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Compassion and Reason


I was sitting on the porch with my favorite cat yesterday, enjoying the fall sunshine, when a butterfly landed on the deck, about four feet from us. Well, we all know how cats are when it comes to things that flutter. Schooner started to switch his position slightly, back muscles sliding under the fur… I told him to leave it alone or I’d beat his #@$. (I wouldn’t really, but he recognized the tone in my voice and knew exactly what I was saying.) His left ear flattened slightly (a sign of annoyance – if he’s angry both ears flatten) and he trilled bitterly at me, but stayed where he was. The butterfly lingered for a moment or two, then flew away, blissfully unaware that its life had just been preserved by a conversation between a man and a cat.

In only the last decade or so, has conceit and arrogance receded sufficiently for us to accept the fact that we are not the only creatures on this planet who reason. There has been sufficient scientific study in the field and in the laboratory to justify the conclusion that a number of animals reason, have remarkably coherent family structures, and to a degree, their own languages.

I know I have used it before, but I am compelled to repeat my favorite statement on the nature of animals, by naturalist Henry Beston, written a half-century ago:

“We need another, wiser concept of animals. In a world older than ours, they moved gifted and complete, with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained — living by voices we shall never hear. They are not our brethren, they are not our underlings, they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time — fellow prisoners of the splendor and the travail of the earth.”

That’s how I feel about it. You don’t have to agree.

While I’m recalling things, my father once told me a story about another remarkably intelligent family of creatures: geese. I’ve probably written this into a column somewhere else, but it’s just too perfect to omit.

Dad grew up in the country – a farm boy of the Midwest. One day, he was working in a hayfield next to a small pond. It was a windy fall afternoon, clear and cool, with wispy, high stratus clouds stretching out toward the horizon like thin strands of cotton.

Toward late afternoon, he heard a wild goose honking. He looked up to see the bird, alone and apparently confused, circling the pond and crying out frightfully. He watched the creature for a while as it continued an erratic loop of the pond, honking anxiously. It was obvious the bird was lost – its mate most likely killed by a hunter, but there was nothing Dad could do for it.

A few moments later, he noticed a vee of geese, so far off and high that they were barely visible. As he watched, the vee changed direction slightly, toward him, and one bird broke free. That graceful creature glided out of the heavens with a singleness of purpose, unerring, spiraling down to the lone, frightened goose over the pond. The newcomer honked as it passed by its lost compatriot, flaring and slowing, allowing the other to catch up. Then both turned in quiet communion and rose toward the others. My father said he watched as the newcomer reached the vee and it opened slightly, allowing him sanctuary. The frightened honking ceased and the geese carried on silently into the distant sky.

Should that we have such concern and compassion for our fellow travelers in the net of life and time.