By Madronna Holden
I could swear that this honeybee above looked up from her busy work on the oregano this morning to look back at me.
It might be anthropomorphic to assume that there is something such as curiosity among the bees, but I have seen them investigate a novel situation in their hive with the same level of enthusiastic activity as any mammal might express.
When I lift the lid to peer into the hive out of my own curiosity, a number of the bees look back at me– just watching.
At the same time that I don’t want to pretend that I can read their motives from my human perspective, I also don’t want to mechanize these bees. Likely they are attracted by my movement, but I would prefer not to see their watching me as nothing but a reflex action.
During our rainy spring I twice saw different bees pause on their trips into the hive to help another bee into an upright position after she had slid on the wet surface and landed struggling and beached on her back. I don’t know how to explain this in mechanical terms– nor do I want to.
Mythologist James Hillman once remarked that we humans (at least in contemporary Western society) are prone to fear what we can’t control– and since the insects seem the least controllable of all species to us, we declare war on them with pesticides– so obsessed in our self-appointed task of destroying them we overlook the ways we are harming our own children in the process.
Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee had a different view of things in his tradition. He used to tell me his people emphasized that if we wanted to live long on the earth–as both individuals and cultures, we should live mindfully of the fact that the “eyes of the world are looking at us”– all the eyes of the earth. And it was what they saw of our actions that led to our long or short survival on this earth.
Many of us in contemporary industrial society don’t look for natural life to be overseeing and judging us– certainly we don’t live accordingly. But it is not a bad thing to aim for. Those who lived sustainably for ten thousand years on this land felt the necessity of upholding a standard of behavior of which more than human life approved.
And the way they treated this valley certainly did better for it than we have done in the last 200 years.
The Chewong of Malaysia traditionally saw it this way: each species has its own way of seeing the world– its own worldview. Many human cultures have used their sense of such diversity as they observed it in other species to teach them how to live full human lives.
In the quest for spirit powers in adolescent initiation rites throughout the world, a human youth sought an alliance with a more than human life whose power and insight would guide their adult life.
Such alliances between the human and more than human world are mysterious– since the lives of these others have more to them than we can explain in human terms alone.
Who am I to say why a white bird came to light in the top of the cedar my mother loved during the last year of her life? That bird followed her movements, sitting by turn in the tree facing her bed and the one looking down at her from the kitchen skylight.
I do know that she cherished and defended those cedars in which that bird alighted. She watched the sun touch their tips each day, signaling the morning she hailed with joy.
She and my father had refused to move into this house unless its builders found a way to construct it without taking down those trees. The builders resisted, wanting the easiest way.
My parents moved into temporary quarters after they sold their old house, waiting out the developers for months until they found a way way to build that house and protect those trees at the same time.
There was substantial history behind my mother’s words,”When I’m gone, don’t let them take the trees.”
Though she was often bedridden during the last years of her life, pulling herself into a wheelchair with great effort to move through the house, I don’t– nor do I know anyone who did– think of her as diminished.
Instead, all those who knew her experienced her the uprightness and power. Her spirit had a comparable rootedness, generosity and wisdom to those ancient trees that she had guarded–and now watched over her.
Our usual idea of transcendence is moving to a world beyond this one. But there is also transcendence of a different kind– transcendence that my mother achieved through the trees that held her spirit upright as her body folded in on itself with crippling arthritis.
My mother also loved butterflies. I have a pin that belonged to her of an enameled red butterfly. I never saw such a butterfly in real life until this past week, when a red butterfly of the same hue appeared at my house twice– once pausing a few inches from me so that I could inspect it at leisure.
I have not seen the like of it in the 35 years I have lived in this house– nor have I so far been able to find anyone who can identify it. (If anyone out there has any ideas, let me know).
I could say that after 35 years of allowing this small patch of ground defined as “my” yard to flourish without poisons, some special things have moved in. That is certainly a gift.
But it takes no explanation at all to enjoy the fact that the color of the butterfly– however it arrived in my yard– matches the color of the butterfly on my mother’s pin.
I want the stories that I know of this world to be , like this one, stories that strengthen our reciprocal place in the circle of life. I want to tell stories of a living world that looks back at me even as I look at it– in which there are lessons to be learned from both kinds of reflection.
This is my kind of science. The science that tenderly observes a world that is also looking back at us: the science that tells us how to express our human potential through intimacy with the more than human world.
The humblest creatures have essential things to teach us not only about our connections with them, but about ourselves.
I like to think how much we can learn by assuming a comparable humility of our own.
This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors) is copyright by Madronna Holden. Please feel free to link here, but any part of this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.
Filed under: Animals, Contrasting worldviews, environmental philosophy | Tagged: reciprocity, transcendence through connection with other species |