Rekindle Your Wild Joy and Deep Belonging to the Earth

Welcome water dragon February 4, 2012

Gung hay fat choy!   (Happy new year!)  The Chinese New Year celebration this year began on Jan 23 and goes through Feb 6, kicking off a solar cycle thought to carry its own particular qualities – those symbolized by a particular type of being.

Welcome, black water dragon.

Chinese astrology involves animal imagery, the five elements, and numerous other interconnected, mathematically complex cycles. And Chinese New Year celebrations leave American New Year celebrations in the dust. (I’ve never witnessed a Canadian NY, nor any other, so will offer no further comparisons. But I know that firecrackers and dragons beat drunks singing off-key renditions of Auld Lang Syne any day.)

2012 brings the 12-year animal cycle back to the Dragon. And when we bring the 5 elements into it (water, wood, fire, earth, & metal), we realize we now return to the Water Dragon. Black water dragon, to be specific.

Chinese astrology also divides the day into twelve two-hour vigils, each of which is presided over by one of twelve zodiac animals. For example, 8 am-10 am is the hour of the dragon. But wait, there’s more: each animal is also modified by each of the five elements, or phases. This is very different from western workings with elementals, a system that involves the four of earth, air, fire, and water. Elements worked with in the Chinese system of both astrology and healing methods are five: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. The five moving in sequence form an overall sixty year cycle, known as chia-tzu. During each cycle, smaller increments of time defined as the “Twelve Earthly Branches” and “Ten Celestial Stems” combine with the signs of the zodiac to determine the Lunar New Year and other special dates on the Chinese calendar.

Complex enough yet?

Like in western pagan practice, Chinese also call the directions for ceremonial purposes. But they rely upon the corresponding animals. According to Theodora Lau’s engaging books on Chinese astrology, the Dragon watches over the direction of East-Southeast.

But I begin to digress. The seed of all of this that we’re now entering Lunar Year 4709 (as reckoned from the reign of the Yellow King), the Year of the Water Dragon.

Chinese astrologers believe that people born in specific animal years are pre-dispositioned towards the nature of the animal under which they were born, much as with the American horoscope. You’ve undoubtedly seen the oft-unflattering snapshot version on placemats in finer Chinese restaurants. “Dragon. 1916, 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012. Strong, proud, direct, eccentric, show off. Can be arrogant, violent, brash, controlling.”  But of course the 60-year cycle brings in even more complexity.

I moved away from California’s Bay Area last summer and especially miss being in San Francisco right now, because the parades are always amazing. They always include dancing dragons. And this year? With a dragon THEME?! Sigh.

To console us both, here is a link to gorgeous pix of Dragon Year 2012 celebrations from all over Asia.

And here’s one from an Egyptian astrologer, Al-Masry Al-Youm, spreading the wisdom of his visitor, Chinese astrologer Joseph Chung, for you to get your (quick and very limited) animal sign prediction.

Finally, for those of you who like complexity, here’s how to calculate more of your Chinese horoscope, including hours, lucky elements, yin/yang earthly branches, heavenly stems, and the like. And here’s their page specifically predicting your luck this year.

吉慶有餘  Jíqìngyǒuyú.   May your happiness be without limit.


Rat Empathy January 24, 2012

It will be no surprise to readers of Indigenize! what Univ. of Chicago researchers found in their most recent rodent study, published December 9, 2011 in Science.

According to Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, one of the co-researchers, it turns out that rats will spend a lot of time and energy figuring out how to open a cage if they see another rat trapped in it.

In fact, if faced with two cages, they’d choose to free their pals just as often as they’d choose to open a cage full of delicious chocolate for themselves. Now *that’s* compassionate action! The freedom of their friend was as just sweet to them as a big hoard of chocolate chips.

Further, even when the rats got the chocolate, they weren’t stingy with it. In more than half the trials, rescuer rats left some chocolate to share with the newly freed. Researchers were surprised by this rodent kindness or perhaps shared celebratory meal. Bartal says, “The most shocking thing is they left some of the chocolate for the other rat. …It’s not like they missed a chocolate. They actually carried it out of the restrainer sometimes but did not eat it.”

This was not the first time such an experiment had been done; not by a long shot. Stéphan Reebs reported in the October 2007 issue of Natural History reported on a study done at the University of Bern, Switzerland in which researchers Claudia Rutte and Michael Taborsky trained rats to pull a lever that gave food to a rat in a neighboring cage. These rats were then placed either next to other helpful, lever-pulling rats’ cages or near those untrained to be generous in that way. On the sixth day, they discovered that

“…rats that had been paired with helpful neighbors were, on average, 21 percent more likely to pull a lever for a new neighbor they had never encountered than were test rats paired with unhelpful neighbors. What’s more, the rats could distinguish between strangers and former benefactors. In another experiment, test rats that encountered a rat that had given them food earlier were—not 21 percent—but 51 percent more likely to return the favor. Notably, Rutte and Taborsky studied only female rats. No word on whether males would be equally obliging.”

Similar empathetic behavior has long been observed in other animals as well. Franz de Waal’s brilliant work Peacemaking Among Primates comes immediately to mind, as does the chapter about animals in the “Anarchist Prince” Pyotr Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid. Not to mention all those videos on YouTube.

What do such studies prove? Scientists now state it’s plausible these rats demonstrated “empathically motivated pro-social behavior.” The same behavior exhibited in people would generally be called helpfulness and even kindness or compassion. In the Swiss study, we also see how empathy begets more empathy; kind actions spread and come back to benefit the generous. University of Chicago neurobiologist Peggy Mason said, “Rats help other rats in distress. That means it’s a biological inheritance. That’s the biological program we have.”

So we can read into this finding a very important message for the currently dominant culture: Collaboration is hardwired into us as animals. Not cold, me-first, gotta win and get mine and the hellwithyou competition, but cooperation and collaboration. It’s NOT “survival of the fittest,” as ‘social Darwinists’ Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer mutated the message to be. It’s as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace themselves originally observed: “survival of the FIT,” meaning those who best adapt to the situations in which they find themselves. Both anthropological studies and game theory statistically show that cooperatively working together creates the most likely conditions for long-term survival.

You can read more about the U of Chicago rat study in this accessible report by Laura Sanders in the Dec. 31, 2011 issue of Science News:  He’s no rat; he’s my brother

Rat liberation: gotta love it.  I’ll end by saying that if we have to do studies on our kindred in other kinds of bodies, I like this trend of doing studies that involve the animals as themselves, instead of merely as test items for some product.


Animals Predicting Earthquakes March 30, 2011

Yomiuri Shimbun reported that after the recent earthquake in Japan, this 12-year-old Shih Tzu, “Babu,” saved the life of her beloved 83-year-old Tami Akanuma by forcefully and steadily leading her to the higher ground – before the first wave of tsunami came and swallowed their house completely.

It’s always a good idea to heed other animals on matters like this.

Similar examples abound: pet dogs and cats acting nervous like they do before big storms, bees leaving their hives, catfish violently flailing around, chickens ceasing to lay. Days before an earthquake devastated the Greek city of Helice in 373 B.C., animals including rats, snakes and weasels all were seen deserting the place.

I wonder what sort of senses they’re using that alert them to seismic activity. Could they be feeling changes in the earth’s electromagnetic field, electrical changes in the air? Maybe that has a scent! Or can they feel (or even hear) the change in vibratory frequency caused by minute early shifts deep in the soil itself?

Such evidence can easily be dismissed as anecdotal, but it seems to me that heeding what we observe in the more-than-human world is the basis of not only good science, but often of survival. Such a practice is how we’ve learned about a great number of the plants that formed the basis of some of our strongest modern pharmaceutical medicine, for example.

In documented instances where other animals’ warnings about earthquakes were accurately read and then acted upon, their ‘advice’ has proved quite beneficial. For example, according to National Geographic (Nov. 2003), “in 1975, Chinese officials ordered the evacuation of Haicheng, a city with one million people, just days before a 7.3-magnitude quake. Only a small portion of the population was hurt or killed. If the city had not been evacuated, it is estimated that the number of fatalities and injuries could have exceeded 150,000.”

I take comfort in the fact that we can still rely on these elder species for excellent advice. All we have to do is pay a lot more ongoing, respectful attention.



(Thanks to Tomoko Parry for sharing Ms. Akanuma’s story.)


Animal Aid: Rare Encounters on the Web January 11, 2011

There are many old tales of animals helping humans in marine settings — dolphins aiding swimmers off the coast of Greece, and seals herding schools of fish toward boats in the small islands of the British Isles.

Here follow two recent heartwarming tales of interspecies aid and kindness going the other way.


Tale the First –

In which a Number of Buck Deer Hitch a Boat Ride with Alaska Quest Charters, and are Not Even Charged Passage.

Four young black-tailed bucks swimming in Taku Inlet last October got in trouble when the winds came up, whipping the waves high and making the water freezing cold. As they shivered and lost energy and the threat of drowning from exhaustion and hypothermia became a real possibility, along came Tom Satre’s charter vessel. Uncharacteristically, these wild animals made straight for it.

According to the Juneau Empire, “This was the first time [Satre had] ever seen deer in this much distress. They were foaming at the mouth, and not able to make it onto the swim step, they instead swam under it. The group knew something had to be done.”

So they did what they would have done for a person: they helped the four young bucks aboard and warmed them up.

To get their chilled blood running again, the humans gave them massages!

Once the vessel landed, since the bucks were still too chilled to walk, the people carried them in wheelbarrows to safety on shore, waiting until they could stand and make it into the woods on their own.

How beautiful that these deers’ need was met in such a caring way!

You can read the full story and see a lot more pictures on Alaska Quest Charters’ website.



Tale the Second –

Whale Thank-You Kisses After Help



In December 2005, a 50-foot female humpback whale was likely enjoying another day of swimming along the usual migratory route, when she got tangled up in a knot of nylon ropes that link crab pots together.

A crab fisherman spotted her. Soon the captain of the whale watching/shark diving vessel New Superfish and other volunteers from the Marine Mammal Center were on their way.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the situation was like this:

[The diver] Moskito said about 20 crab-pot ropes, which are 240 feet long with weights every 60 feet, were wrapped around the animal. Rope was wrapped at least four times around the tail, the back and the left front flipper, and there was a line in the whale’s mouth. The crab pot lines were cinched so tight, Moskito said, that the rope was digging into the animal’s blubber and leaving visible cuts.

At least 12 crab traps, weighing 90 pounds each, hung off the whale, the divers said. The combined weight was pulling the whale downward, forcing it to struggle mightily to keep its blow- hole out of the water.”

Evaluating the situation, they realized the only way to save the whale would be to dive into the water with her and cut the ropes.This would be a very risky maneuver, because a single flip of the humpback’s massive tail could kill a person.

Moskito and three other divers spent about an hour cutting the ropes with a special curved knife. The whale floated passively in the water the whole time, he said, giving off a strange kind of vibration.

“When I was cutting the line going through the mouth, its eye was there winking at me, watching me,” Moskito said. “It was an epic moment of my life.”

When the whale realized it was free, it began swimming around in circles, according to the rescuers. Moskito said it swam to each diver, nuzzled him and then swam to the next one.

“It seemed kind of affectionate, like a dog that’s happy to see you,” Moskito said. “I never felt threatened. It was an amazing, unbelievable experience.”

After describing his experience, it seems as though Menigoz may have suddenly worried what folks enmeshed in the industrial growth paradigm, where only humans get to claim consciousness, would think. Or perhaps the experts or reporters gave him the hairy eyeball.

Whale experts say it’s nice to think that the whale was thanking its rescuers, but nobody really knows what was on its mind.

But he still stood by the power of the encounter:

“You hate to anthropomorphize too much, but the whale was doing little dives and the guys were rubbing shoulders with it,” Menigoz said. “I don’t know for sure what it was thinking, but it’s something that I will always remember. It was just too cool.”

According to the Marine Mammal Center, this was the first time an entangled humpback was successfully freed on the West Coast.

The moving photo that has so often been paired with it is just as real, but according to (the best urban-legend debunking site ever), it shows an encounter that took place nearly four years later, between another (?) 50-foot female humpback and photographer Marco Queral in the South Pacific. Both photos here in this post show the two of them.


May we continue to hear of many more such episodes of interspecies aid and kindness — going both ways.


Birdfeeder Raider Busted! December 12, 2010

Folks at Dominican University in San Rafael, CA, where I teach as an adjunct, were baffled by a mystery. Why, no matter how often it got filled, was this bird feeder always empty?

The chief technology officer set up a sting operation to catch the culprit on camera, and figured it out.


Animal Attributes May 17, 2010

As humans, we have many capabilities, some of which we mistakenly seem to think set us apart from the matrix of other beings; yet other animals, our elders, possess interesting capabilities as well. Yearning after these too, we’ve applied what Janine Benyus termed “biomimicry” in order to create airplanes, scuba gear, velcro, and many more very useful and fun tools.

Over the years, I have enjoyed asking my friends, students, and random acquaintances made at bus stops and the like,

“If you could add three attributes to yourself

from the animal, plant, or mineral kindoms,

what would they be?”

Not surprisingly, most people choose attributes of other animals, even though photosynthesis is among the coolest abilities around, seeing as how a being with that can bypass the entire messy business of eating and shitting in favor of simply extracting the body’s needs straight from loafing around in sunlight (aaahhhhh!)

Personally, if I had the chance to add three new attributes, I’d choose wings, gills, and soft, waterproof fur like a beaver’s. That way, I could go anywhere I liked, exploring and feeling at home in any realm – on land, up in the air, or underwater – and still be warm.


Here are a few more of my own and others’ choice attributes, some of which begin to sound like superpowers:

  • wings (feathered like a bird, or leathery like a bat)
  • night vision
  • antlers
  • piercing sonic shrieks
  • limb regeneration (the ability to grow parts back), like a lizard or starfish
  • bioluminescence
  • three stomachs, like ruminant animals such as cattle
  • reproduction by spores, like mushrooms
  • a tail, to flick or hang from
  • immovability of a rock; the ability to sit and just erode
  • labradorescence
  • photosynthesis
  • eyesight of a raptor
  • twitch muscles of a cheetah
  • sticky feet
  • fur  (what sort? what color?)
  • feet that can turn around backwards, like a squirrel
  • dolphin-like swimming/breath holding/pressure resistance
  • the ability to jump and balance like a cat
  • the quivery alertness of prey animals
  • a dog’s acute sense of smell
  • the agility & balance of a mountain goat
  • the ability to change genders throughout one’s lifetime, like a clownfish. (My friend Judy Pratt asks, “Wonder how our gender struggles would even out with a bit more experience of the supposed “other”???”)
  • hermaphroditism, like a banana slug

My eminently practical friend Alan Winston says, “There are some attributes I’d really like to be able to summon when I want them, but which’d be inconvenient the rest of the time. Wings (and supporting musculature and lung size, etc. to make them functional for flight rather than merely decorative) would make it pretty hard to sit in cars.”  I was going along with that, laughing, when I suddenly realized, if you had honking great wings, why would you *need* a car?! Emissions problems solved!


We are clearly not the first to yearn after these things, as witnessed by these ancient shapeshifting sculptures from Europe, the antlered man on the Gundestrup Cauldron and the bas-relief of Lilith with owl feet and wings, both surrounded by related allies of other species.

What attributes would YOU like to add,

should the Sudden-Evolution Wish Fairy appear?

Feel free to respond in the comment box below!


– Of course, this may go both ways. Sometimes the nonhuman relatives might wish for our attributes (as well as our cuisine):



Horned Toad Hospitality March 16, 2010

I discovered my first Desert Horned Lizard in my father’s lunchbox.  After two interminable days away, my dad finally came through the front door.  Joyfully, I ran to greet him, lunging forward with a big hug.  I took his coat and hung it up, glad it would stay in the home closet for awhile. Then, as routine dictated, I sauntered off to the kitchen to clean out his lunchbox. As I lifted the metal lid, I anticipated used napkins, food wrappers, and maybe some leftovers. But WOW!  To my surprised delight a small, intelligent reptilian face was looking right up at me.  In that instant, I fell in love with a wild horned toad.

When I was growing up, my father had a job flying a small airplane for the telephone company in northern Nevada.  In those days, all telephone service was provided by one single cable that lay buried across the entire Sierra mountain range.  Every long-distance relationship in the West was dependent on that cable; if it became unearthed and was cut, westerners would have their connections to each other and the rest of the world severedliterally.  My dad’s job was to fly the full route of the buried cable every week, covering one bit per day, in order to make sure that it was still buried, intact and secure.

He observed that same vast area from the air every daylike a bird above its life-long territory, watching the land change. He noticed its colors and moods changing suddenly and swiftly through differing weather, and transforming gradually through the seasons and ever-creeping human ‘progress.’ He grew to know it with a rare depth of understanding and love.

Every Saturday, my dad would take me up in his Super Cub for a half-day of work.  And every Saturday, I’d throw up in the little airplane barf bag, a trade-off which was entirely worth it.  Every Monday, he’d fly straight east and, because the route took him so far in that one direction that day, he’d stay overnight in Elko.  The next morning, he’d continue on to Utah, make the loop, and then fly back to Reno in time for dinner with his family on Tuesday evening.

On his way home, my father would land somewhere in the eastern Nevada desert to stretch his legs and have lunch.  The predominant quality of the Great Basin Desert that far out feels like silence.  No human settlements exist nearby; no machine noise, aside from the occasional airplane passing overhead, assaults the ears. The federal government has justified their choice to locate nuclear waste in Nevada by viewing this sort of land as barren, uninhabited, a ‘wasteland.’ But really, a lot happens there every moment; it’s just that it takes a softer, slower mindset to notice. At first, one hears or sees very little in such a landscape, especially if accustomed to the noises of human colonies or the riotous colors of lusher regions with their innumerable shades of what we simplistically call ‘green’. But after awhile, the senses become more sensitive, and this land’s subtleties more tangible. The hills, perhaps at first seeming only clad in tones of dull brown or grey-green, after some quiet contemplation suddenly contain purples, golds, blues, pinks; and all of these ever-changing with the moving sunlight. Many nonhuman peoples live there: coyotes, rattlesnakes, small burrowing owls, piñon pines. In a thunderstorm, juniper trees and sagebrush lend a wonderfully overpowering scent to the air; the same refreshing incense used by the native Washo, Paiute, and Shoshone peoples for purification before spiritual ceremony.  Being alone out there can feel renewing.

Once in awhile, after he finished eating, my dad would look around for a Desert Horned Lizard or two. He’d catch them and bring them home to me in his old-fashioned black steel lunchbox with the rounded lid. This provided the source of much surprised hilarity when my mother went to clean out the lunchbox and would find, instead of the expected used sandwich wrappers, a little face looking up at her. The lizards would only stay with us one week, and then back into the lunchbox they’d go for the return trip to their desert habitat.

I was delighted with the “horny toads,” as we called them, although they are actually lizards sporting flattened, pudgy, somewhat toad-like bodies.  Their tiny, wild otherness awed me.  They were so prehistoric looking, ferocious yet so delicate, with their softly articulated limbs, little clawed hands, the pebbling around their eyes, and their elegant subtle colors.  Although their backs and heads were covered with spikes like a small dinosaur, their bellies were very soft.  Their tongues darted out like lightning.  They maintained a constant silence.  Because of their rotating numbers, I really got to notice each one as an individual.  Each was very different from her or his fellows. Some were huge, some were wider or flatter than most, some had more vibrant colors, some looked wise, some had a feisty temperament.

Beautiful HornedToad quilt made by Susan Cranshaw

Their eyes look quite a bit like ours, with light brown irises and round black pupils, but they could shoot blood out of their eyes, and shoot it far – up to five feet away. Horned lizards’ first defense lies in the visual realm: invisibility and distraction. When threatened, they’ll freeze in place in an attempt to become invisible. If that fails, they’ll run a bit in weirdly angled directions, stopping in spurts and angling off in some other direction, in an attempt to confuse the watching predator. If that doesn’t work, their second defensive strategy is to seem dangerous. They’ll puff themselves up in order to look bigger and pricklier, making their spines stick out in a ferociously cactus-like manner that screams “I Taste Bad and Go Down Hard.” If actually grabbed, they might hiss, bite, or try to stick the assailant with their spines. Finally, if all that fails to deter the would-be lizard muncher, they will squirt an aimed stream of blood right into the assailant’s face. They do this by deliberately constricting the blood flow from leaving their eyes and heads, which increases the blood pressure there so much that the tiny blood vessels around their eyelids burst. This spurt of blood not only surprises and perhaps even temporarily blinds the would-be predator, it’s also reputed to taste terrible. It’s easy to imagine how this would put anyone off their meal.

My friends all wanted to see the lizards spurt eye blood, but I generally refused to entertain in this way. The Encyclopedia Brittanica my folks had bought from a door-to-door salesman said it was a sign that the lizards felt severely threatened, and I wanted them to be happy while they were with us.

Lizard guests deserve the best.  My dad built a terrarium hotel for them out of a flat metal oil-changing tub.  It stood about 6” tall and 2 ½ feet in diameter, and was topped by a Plexiglas lid complete with drilled air holes and bolts to fasten it in place. We filled the hotel with dry sand and a water bowl, and as their nominal caretaker, I was charged with capturing food for our reptilian guests.

We quickly discovered that horned toads only enjoy live fare, so I had to go out several times per day to catch ants, the only insects I could reliably find. Fortunately, our locally plentiful Harvester Ants are caviar to Desert Horned Lizards.  Yet unfortunately, I soon learned that humans are not really built to be ant predators.  I suffered for weeks in my efforts to collect enough of them to satiate gluttonous horned toads.

Try this as an exercise in humility:  Capture running ants, one at a time, between your fingertips.  Pinch them hard enough to grab them, but gently enough to keep them unharmed and alive.  Then get each ant into a transportable container without letting any of the others out.

It would take me at least an hour of ant-catching every day to keep the horned toads fed.  Then one day my mother suggested that I find an anthill and use bait, like honey in a jar, to get them. It was with a combined relief and Homer Simpson-like “D’oh!” that I switched to the honey trick. It worked!  Now, as the horned toads hid burrowed in the sand with only their heads peering out, they had scores of ants running all over their camouflaged backs, and I enjoyed many gruesomely fascinating moments watching them silently waiting… waiting… and then suddenly snapping up their unsuspecting victims.

Like many kids with pets, while I enjoyed the horned toads’ presence, I didn’t always pay enough attention to them.  It snowed quite a bit during Reno winters, and on one such day I remember feeling elated and blessed with a visit from a glorious sun.  Certainly, I thought, the current batch of horned toads must be homesick for the desert; they would no doubt enjoy a bit of warming up after a bleak few days trapped in the gloomy house (a bit of projection on my part, perhaps).  So I placed their terrarium on the front porch, where they could bask in direct sun light to their hearts’ content.  I went back in to read, or play, or draw.  And I promptly forgot about them.

When it began to get dark, my mother reminded me to bring the horned toads inside for the night.  I went out to get them, but to my horror, I found they were not the same. The sun’s rays had become super magnified by the Plexiglas lid, causing the temperature in the terrarium to rise to an intolerable level. The baby lizard had baked to death.  I buried his stiff, dried-out little body in our yard, weeping through the entire ceremony.  Guilt and grief co-mingled.  The older one was still alive, but barely. We gently placed her in cool water and left the hotel lid open to the sheltered indoor air.

My father barely met my eyes. “That’s the last of the horned toads,” he said through a tight, set jaw. “If you don’t take care of them, you don’t deserve to have them.”  I pleaded, “But it was only this once, and it was a mistake!”  I felt terrible. Was my act so awful? It was an accident. I truly hadn’t meant harm to come to them; didn’t that count? Was this ban really to last forever?  Thankfully, the large one grew stronger again, and my dad took her back home in his lunchbox the very next day.  But he never brought another horned toad home.

My eyes opened to the fragility of life on that winter day, and the impact I, and my species as a whole, can have on these, our ancient relatives. They have lived as a species so much longer than we, and under extreme desert conditions of weather and water deprivation that would do most humans in; yet they are individually so soft, small and vulnerable. My one small act of unintentional negligence led to their torture and swift death. I felt guilty not only because of what happened, but also because I had caused it in the misguided name of love. Further, the mistake resulted in dire consequences for the perpetrator, too – no more horned toads for me, ever again. And I began to realize how we humans need to maintain a high level of observant vigilance about the effects of our actions.

The Northern Desert Horned Lizards that live in Nevada, Idaho, Utah, and southeastern Oregon are still pretty well-off.  However, two of their southern cousins have state protection as ‘threatened’ species, largely due to loss of their primary food, the Harvester Ant.  Increasing development reduces ant habitat, non-native ants moving in from South America make war on them and eat their queens, and overuse of agricultural pesticides kills them en masse.  All of these factors combine to make the horned lizards’ primary food source very hard to come by.

Perhaps I want my entire species to help me atone for the pain I caused that one young horned toad.  I want us to gain enough consciousness to stop causing this sort of agony on purpose, to stop sanctioning horrific deaths as ‘collateral damage’, and to stop destroying the homes of our other-than-human relatives for our own selfish purposes without batting an eyelash.

The history of colonization is replete with unconscious violence: theft of native peoples’ homelands, forbidding Paiutes, Aborigines, Hawaiians, and Irish to speak their own languages, and kidnapping Africans to toil as slaves on an faraway continent.  We look upon these events with horror now, yet we are still perpetrating such crimes of the soul today, in an equally unthinking ways, against our non-human relatives. We capture wild birds such as parrots, some of whom live over 80 years and range for hundreds of miles of territory, to keep in sedentary cages as wing-clipped pets. We vacuum tropical fish up from their vast home in the coral reefs to languish and die in our tiny home aquariums. And we consider land to be ‘our property’, sellable and ‘uninhabited’ if it doesn’t have a human-built structure on it, giving us free rein to bulldoze it, pave it over, drop toxic wastes on it, and evict or murder the existing denizens, who now are considered ‘pests.’

Since the horned toad incident, I’ve pondered this question many times: “How do we foster respect for the other-than-human world?”

The lesson I learned when I inadvertently killed the baby horned toad was a strong one for a girl of eight, and I’ve never forgotten it: Care for the other-than-humans daily, and do it well and right, with proper attention and love, for you only get one chance.  They’re in our lives now, but if we blow it, they’ll be gone.  Whether as individuals, entire species, or even ecosystems, once these treasured elder relatives are gone, they’re gone for good.  Consequently, an important human connection will be severed – severed far worse, and for much longer, than any phone line in the Sierras.


Amazon link - Courting the Wild: Love Affairs with Reptiles and      Amphibians

This essay by Tina R. Fields was first published in

Courting the Wild: Love Affairs with Reptiles and Amphibians

ed. Jamie K. Reaser, Hiraeth Press, 2009, pp. 67-74.

(Click the picture to see more or to purchase.)