Lessons from Woodland Creatures

Natural creatures, though instinctively shy or timid, are not wildly governed by fears and terrors, as we have been misinformed from our youth up. The ‘reign of terror’ is another of those pet scientific delusions, like the ‘struggle for existence,’ for which there is no basis in nature. Fear in any true sense of the world is are exclusively human possession, or affliction; it is a physical and moral poison, as artificial as sin, which the animal escapes by virtue of being natural. It is doubtful, indeed, whether anything remotely resembling our fear, a state of mind arising from a highly developed imagination which enables us to picture events before they happen, is ever born into a hairy skin or hatched out of an egg. The natural timidity of all wild creatures is a protective and wholesome instinct, radically different from the fear which makes cowards of men who have learned to trace causes and to anticipate consequences.

So much for the mental analysis; and your eyes emphasize the same conclusion when you look frankly upon the natural world. The very attitude or visible expression of birds or beasts when you meet them in their native woods, feeding, playing, resting, seeking their mates or roving freely with their little ones (all pleasurable matters, constituting nine-tenths or more of animal existence), is enough in itself to refute the absurd notion of a general reign of terror in nature. If you are wise, therefore, you will get rid of that prejudice, or at least hold it in abeyance till the animals themselves teach you how senseless it is. To go out obsessed with the notion of fear is to blind your eyes to the great comedy of the woods.

The natural dislike of being watched

Sensitive creatures dislike to be watched, and become uneasy when they find a pair of eyes intently fixed upon them. You yourself retain something of this ancient animal inheritance, it seems, since there is nothing which more surely excites alarm if you are timid, or challenge if you are well balanced, or anger if you have a fighting spirit, than to have a stranger watching your every move while you go about your lawful affairs. The fact that you cannot word a reason for your alarm or challenge or anger makes you all the more certain that you have an unanswerable reason; which is your inborn right to be let alone.

This natural and inalienable right (which society curbs for its own protection, and reform societies trample on for their peculiar pleasure) may help you to understand why the animal becomes alarmed when he finds you watching him closely. He desires above all things else, above his dinner even, to be left alone; and your eye may as surely disturb his peace, his self-possession, his sense of security, as any gun you may shoot at him or any fire you may kindle in his fragrant domain.

You have but to think a moment in order to understand why even your look may be too disturbing. When a beast of prey sees a buck that he wants to catch, what is his invariable mode of procedure? First he hides, then he creeps or skulks or waits, all the while keeping his eyes fastened upon his victim, watching every move with fierce intensity till the moment comes to spring. It follows, naturally enough, that when the same beast of prey finds other eyes fixed upon himself,he knows well what the look means, that a rush will swiftly follow; and he anticipates the rush by taking to his heels. Or the buck, having once escaped the charge of a hunting beast, will remember his experience the next time he finds himself an object of scrutiny, and will flee from it as from any other discomfort.

Whether this action is the result of instinctive or deductive knowledge is here of no consequence: let the psychologists pick a bone over it. Since we have in our heads a strong aversion to being observed too closely, we are probably facing an instinct, which is stronger in the brute than in the man; but it is the fact, not the explanation thereof, which is important. The simple fact is, that wild birds and beasts will not endure watching; and you begin to sympathize with their notion when you mark the eyes of a stalking cat, with their terrible fire just before she springs. There is always more or less of that fire in a watchful eye; you may see it glow or blaze under a man’s narrowed lids before he takes quick action; and it is the kindling of that dangerous light which a sensitive creature expects and avoids when he finds you watching him.

Natural curiosity

A third bit of woods lore, is that natural birds and animals have a lively interest in every new or strange thing they meet. Far from being occupied in a constant struggle for existence as the books misinform us, their lives are full of leisure; they have plentiful hours for rest or play or roving, and in these idle times they get most of their fun out of life by indulging their curiosity. I fancy that in this respect, also, most people are still natural creatures, seeing that men or women in a crowd are as easily set to stretching their necks as any flock of ducks or band of caribou.

So strong is the animal’s inquisitive instinct (for it surely is an instinct, the basis of all education, and without it we should be fools, learning nothing) that he will readily give over his play or even his feeding to investigate any new thing which catches his attention. I speak now not of fearsome things, which may properly alarm the wood folk, but of pretty or harmless or attractive things, such as the repeated flash of a looking-glass or the rhythmic swing of a handkerchief or a whistled tune, which commonly bring wild creatures nearer with forward-set ears and eyes with questions in them. In a word, so far as I have observed birds and beasts, their first or natural attitude toward every new object, unless it be raising fearful smells or moving toward them with hostile intent, is invariably one of curiosity rather than of fear.

From How Animals Talk, written in 1919 by William J Long, published © 2005 by Bear & Co.

HOW ANIMALS TALK
by William J. Long

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