“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
— W. Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
I once dreamt that I was an octopus. I was not, as you might imagine, a psychoactive octopus tending to a garden for the benefit of a yellow submarine housing the best band ever (prove me wrong in comments). Nor did I exist as a free-ranging creature of the deep blue see who had a rich life evading predators and predating prey. Nope. Not me. I occupied the body of an octopus who had the misfortune of being in a small tank inside a lab. Inside my mind though, I was still me. I had no idea what they were going to do to me, but I knew my first priority had to be finding a way to communicate with them!
It’s no easy task. You might want to take a few minutes and just consider how you would go about it. Answers like “I would simply steal and pencil and write ‘I am here’?” Are not fair game. How are you going to get out of your little tank? How are you going to crawl around with no water? Although the octopus’s tentacles are pretty cool, there’s no guarantee you could exercise the proper control. Anyway, the point isn’t so much to solve the problem as to do these two things:
First, really imagine that you are an octopus and you have all the pros and cons associated with that in the real world but that you also have exactly your same sense of selfhood and you want to live.
Second, how would you go about telling your captors that you were alive and conscious and wanted to be put back in the ocean — and then, how would you successfully convince them to actually carry out your wishes? As I say, it isn’t so much the solution but the process of trying that I think is valuable.
Our communication with animals is actually quite remarkable. We have learned a lot from a host of scientific studies about things we did not previously know; e.g., how bees dance to communicate to other bees about the location of pollen sources. Even before the advent of science however, humanity has learned to to communicate to an extent with many kinds of animals. That ability has helped us survive. We have somewhat cooperative, somewhat exploitative relationships with numerous other species. And, we’re not the only species with those kind of cooperative/competitive relationships either.
I am experimenting, in a small way, with trying to understand more about the minds of other species and how to communicate with them. I generally greet all the “obvious-sized” creatures that I encounter in the garden in a friendly, cheerful voice. Why not? The price is right! And, although I am more than somewhat doubtful that they understand my words, I think that on average, they understand my love quite well. It’s possible that a tone of voice that is pleasant to one species is very unpleasant to another. But in general, I would expect sounds that are violent, discordant, loud, and suddenly loud would be unpleasant to most species and trigger a fight or flight response.
On the other hand, music or singing or speaking gently and re-assuringly is felt by most species to be pleasurable. Most will still scurry away, but they will let you get much closer. At least, that’s been my experience. Can you really imagine it otherwise? Meet a deer in the woods and scream at it and it will approach you? But if you walk up slowly and talk gently or sing, it will scamper off more quickly? If humans were that tone-deaf to other species, we would have never “domesticated” cattle, dogs, cats, birds, horses, etc. and our own lives would be immeasurably less rich as a result.
Now, we come to the issue of cats. It’s fairly easy to tell whether a dog understands you. I am not saying it is always easy to make a dog understand you, but you can tell when they do. A cat? Not so much. Oh, sometimes, sure. If you say, “Time for Dinner” and they all gather around, they know what’s happening and they show it. But in other cases, where there is no immediate reward, it’s hard to tell. I love my cats. And, I think, in many ways, they even love me back. But they’re out for themselves. You know it. I know it. They know it. And they know I know it. A dog is eager to please you. A cat believes in their very bones that you want nothing more out of life than to please them. And the ironic thing is, that because of that, it’s harder to communicate with them (which is actually bad for them). It’s very difficult to distinguish between their not understanding and their not caring.
Hence, I decided to make some communication attempts with my cats that were not aimed at getting them to do anything. Of course, that already happens with petting, for instance, but let’s see if further common ground can be shared in a conscious way.
Shadow is now our oldest cat. She is jet-black and bad-tempered except when it comes to Luna, our smallest cat. With Luna, she is homicidal. With the others, she’s just mean, particularly right before dinner. She’ll bat any other cat who comes within striking distance including her own two daughters who were adopted at the same time. On the other hand, she is very affectionate to humans and loves to sit in my lap and be petted.
At night, generally around midnight to 1 am, but it could be earlier or later depending on what would be most disruptive to our sleep cycle, Shadow has for years taken to finding cloth of various kinds and loudly crowing while she carries it about the house. Not terribly surprising, and more pleasant than the “partially eaten dead bunny” version.
After several years of this, it slowly dawned on me that she was often pairing things. She would put two paired socks down next to each other, often in lines that were close to parallel. She would not — or at least I never observed such — to put a sock next to a dish towel, for instance, while there were many instances of two socks or two dish towels. Sadly, this cannot be completely explained because socks are always closer to each other than they are to dish towels in our house. At first, the number of dish towels was limited because I would always put one where Shadow couldn’t find it. Over time, however, as she discovered more and more ways to find the dish towels she couldn’t find, the number of dish towels in any one … “arrangement” … grew.
Somewhat jokingly, I began to refer to the dish towel arrangements as her “works of art.”
But then, it occurred to me. Maybe they are exactly that.
Or, maybe they are moves in an elaborate game of cat and human that she is trying to teach me.
Or, maybe they are her attempt to communicate with me that she is a person — a cat of a person — or a person of a cat — who just happens to be inside a cat body. She cannot speak, or write. Her brain doesn’t allow her to do all the things I can do (or, vice versa, by the way). But to her, inside her heart, it’s much like me inside mine. And, if that’s true, then maybe we can learn to “communicate” using the dish towels.
For such an endeavor, I want to try to keep an open mind. I’m going to try not to assume that it’s a game or that we need to take turns or that she’s paying any attention to the world in the same way that I am. Of course, I will fail at this, but I think I will still learn more by trying than by not trying.
What do you think?