitting in a part of the house around the other side from where the food bowls are, and one racoon jumped up and whammed the window beside my chair, causing me to jump. It was as if she was saying “Hey, you in there! Don’t forget the food! What’s with the slow service tonight?” =)

    The little ones always cause me to refill the bowls if they are empty. I can’t turn them away hungry! But even in that I am acting as a god. The population increases, and if I don’t continue to feed them, some will starve. Some starve anyway, and sometimes there are fights. Sometimes I find the area around the bowls is stained with blood, and I mourn. Gods provide, and they act in love to make lives easier and healthier, but they can’t make sorrow and loss not exist.

  32. “Perhaps in your view, God doesn’t take such a direct role in things.”

    I can’t say I know everything I need to know about God to make such a judgement. I DO know I don’t take such a direct role in things.

    My feelings on the question of what my relationship is to the animals I interact are very unsettled. I would describe the stage I’m in now this way: I don’t think we know very much about ourselves (about humans) yet, let alone about what’s going on out there in the (brace yourself, Preston) rest of the natural world. I believe our stewardship ethic has a long ways to go to grow up, but if you ask me why I think that, I’d say because that’s the pattern in human development overall — that we don’t know as much as we think we do about ourselves or anything else and many times when we act in what we believe is good faith our best efforts result in trouble or even disaster. Sometimes we don’t even know enough to understand that’s what’s happening.

    I’ve had animals petition me for help but have not known enough about an animal to know how to help it (http://www.motleyvision.org/?p=186). I’m not imaginative enough, I’m not creative enough, and, perhaps, because I struggle in how I handle my life overall, I don’t have time enough to act in full-bodied beneficence toward all the creatures who might take up with me, though I at least ask myself every day how I might do better.

    Unlike God, I pick and choose the responsiblities I take on. This year I chose the hummingbirds, but I don’t think I’m anywhere near understanding how best to interact with them. I call them “my hummingbirds” or “our hummingbirds” not because I feel any sense of possession but because I have taken on the responsibility to understand them and to do the best for them I can, always looking forward to doing better. I am taking on ownership of some degree of responsibility for them.

    I guess I would feel happy if in my interactions with animals or even other people I could approach the level of involvement of a Mother Theresa. But a god, or god-likeness? Not me, not by a long shot. IMO, in and of itself, feeding and caring for someone or something doesn’t signify god-like behavior. Child molesters who have kidnapped children often do that for their victims. They even say they “love” their victims. They provide for them, they clothe them, they love them; in some cases, they even say they’re rescuing their victims. Therefore, what they have done must be (in their minds) good.

    Some kinds of victimizers allow their victims to roam freely and don’t actually hold them in physical captivity. They reason that if their victims return to them “of their own free will” that they must “want” or “need” bad treatment.

    I watched my hummingbirds closely and will watch them when they return next year to see if my interactions with them are causing them harm in any way. In the meantime, I’ve been educating myself to increase the chances that I’ll be able to tell if I am. Between educating myself and close observation I’ll be able to do better than I have. I question myself about the business constantly, not just about the rightness of my actions but about the rightness of my motives.

    Now there’s one thing I can say I am able to do with gusto and commitment: Question myself. Is that a god-like quality? Hmm.

  33. By deciding we know what’s best for other creatures, to the extent that we deliberately change their conditions, for the better as we suppose, I consider that we are acting in the role of gods. Note that we do this all the time to the humans around us as well as the animals and other creatures. And we mostly allow their agency to be the deciding factor. Your hummingbirds choose to come back to the feeders.

    Your description of victimizers who use free will astonishes me, for all the victimizers I’ve known do use force, but I suppose Satan is just like that. He never has to use force, just persuasion.

    Doctors and nurses in hospitals are accustomed to use force on their patients, who may have willingly come in, but their agency is taken because they are sick. People in ICUs are often restrained to keep them from pulling the respirator tubes out of their mouths, or for other greusome reasons, and some of them get a psychosis which is similar to that of torture victims in prison camps. An ICU is sort of a chamber for torturing patients, in fact, with the only difference being the intent of the torturers purportedly being to return their victims to health. One’s body responds to being treated a certain way, and the intent of the one doing the treating is somewhat of a detail at that point.

    Questioning ourselves, particularly when exercising godlike powers, is always in order. :)

  34. But when we offer someone a choice, thinking what we offer to be good, and allow them to decide whether they want to accept it or not, we commonly say that we are doing good for them. At least, to decide anything else is to become unwilling to act at all, and is to exercise dominion of another sort. (“I have some Godiva chocolate here and I would give you some but it’s bad for you.”) There are some people who believe feeding animals and birds healthy food that they enjoy is doing them harm.

    Of course, by this definition, there are some drug dealers doing good, so it’s very hard to define. =)

  35. I just have to triple post right now to say that while I was typing that, my cats interrupted me, saying in effect, “Stop all this theorizing about the morality of feeding animals and come FEED YOUR ANIMALS!” (laughs)

  36. Oh, they totally are! The whole household is arranged and run for the happiness and convenience of cats. But they are great bosses! Their favorite quality time activity is curling up together and napping. We share a deep love of bird watching. And they radiate contentedness and happiness throughout the entire domicile. They like things to be clean, and for everything to be the same, day after day. They demonstrate daily that most things I think of as chores, like laundry and bed-making, are actually fun cat-games. A home led by cats is a happy well-run place. =)

    Don’t tell me you aren’t the same way. I read your novel and the dog is obviously the star character! =)

  37. The truth: that dog has been dead 12 years. My life was completely different from how it is now. True — Ruby was a remarkable creature and I learned a lot from her. But I was single back then (like Alex is in the book) and could afford to accomodate her arrogance and eccentricities as well as appreciate her brilliance.

    Life has changed. My disabled daughter kinda runs the house now, a situation we’re negotiating. I don’t let my other kids get away with half of what that dog got away with. If Ruby lived in this household now I would have had to take a more dominant role with her in order for us all to manage.

    I do look forward to having more animals in my household but right now I’m in the process of rethinking everything. One thing I appreciate about the wild creatures that live in and visit the yard is that they don’t need me, except to not step on them when I’m in their space or otherwise do them harm. My world and the hummingbirds’ world overlapped on my back porch, but they really didn’t require much of me and they certainly didn’t need me to encourage them to migrate or to point out the way. That works for me. I wouldn’t take advice from them on certain matters, either.

  38. Oh, I might not have been clear enough: In my novel, the character Kit is indeed modeled on my dog Ruby, a Siberian husky I adopted back in the early 80’s. This has nothing to do with the novel or even this essay, but 1984, when Ruby was just a pup, we were even arrested together in what is now Barney Clarke Park in Provo, right in front of the 10 Commandments monument with the all-seeing eye on it. It’s a long story involving (among other things) a crow, a crowbar, a kite string, a .22 rifle, a tall guy named James who drove a gold ’67 Malibu, a mysterious baseball player who saved the day, and a policeman who lost the keys to his cruiser in the snow. I remember the furnace at the police station had failed, so it was cold in there. Ruby slept through almost the whole thing, tucked away in the front of my jacket like a joey, even during the time I was handcuffed.

  39. What a great story! I would like to hear the details. I’m sure Ruby kept you warm. I really loved that dog in the story! Yes, I am single, which makes accomodating my feline masters much easier. I say they are the bosses, but in truth, like all good family members, we serve each other all the time. =) It sounds as though your children and you do the same.

    I enjoy the creatures I feed the same way as you do the hummingbirds, as fascinating and beautiful creatures who don’t need me, other than enjoying what I provide them. But we are drawn inevitably closer together. I love to watch their interactions. If I step outside, the bluejays begin cawing to alert the whole woods that the new day’s food is coming. Of course I have to feed them after that! And the neighborhood cats outside make on me an even higher claim. Like The Little Prince’s fox wisely said, we become responsible forever for what we have tamed.

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