I stepped onto the front porch to the bugling of an elk early one morning this week. As the eerie fluting carried over the gray, frozen hayfield, something fired briefly in my brain — perhaps some ancient instinct dulled by the years I’ve spent inside buildings, staring at computers, or behind the wheel of a car, watching the world rush by like a movie.
Why was the elk calling? What message was it sending out
to its kind, and to me and the other creatures inhabiting the
I have no answers, but the questions are
all the more real to me in light of recent events. I can’t
rid myself of the image of thousands of people blithely working and
playing along the Asian coast on Dec. 26, utterly unaware that a
massive 500-mile-per-hour wave was about to destroy their world.
Nor can I shake the thought of those Southern California residents
who died in their houses last month when a two-week-long, 12-inch
deluge unleashed a deadly river of mud on their neighborhood.
The Californians who perished had ample warning that
danger was near. Within a lifetime, those hills have slid many
times following winter storms. The people devastated by the
tsunami, on the other hand, didn’t have any warning,
technological or otherwise. And yet many animals somehow
sidestepped the disaster.
Asian wildlife officials found
relatively small numbers of dead whales, porpoises and deer along
the shores, indicating that many moved away before the tsunami hit.
A dozen elephants giving tourists rides along Thailand’s
western coast began trumpeting hours before the tsunami, just about
the time the earthquake fractured the ocean floor, according to the
Washington Post. An hour before the waves hit,
they grew agitated again, and some broke free of their chains and
headed to higher ground.
Do animals have a sixth sense
that humans lack? "I don’t know if I’d call this a
sixth sense so much as a better sense," Ken Grant, project
coordinator at the Humane Society International in Bali, Indonesia,
told the Post. "Most animals know that when the ground starts to
shake something is wrong."
Some people do, too. Indian
environmentalist Ajoy Bagchi told National Public Radio that the
small hunting and gathering societies that have lived for thousands
of years on islands off the coast of India survived the epic wave
quite well. Bagchi speculates that their well-tuned ability to read
the natural world warned them to move into the protective inland
forests. So perhaps we humans have not lost our native abilities to
read the environment. We’ve just allowed them to atrophy
Can we regain our sensitivity? Yes, but
as the writer of this issue’s cover essay suggests, the road
is long and winding, with plenty of scary shadows darting out from
A first step, though, is to literally pull
off the road, get out of our cars, and examine the once-living
creatures we have flattened under our tires. Only by empathizing
with our fellow beings — and acknowledging not only their
beautiful attunement to the natural world, but the ugly discord
they have with ours — will we reawaken our wild humanity.