In my last post, I introduced you to a great book called “Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond” by Meg Daley Olmert.
Of course, this book addresses the mutual benefits to humans and non-humans of making and maintaining close-knit cooperative bonds.
What I did not expect to encounter within its pages was evidence to support that plants can achieve the same.
I love plants. However, the feeling has never seemed particularly mutual.
Even my highest best intentions has not produced any surefire way to keep the plants in my household either green or alive. So imagine my surprise when I read the following:
Susan Dudley and Amanda File of McMaster University in Ontario found that plants, like humans and animals, are capable of social recognition. Plants actually recognize other plants that are related to them, and when they see another plant as kin, they refrain from competing with it for root territory. It is not known whether plants can extend any sort of social recognition to the humans who care for them, but James Cahill of the University of Alberta and his colleagues found that they do respond to human touch.
I just finished another great book – “Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond” by Meg Daley Olmert.
Given that it is Valentine’s Day today, and my feathery sidekick and I are celebrating 13 (loud but) blissful years together, I thought the book would make for a perfect post.
The premise of “Made for Each Other” is simple: humans and animals have been bonded together for centuries – until now.
The last 100 years has dramatically changed our ability and need to be connected to our non-human helpmeets in practical ways (think farming, milking, construction).
As this bond slowly breaks down, it is changing us – and not for the better.
I woke up this morning feeling a combination of some of my less-favorite feelings.
For instance, I felt sad. And depressed. And sorry for myself. And stuck. And bored.
I was really starting to dig into these feelings, and I felt myself sinking….and sinking….
Then my bird, Pearl, started singing to his reflection in my bathroom clock. I absentmindedly said to him, “Awww, Pearl – you are so happy! You are so ready to start your day!”
All of a sudden, as the sound of my own words caught my attention, I realized that I was right.
Pearl was so happy.
He had no particular reason to be happy – at least not by human standards. There was no special news waiting in his email inbox, no romantic date planned for later in the evening, no big fat paycheck being auto-deposited into his bank account, no big social plans for the weekend.
But he was happy…..anyway.
It occurred to me that I could be too. I could stop worrying about whether I have enough friends or enough cash or enough plans or enough romance in my life. I could just drop the expectation of “being happy when…” and be happy now.
Even better, I could do it with a happiness buddy – because I already happen to have a personal live-in happiness mentor who ushers in each and every morning by sitting on the window ledge chirping oh-so-happily to his own reflection.
This made me feel better – and happier. I realized I didn’t have to wait on big news or big plans or big romance as an excuse to allow myself to feel happy. I could feel happy just because I could.
And now it occurs to me that this is also why I always tell folks at my presentations to get a pet (if they don’t already have one, that is).
Pets are great for self-esteem, great for inspiration, great for mentoring – and, as it turns out, also reliably great at enhancing happiness.
Today’s Takeaway: Do you ever …
I love how sometimes, when I am reading one book, that leads to another and then another book….and before I know it I am four or five books into a cycle I started about a completely different topic for a completely different reason.
Take “Divorce Among the Gulls: An Uncommon Look at Human Nature,” for example.
This slim volume came to me courtesy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Committed,” a book about how humans date, mate, and (often, unfortunately) split.
Gilbert, on the verge of being forcefully hitched as she writes, uses “Committed” as a tool to research the crap out of marriage, hoping to find some kind of magical reassurance that hers (the second for both of them) won’t suck. Or disappear. Or both.
In one chapter, she mentions how incompatibility is now thought to be at least partially biological. The example she cites is seagulls.
Other than the parrot – specifically the cockatiel – the seagull has to be my all-time top favorite bird. So of course I rushed right out to locate and acquire such essential reading.
I enjoyed the chapter on gulls immensely, but found the chapter on roof rats (scientifically, “Rattus rattus”) even more illuminating.
If you’ve been following anything I write for more than one post you already know I am a dyed-in-the-wool-from-birth bird lover. If the bird happens to have a hooked bill and squawks like a parrot, even better.
My folks are as ardent about dogs as I am about birds. In fact, our extra-long brown standard dachshund, J.P. Morgan, has earned the title of “honorary bird” in my book. Morgan and I share a birthday and a love of naps, Cheerios, and soft fuzzy blankets. Clearly we’re related.
Every year we travel to Cape Cod for a family vacation. During my vacation I read – a lot. Usually I read a huge stack of books about birds but this year I branched out. My first book was called “The Divinity of Dogs” by Jennifer Skiff. The book is divided into sections like love, comfort, intuition, healing, gratitude, loyalty, passing, compassion, and forgiveness. I can share that I was feeling more of each of these things with each passing chapter.
The subtitle of the book is “true stories of miracles inspired by man’s best friend.” The stories – compiled from dog lovers around the globe – include amazing tales of how dogs saved people from suicide, cancer, seizures, heartbreak, isolation, disabling illness, and more. Some storytellers are dog lovers from birth. Others came to love dogs through a chance life-saving encounter at just the right moment. Over and over the storytellers refer to their canine sidekicks as “soulmates” and “best friends,” “confidantes,” “mentors,” “teachers,” and “the love of their life.”
Since I feel that way about my bird, Pearl, I can wholeheartedly relate. It is hard not to love a being that begins screeching for you to come right back before you even leave the room.
One of my favorite stories from “The Divinity of Dogs” is by a storyteller named Nancy Kaiser. She wrote, “Animals live fully in the moment; they let go of their past and don’t drag it around with them. This is one of the greatest lessons they offer humans.” Of her dogs, Hana and Saba, she writes, “Because of them, I feel worty of being loved, I’m able to give love without the fear of being hurt, I have forgiven my ex, and most important, I now love myself.”
But then again, I have learned these same lessons from Pearl.
Another one of my favorite stories is from storyteller Vivian Axmacher, dog parent to Mr. Handsome, a long-haired Chihuahua found discarded from a puppy mill. He was full of infection and his mouth was so sore he couldn’t eat. A team of kind souls nursed him back to health, all the while vying for the honor of adopting him. Vivian eventually won out, and of her tiny mentor she writes, “I have learned a lot from Mr. Handsome. He has reminded me of the evil in some and the goodness in others. He has shown me that cruelty can destroy the body but not the soul. He has taught me that when life seems difficult and the pain is more than I think I can bear, if I just believe in life and what I deserve from it, if I just keep wagging my tail, everything will be all right.”
But perhaps the most moving story of all – for me personally at least – came from the author herself.
I don’t often gravitate towards stories about pigs.
But Sy Montgomery is one of my favorite authors (with her book “Birdology” being a particular favorite).
If she wrote it, I will probably want to read it….and she wrote a story about her pet hog that - according to the New York Times bestseller list numbers – everybody else but me has already read.
Which of course made me curious.
As I cracked open the book and scanned the first few pages of “The Good Good Pig,” it occurred to me that never once – til now – had I bothered to contemplate whether or not a pig’s life can be “extraordinary.”
Apparently it can.
As I shared in my last blog post, I spend a lot of time these days thinking about, talking about and writing about animals as mentors.
My favorite subject is parrots, of course, but I am an animal lover by nature. Come to think of it, I am a nature lover by nature and always have been.
Some – okay most – alright maybe all – of the fondest memories I have from my younger years include parakeets, nature walks, zoo visits, beach days and summer retreats to a family friend’s log cabin in the woods.
I feel more myself when I am in nature. I am less self-aware and more simply aware. I cease to worry that the eyes of others are upon me because my own eyes are so full with all the wonder and variety they are taking in. I feel more acceptance and less judgment, more respecting and also more respected.
While we’re on the subject, recently a group of scientists got together and declared that “nonhuman beings are conscious.”
I felt quite proud that for once I had figured something out before all the smart scientists. :-)
Sometimes, that inspiration comes to me while reading stories about animal heroes.
The best combo of all (of course) is when the story contains both human and animal heroes. If the animal hero just happens to be a parrot, even better.
“The Parrot Who Thought She Was a Dog” features Sarah, a one-footed wild-caught blue macaw, her rescuer, Samantha, her adopted mom, Nancy, and her adopted family (Kerry-Nancy’s husband, racoons, cats, dogs and two cherry-headed conures).
With that many parrots in one story, you know it has to be good.
The truth is, the older I get (43 at the end of this year!) the more I find my inspiration to keep doing the work I do with humans through interacting with and learning from non-humans. It seems like the more I learn about people behavior the less I know.
But the more I learn about animal behavior the less that matters.
2013 has brought many new opportunities. In fact, right about this time each year I often start to contemplate what I will remember most when New Year’s Eve arrives.
Will it be the new friends I’ve made? The strides forward I’ve taken in my career? A great vacation? Love?
This year, I suspect it will be tigers.
Not as in the real ones – the ones with the cute faces and long fangs and oh-so-adorable kitten-like cubs.
I am talking about the ones that walk around looking just like me.
My bird, Pearl, is always freaking out about something.
Whether it is the sight of a butterfly flitting by outside, the sound of my large silver hairdryer, or the experience of watching Mommy round the corner and disappear from her line-of-sight view, the phrase I speak most frequently to my diminutive grey and white avian companion is a soothing, “Don’t worry”.
She never listens.
Freaking out is in a cockatiel’s nature, as it turns out. Every cockatiel I have ever known or owned has behaved similarly. What I marvel at is how the continual influx of stress doesn’t seem to bother Pearl much. If I spent my days freaking out as often as she does, I would be a nervous wreck. I might be dead.
But 10 healthy years into a predicted 20+ year lifespan, Pearl’s vet says she is doing just fine. She freaks, deals with it, and moves on. Like a small child or a tropical storm, the stress blows in, through, and out again, leaving no trace of its presence behind.
This is soooooo interesting to me.
What does Pearl know – and others of her kind – that we humans do not? Why is stress toxic to our collective systems, yet while Pearl experiences twice as much stress as I do (at least by all outward signs) she has to go to the vet in inverse proportion to the number of times I land in the doctor’s office annually?
Biologically speaking, repeated bouts with stress can build up a substance called cortisol (frequently dubbed “the stress hormone”) in our systems that can weaken our immune systems and leave us vulnerable to illness, disease, and death. The biological “fight or flight” syndrome that we share in common with our avian and mammalian counterparts is the trigger that causes our collective bodies to release cortisol, but that in and of itself is not negatively impactful to our health. Studies have shown that short periods of elevated cortisol levels in the body are not harmful in their own right.
What impacts our health is how quickly we can return …