Monday, June 6, 2011

The Lovesick Pigeon and Other Stories

I was in St. Louis for a few days and spent my time going to the zoo (three different days), visiting the Butterfly House (a long drive from my hotel but worth it), and strolling through the Missouri Botanical Garden (gorgeous). You might say I was under the spell of both Artemis and Aphrodite; wild animals are sacred to Artemis, but gardens, with all of their flowers and cultivated beauty, have a strong whiff of Aphrodite.

At the zoo, I was especially drawn to the bears, the big cats, and the birds. The St. Louis Zoo has an extraordinary group of animals, from insects to large carnivores. It was the latter that had the greatest pull on me, and this zoo was an especially good place to see them up close and active, and even to make eye contact with them. Of course, even with its carefully created habitats, a zoo is a man-made environment, and the humans and animals gaze at one another across barriers.

While it was great to get so close to the animals, I wondered what they thought about their confines. In return for being well cared for and safe, the animals have been removed from their natural homes and have pretty constricted ranges. I agree with Wordsworth that "their thoughts I cannot measure," but it seemed to me that I saw a spectrum of attitudes, from contentment, to restlessness, to curiosity.

With no real danger involved for either me or the animals, I was free to enjoy their beauty. One thing I noticed is that when an animal looks at you (especially if it's capable
of killing you) you really feel you've been looked at. The birds were the most interactive and seemingly most interested in their admirers. Most of the bears and large cats showed what looked like only a casual interest in visitors. The tiger was an exception; as she roved back and forth across her territory, she seemed to take a keen interest in the zoo train that stopped periodically directly across from her.

In the bird house, many of the inhabitants made eye contact, vocalized, and even flew to the front of their enclosures 
when people walked by. There were many "exotic" species I had never heard of, exhibiting a great variety of colors, sizes, plumage, and behaviors. I had the strange idea that one fellow, a Victoria Crowned Pigeon, was trying to tell me something. There was something very purposeful in the way he dipped his head and extended his tail feathers over and over again. I don't know much about pigeons, but to me, it looked like a courtship dance, and after researching the situation on the Internet, I found out I was right. (The only thing I can say is "Wow!")

Although the grounds of the zoo are lush and garden-like, they're really the backdrop for the main attraction. In a botanical garden, the plants are the showcase, and outside of the Huntington Gardens in California, the Missouri Botanical Garden is the most spectacular one I've seen. It has everything from a tropical garden inside a geodesic dome to a Japanese garden to a maze, with enough color to knock your eyes out and a number of art works, fountains, and buildings incorporated into the grounds.

Except for a few herbs I grew on a windowsill, I've never had a garden of my own, but I love being in them. A garden falls under the purview of Aphrodite (in its beauty and luxuriance), Apollo (in its engineering and layout), and even Artemis (in the birds and other wild creatures that are present). To me a garden is a meeting place of natural forms and human creativity in which both are shown to their full advantage.

A wilderness is beautiful without any gentling influence, and a city is a controlled environment in which much of our connection to wild nature is muted (which is not to say that cities can't be beautiful; they often are). The plumage of a parrot deep in the jungle is breathtaking, but so is a gracefully engineered bridge or the St. Louis arch.

I'm still thinking about the web of life, with all its beauties and dangers. To me it seems just as much of a mistake to sentimentalize nature as it is to think we control it. Nature is mosquitoes as well as butterflies; it's cancer cells, bacteria, and parasites as well as flowering trees, roses, and baby animals. The verse in Genesis in which God tells man "to fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28) has been criticized for its anthropocentric attitude, but I think there's another way to look at it. Human consciousness lets us reflect on the world and our place in it. It gives us the ability to understand nature and work with it without necessarily accepting all the suffering that's part of the natural order.

Maybe humans and the natural world are locked together in a symbiotic relationship that's meant to be mutually sustaining (even when it isn't). I saw a film today, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in which one specialist was asked about the significance of the ancient paintings, possibly as old as 32,000 years, that came to light in France in 1994. He said they were an artifact of the special human capacity for symbol-making, mythology, and poetry, the artistic impulse that reflects and also creates much beauty in the world.

Interestingly, in these works, among the very earliest of all known paintings, the subject is almost always animals -- horses, deer, rhinos, lions, bison -- which shows that people have been reflecting on the processes of life all around them for eons. Maybe the ability to bear witness to these processes and to create art out of our imaginations and the raw materials of nature is the reason we're here.