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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Animal spirits

One of the thrills of walking our woods is the chance of seeing wildlife. Ironically, we almost never see animals on the trails we hike in the Camden Hills. Growth is too thick, sightlines too limited, and our progress by snapped twigs and avalanching stones gives us away. It's near human roads and fields that the animals allow themselves to be seen. As I've written before, we see deer most frequently, and only occasionally a fox slinking along the shore, or a grouse exploding out of the underbrush, or an owl in an oak. And even though deer are really quite common (the other day, when my wife went out to the grocery store at dusk, she saw six of them in our neighbor's yard, five of which ran in a row across the road in front of her car and the sixth in politeness or terror waited for her to pass), I still hope on every walk to see one.

I can't help but believe that the motivation is a spiritual one. Here runs (or flies) a being that is other than a human, untamed, temporarily free of our guns and our traps, tuned perfectly to the music of its place. For a moment I lose my conscious self. There's a quiver of joy. For a second or two I am not cut off from the spiritual world. My Western training to dominate and rule, be fruitful and multiply, has been rendered silly by the very fact of a free spirit regarding me with dispassionate interest.

The Penobscot Indians who have lived in this area for thousands of years have that intimate knowledge of the Other not for seconds but for lifetimes. They believe that each animal species mimicks humans in its social order, leadership, rites and importance. Humans are just trickier, a more resourceful animal. In the hunt, an animal plans to give itself to the human arrow or spear, and is therefore treated with immense respect in death. And so it's as if my second of joy is a holy sightline, an arrow flying to another world and lodging in a heart foreign to mine only in its disdain of the commands of Genesis 1.

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