December 2007 - January 2008

Essays

Robyn Davidson

Toots’s kismet

How do creatures think?

As I do. And have always done.

I have studied them in the wild, worked with them, shared my homes with them. Though ‘pets' seems too diminished a term to give to those aliens who have, throughout my life, kept me company, amused me, amazed me. Dogs, cats, parrots, ravens ... they have reconnected me with nature when I've lived in cities, and warmed the recurrent existential chill which goes with the project of self-making.

I love animals, but I also eat them. I have shot them, hooked them and beheaded them for food; clubbed them or injected them to ‘put them out of their misery'; I have trained them to do my bidding, used them to carry my possessions, ridden them and punished them for insurrections.

Contradictory? Absolutely.

Our kind of consciousness has always given us trouble when it comes to such things as flesh-eating. Hunter-gatherers understood the biological continuum between animals and us - a kind of proto-science, empirical but couched in the language of poetry. Their acute awareness of the interdependent structure of nature demanded reverence, and an ethics to deal with the fact of killing.

But when they settled and farmed, that disquieting conscience was ratcheted up a notch. Now they ate creatures they had lived with, that had trusted and responded to the human voice. Rituals of animal sacrifice were one way of dispelling unease. Another was to remove humans from the Palaeolithic Eden, and compensate them with ‘dominion'.

And now? It seems we're as confused as ever. Some are Jainist in their aversion to ingesting anything that might be construed as flesh. The rest of us employ specialists to do the gory work behind walls, beyond sight and hearing. We do not look our prey in the eye, or give it the opportunity to look back.

I do not enjoy killing animals, but I see it as a part of my human inheritance. I am, as Novalis put it, a ‘sausage of angel and beast'. As beast, I am inescapably part of the food chain; as angel, I have a sense of difference from the natural world. We humans have pondered this difference since our species began, but we still don't know what it really amounts to. What, finally, separates human consciousness from other forms of sentience? And what kind of world, if any, might bloom inside a beast's brain?


Each year I spend a few months in the Himalayas. The house is very remote, surrounded by oak jungle hiding leopards and bears. Ostensibly I go there to write. But in truth I go to be reconnected to ‘the real'. Away from my own culture and language, from noise and busyness, I turn back into myself, in a kind of communion with the most valuable things within. The feeling of life there is deeper, older, bigger.

Sometimes a week can pass without my uttering or hearing a word. I watch and listen to the animals and birds, intensely attentive to their comings and goings. The staff - local peasants who cook and garden for me - won't allow me to sleep on the verandah, reminding me that I, too, can be prey. And in bear season, it is sensible to carry a pistol when I take the dogs for a walk.

Toots arrived one cold spring morning. She had fallen out of the nest her parents had built in the back wall of the house, and one of her legs was broken. Bippin, the cook, brought her to me. We tried putting her back in the nest, but she was immediately expelled by the parent birds. Then my dog grabbed her, breaking the other leg. Bippin announced gravely that this bird's kismet was very bad. I took her from him and was about to wring her pencil neck. I had provided housing, permanent water (a birdbath) and even the occasional titbit for all my avian neighbours. Beyond that, I felt I should not interfere in their business. This insignificant scrap of life in my hands, whose presence or absence would make not a jot of difference to anything, who would be but a momentary opening of an eye on the bird universe before returning to oblivion, this scrap, as I say, nevertheless decidedly did not want to close that eye, which studied me and took in its surroundings with desperate interest. Her desire for life penetrated past my rational brain to some deeper centre of instinct, and stayed the lethal hand.

I took her inside, turned her upside down and inspected the fractured legs. Bippin and I splinted them, uprighted her, dripped water down her beak and put her in a box with a warm water bottle. She was unlikely to survive the night.

In the morning she was beside my bed on the floor, clumping about on her splints and beating her wings in a signal that I understood to mean, ‘Give me food.'

She was a Himalayan whistling thrush. I had seen her kind hunting in the narrow gullies in the jungle, presumably for insects and little crustaceans. The closest I could come to that was dried prawns. These, soaked with egg, boiled rice and a drop or two of glycerine that I found in an ancient medical cabinet, were gobbled down with a greedy determination that was compelling.

From then on, Toots's kismet began to improve. The legs healed into a mangled mess, but she could fly; and the painful crash landings, like a plane with no undercarriage, became less excruciating to watch. As the weeks passed, she expanded her territory to wherever I happened to be. Soon every room in the house was familiar, though I chased her back to her own at night. She would come when called - a falsetto toots toots toots toots that could be heard miles down the valley. Most often she landed on my head, using the hair as a braking mechanism.

Toots wanted to live, but so did the 20 or so large grasshoppers I began to gather for her each day. Grasshoppers look back at you, too. I shudder to think what they saw when I loomed over them, snarling. For I found that, in order to do the deed, I had to hate them. Whack! Down went my shoe and I heard myself say, “Got you, you bastard.” I was glad, on these occasions, that the staff didn't speak English. It was enough that I sometimes caught them smirking behind their hands.


In the late afternoons, as the cold settled in, Toots took to flying in to where I sat in front of the fire, reading. She would land on the armchair opposite and spread her wings wide out to the warmth, letting her head loll to one side, like a lady in a hoop skirt bowing. At first she did not understand fire at all, and flew straight into it. I had assumed a fear of it would be instinctual, but birds learn a lot of what they need to know from each other. They have, to varying species-specific degrees, a culture: learned behaviour passed down through generations. Thus I took it upon myself to teach Toots the birdish things she didn't seem to have in her repertoire. Her thrush-consciousness was compromised by this cross-species upbringing. She was mostly thrush, but she was also a little bit human.

I taught her how to bathe, for example, as her parents did each morning and evening at the birdbath. Toots did everything with the water except get in it. Eventually I put her right in, and immediately she was doing her thrush thing: flap flap, rustle rustle, splash splash. She did it so well and got so thoroughly drenched that she couldn't achieve lift-off and had to hide under my desk until she was dry. This involved a great palaver of ruffling, zipping, snapping and falling over. Luckily she could reach the oil gland at the top of her tail. Without being able to condition her feathers, she would eventually have died.

What warped piece of instinct was it that made her land on my head? Did she think only my head was parent-like, while the rest of my body was an enormous rock on which I perched? Yet sometimes she liked to be held at my chest. She would nestle down into my cupped hand, held at heart level, and stare up at me, or pick at fantasy insects on my collar, or sometimes - and this hurt ­- snap at a tiny mole under my chin.

And why, sometimes, did she take exception to the hand that fed her, and fight with it? When she was in that mood, I would turn my hand into a fist, so that she could focus on the ring. She would dart blows at the ring, or grab a finger in her beak and screech wickedly, tugging it. I played this game with her because I felt she needed toughening up. But of course, in any scrap with other birds she'd be done for. The law of the jungle would rule against those crippled legs in three seconds flat.

Sometimes she was content to be left alone. On these occasions she talked to herself, as if trying out the sounds she could make, like a baby babbling. The noise of the vacuum cleaner excited her immensely. She babbled at it the way a teacher might shout to be heard above a noisy classroom.

Often she followed me into the garden to hunt and forage. This was dangerous for her, but as she always came to my call I didn't worry too much. Other birds chivvied her, but never enough to cause real damage. And she was happy, yes, definitely happy, to be out there, glaring into paving cracks and discovering insects all on her own.

But I did worry about how she would fare without me. A trip to London was coming up, and I'd be away for weeks. I knew the men would feed her and clean up after her. But would they let her land on their knees and attack their rings, or land on their heads as they did the vacuuming? And I felt bad when I saw her kind outside in the birdbath, dancing on those long, strong legs. It might have been kinder to bump her off in the beginning. Though I believed that, in bird terms, you could not miss what you never had. Only humans had the capacity to imagine the future and grieve for the past.


When Toots felt pain, she simply felt pain; she did not compound it by thinking, Is this the beginning of cancer? Or, Why is this happening to me? When she made a bad landing and flumped down to the floor, she would pick herself up, dust herself off, so to speak, and try again. She was locked into the present. But then the image of a polar bear pacing around and around its cement pond in a zoo came to mind - the very exemplar of mental torment, an unending present of torment. I was sure Toots did not suffer in that way. But perhaps she suffered in some other, more subtle way.

Animals, with their liminal, intermediate properties, their ambiguous mix of human and non-human characteristics, are intriguing to observe, but they are even more so when they observe back, and try to make themselves known. It is, when you think about it, quite mysterious. Something passes from one bandwidth of consciousness to another, but what can it be that passes? Toots could not think ‘Toots' or ‘bird' or ‘human'. But is language necessary for meaning? There was an intrinsic intentionality in that walnut brain which communicated itself to me across a vast evolutionary distance. She was modifying her behaviour to help her cope with the novel challenges of being raised by a primate.

Her will, if I can call it that, provoked something parental in me in response: protectiveness, being on her side, thinking that of all whistling thrushes she was the most interesting and adorable; boring people on long-distance phone calls with accounts of her enchanting and unique ways. It wasn't so much that I humanised Toots as that she birdised me.

She looked at my face and knew that it was the locus of my person, that my great shining eye was the equivalent of her tiny bubble of eye. I lacked a beak, blue-black feathers and signalling devices. I was not good at replicating thrush sounds. Yet, when she looked at me, she was undoubtedly recognising me. And although she would accept food from Bippin and the others, she did not land on their heads or fly in at dawn to wake them up, or go to them for affection, presenting herself in such a way that they knew she wished to be tickled under her feathers.

And then, how did she see? Human colour vision is trichromatic. That is, our visual system comprises three types of photoreceptors cross-connected to three colour channels. Therefore, three dimensions are needed to represent the kinds of colour distinctions we can make. But some birds are tetrachromats, possibly even pentachromats, which means that their underlying neuronal operations differ so fundamentally from ours that there is simply no way to imagine their subjective vision. In any case, when I handed her a red strawberry and a green one, she would snap the red one and toss the green one away with irritable contempt.

But I see that I have given way to anthropomorphism. Toots wasn't capable of feelings like contempt, and she didn't come in to wake me up. She came in because hunger drove her in, and she equated me with food. And she wasn't happy when she foraged outside. She was just doing what she was genetically programmed to do. Wasn't she?


For most of the twentieth century, anthropomorphism - the projection of human qualities onto animals - was one of the worst crimes a scientist could commit in psychological theory. Behaviourism dominated the field, and it was concerned with measurable and observable data only. Inner mental experience was excluded as an explanation for anything organisms did. Experimental work was done in laboratories (think of rats in mazes pulling levers, dogs salivating to the sound of a bell), and what was discovered there was extrapolated to human behaviour which, it was hoped, could be controlled through conditioning (think of The Manchurian CandidateA Clockwork Orange).

This bloodless orthodoxy started to give way after World War II, when people like Konrad Lorenz attributed emotions to the animals they studied. The re-emerging investigation of consciousness by neuroscientists, philosophers, psychologists and biologists created a revolutionary new field: cognitive science. The cave of the brain was entered, and all those deep problems concerning the nature of mind, and the relationship between language and thought, would gradually be solved. At last we would come to know ourselves.

By the 1980s, researchers had begun using ‘higher' animals as a basis from which to explore the question of other minds (think of chimps and sign language, whales singing to each other). Behavioural ecologists were studying animals in their natural environments rather than in the lab, and what they found there challenged the assumption that animals were automatons, responding mindlessly to inherited drives - in other words, challenging the tacit belief that only humans could claim consciousness. Animal behaviour was seen to be so complex and flexible, and animal communication so surprisingly versatile, that it seemed absurd not to take it as evidence of conscious choices being made. In this view, animals were actors rather than objects. And not just the big-brained animals, like chimps and whales. Rational, conscious thinking might be just as important for small-brained creatures, to help them survive in changing environments. A nervous system could be simple, yet conscious and rational.

Birds, once the epitome of dumbness, were proving far brainier than previously thought. Crows could fashion hooks to pull out grubs; ravens dropped nuts in front of cars at intersections, then retrieved the opened kernels when the traffic lights turned red. Ravens used breadcrumbs for bait fishing; the songs of starlings were found to display a sophisticated grammar. Then along came the famous grey parrot Alex, who had a vocabulary of 150 words, could count to six, identified colours and understood concepts like bigger and smaller. He had, according to the scientist who worked with him, the intelligence of a five-year-old human and the communication skills of a two-year-old. He didn't have fully developed language, but he did have the building blocks.

Alex threw into doubt the accepted theory of the evolution of intelligence and language, in which all paths led, via primates, to the brain of Homo sapiens. The unique capacities which had justified human dominion over the rest of creation were now thought to have evolved in other creatures, albeit in simpler forms.


I had to leave the mountains for several weeks, and when I came back Toots had changed.

She still followed me from room to room, but was confused as to whether to smooch or attack. Sometimes she would dive-bomb my head in fury, because whatever those crossed signals were that had convinced her my head was some kind of bird-thing, they now told her that the bird-thing was invading her territory. She would snatch food from me in mid-flight, then wheel around to snap at my hand - or foot, if she happened to be hiding under my work desk, dismantling her dinner. Her pecks did not hurt, but they could lift me out of the chair when I was in deep concentration. At other times, I might lean over to say hello, and catch her staring up at me with ... well, with interest.

She had taken to waiting for the dog to open the front door, so that she could shoot outside. The other thrushes rejected her, but she wanted so very much to be out that at first I let her go. Twice she flew down into the forest, and I had to call and call to get her home. Once it took all afternoon, and she came back with feathers missing. Toots was growing up, and her human bits were being rejected to make room for the thrush. I took to keeping her inside.

It was the singing that finally convinced me Toots was a he. And he was at that difficult age when hormones kick in and mess about with the brain. He seemed to be rehearsing: babbling, stopping, scratchily trying something else. These elements then turned into more structured phrases, and it was as if he was improvising - stringing those phrases and sounds together like a jazz musician.

Being saved from the hard task of finding food, he'd had a lot of spare time to work on these renditions. His song was extraordinarily complex and beautiful. Some phrases were melodic and bell-like, some suspiciously reminiscent of the vacuum cleaner, and the cycle was punctuated with grrs and jjjsssttts, the equivalent of timpani in an orchestra. I could not decode the sequences; the structure of repeats was far too complicated. But the overall effect was a diverse, unpredictable and exhilarating performance.

How did he choose how to structure those phrases? Was it random, or did he use an aesthetic sense? Human language has base units too, but the rules for combining them permit an infinite potential for communication. Was Toots doing something similar? “Our gifted thrush sings ... of the glory of life ...”

One day a female flew to the window. They sized each other up and cavorted a bit. After that she often came to listen to him sing. And for the first time I thought that Toots was experiencing a kind of pain. He was making melody for mating, and for chasing away the competition. But his chances of mating were nil, and a male bird outside was invading what Toots considered his audial territory. At first I thought the other male had been driven off by Toots's superior song, but as the threat was never backed up by physical attack he took to sitting up on the weather vane, counter-singing.

Toots was incensed. He sang like a dynamo, wildly, with his whole being, as if his chest might explode.

And then the inevitable happened. I opened the front door too wide and Toots shot out like a rocket from behind me, through the opening and up to the weathervane on the guest-house roof, where his competitor was singing a challenge. They collided. They lifted each other into the air and soared down the precipice in front of the house. And that, I'm afraid, was the end of my gifted thrush.


Do animals think? Are they self-aware? The answers depend largely on the attitudes of the scientists looking at the data. Some, going back to their behaviourist roots, simply rule out consciousness as being in any way relevant to the study of what goes on in a brain. All organisms are best thought of as information-processing machinery. Computers have to be programmed; animals too are programmed by natural selection, via their genes.

The scientific orthodoxy consists of various versions of materialism. But just as rigid reductionism in biology seems to miss the point of life (that it lives), much of cognitive science rejects the most interesting aspect of the brain: that it reconstitutes, privately, for each of us embodied beings, a world. Perhaps the rejection arises out of the fear that if you don't subscribe to materialism, the only alternative is dualism (consciousness is irreducible, a separate nature of thing from matter), which lands you in the deeply unfashionable realm of religion.

But if you begin with the premise that these inner qualitative states are a function of physical processes, that they are as natural a phenomenon as light flow, isn't there a place in between those two extremes, somewhere? The big problems - the origin and evolution of life, the nature of consciousness - cannot be understood by reducing everything to elementary particles. To understand living systems in any deep sense, we must find other ways of imagining the world, neither limited by materialism nor requiring the intervention of a god.

Until we do, it is the poets who lead us from what can be measured, back into the mystery of things.

So they show their relations to me and I accept them;

They bring me tokens of myself ... they evince them plainly in

their possession.

 

I do not know where they got those tokens,

I must have passed that way untold times ago and negligently

dropt them [...]

 

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me ... he complains

of my gab and my loitering.

 

I too am not a bit tamed ...  I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

 

- Walt Whitman

Robyn Davidson
Robyn Davidson is a non-fiction writer. She is the author of the award-winning books Tracks and Desert Places, and the editor of The Best Australian Essays 2009 and The Picador Book of Journeys.

Cover: December 2007 - January 2008

December 2007 - January 2008

From the front page

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The ABC’s future will now be a front-and-centre election issue

Feeding the Muppets

What does the Morrison government have to offer in terms of serious policy?

Illustration

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Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’

This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple


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Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

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Was ‘Australia’s James Bond’ working for the KGB? Or ASIO? Or both?

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An eye candy-laden, educational treasure hunt of an exhibition

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Turnbull fires back

Unlike Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull never promised ‘no wrecking’


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