Book Review: Becoming Wild

Becoming Wild: How Animals Learn Who They Are by Carl Safina

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thoughtful book that, by suggesting that animals are more human than we think, actually winds up reinforcing the truism that you and me, baby, we ain’t nothing but mammals.

We think of “higher emotions” like altruism, familial bonding, and whole-ass Romanticist love as hallmarks of mankind alone, but the fact of the matter is our only monopolies are on pollution and pants.

In the first part of the book, Safina talks about his adventures with a bunch of vegetarian sperm whale researchers and the connections that they formed with the whales. They tagged and recognized the whales, but what’s difficult to conceive of is these 50 foot sea monsters started recognizing them. Eye contact. You’ve looked into the eyes of a dog or cat and you’ve known when it registers, “Hey, I know that guy”. You know the oxytocin is rattling around in those furry, cavernous heads. Consider that same social connection with a 90,000 lb cetacean, because they do recognize you. And if they recognize and socially categorize something as petty and insignificant as a human being, an inconsequential speck trapped in the flat plane of their sky like the Phantom Zone from Superman 3, you can be damn sure they recognize the families they travel, bond, sing, and play with for their 70 year lifespans. Assuming we don’t stab them to death for oil or ambergris in the interim.

Most of this chunk of the book was dedicated to analysis of the whale’s songs, and the cultural mores that develop within them. Different pods of whales have different communication tags for opening and closing their conversations. The examples given from the two groups Safina tagged along to study was a “one, two, cha-cha-cha” clicking, versus a longer “one, two, three, four, five” clicking that designated to the whales where the speaker was from.

“Hey, I’m originally from Scranton. Yeah, where they filmed the Office.”

Whales are doing that.

Their songs are unfathomably loud, traveling for miles, but due to the lives they live if a family member is within 5 miles or so they’re “travelling together”. They protect each other, rush to one another’s aid. They celebrate when reunited after a long time apart. There was a haunting example of a mother who lost calf (to humans, of course), and she pushed the corpse along the surface, through human travel routes, for 14 days.

Sounds like mourning to me.

The next segment of the book was devoted to beauty as a philosophical concept, and the interplay between sexually selected traits to increase reproductive success in other animals (exemplified by macaws, but also by flowers, butterflies, peacocks, etc.) and the weird fact that we also find them beautiful, though not sexually so unless cartoon-exposure imprinting and garden variety childhood trauma badly crossed our wires. Safina waxes philosophical with a beauty for beauty’s sake perspective. I can’t disagree, if only beauty weren’t so damn subjective, but I’m also not an evolutionary biologist or an ecologist nature writer. At best, I’m a boneshaker, and Jungianism can justify just about any philosophy.

It also explores avian intelligence, which is staggering. We all know crows remember people and bring shiny manmade gifts to humans who were kind to them. I didn’t know they understand fluid dynamics and will put objects into a graduated cylinder to displace water until they can grab the food floating on the surface. I didn’t know wild crows design and use hooked tools, which is so advanced that most primates haven’t figured out yet. I certainly didn’t know parrots could be taught geometry, but that’s exactly what they did in the book; the parrots memorized and could distinguish between shapes, and when parts of the shapes were covered, they could still correctly identify them based on the angle they could see. That’s extrapolation.

Part three was an exploration of chimp culture, and their proclivity for warfare despite their preference for peace. Their leadership styles, their predilection for male vanity, their premeditated murder and infanticide, and a whole bunch of other distinctly evil traits that only show up among one other species that we know of. Go on, guess.

There are many books that examine chimp social dynamics in greater detail, so I won’t pull that apart too much here. Suffice it to say, the message at the end was that these animals, who we generally don’t think of as all that intelligent, are just like us, and we’re just like them. No higher, no lower. No tip of the hierarchy. If chimps were around at the same time as proto-hominids, and they got to spears first, it would probably be Planet of the Apes right now.

The take-home is we’re not special, and somehow, that’s reassuring.

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Proctor, Vermont: Flooded Quarries and Forbidden Castles

April 16, 2021. Proctor, Vermont.
Soundtrack: Wind Rose – Diggy Diggy Hole

Vermont is peopled, not with people, but with quarries. You can’t spit without hitting one, and the rare few that are not still in operation because they, what, ran out of rocks? – have gone on to be repurposed into subterranean ice skating rinks and swimming holes, the use of which are deeply, deeply illegal.

Fortunately, the police are (arguably) people, and you can’t be arrested if there’s no one around to arrest you. Which, there isn’t. The entire state is an arboreal wasteland.

“Beefton!” I said. “Do not leap into the quarry!”

“I tire of this life!” Beefton called back over his rippling, comically oversized deltoid. “The time has come for the next great adventure!

We were shouting because there was some kind of bird going absolutely bananas up along the wall in what had to be the most obnoxious, least effective mating display I’d ever seen. And I spent a good deal of time at the West Chester Landmark.

If anyone knows what this loser bird is, leave a comment or shoot me an e-mail. It haunts me to this day.

My attorney approached the ledge again, heaved in a breath, steadied his nerves.

“Farewell, Bastard. Witch. I’ll never forget all you’ve taught me.”

It was at that point he recognized that the quarry was full of water, and he resolved to live another day. Beefton is highly avoidant of swimming, and if a light drizzle wets his fur he goes frothing mad and barrels through the house as fast as his densely packed, efficient little body will go, smashing into every available surface.

There are times I’m thankful he’s more pitbull than labrador, and most of those times are when we’re near a body of water in 40 degree weather. Do you think purebred a chocolate lab would hesitate, for even an instant? There might be ducks in there.

We loaded back into the wagon and resumed our traversal of the woodland wasteland, hoping to find somewhere to eat. In our travels, the universe provided me with a gift to ensure that my conduct was right and in accordance with my destiny.

Astoundingly, the giant gorilla dumbbell shoulder pressing a car was not on Atlas Obscura, but Wilson’s Castle was. Wilson’s Castle was also closed off to the public under penalty of law.

Not very defensible,I decided. Minimal ramparts, no murder holes to speak of. There’s tactical value in the elevation, but you just couldn’t muster a sufficient force of archers on that balcony to deter an invading force. Especially with the ground-level windows!

Disgusted at the misleading designation of this large, butt-ugly house, as well as at the Orwellian hellworld we occupy that forbade me from getting closer to pass still more cutting judgment on its strategic worthlessness, we wheeled the wagon around, returned my legal representation to the humper haunted airbnb, and drifted into Rutland proper, whereupon I learned what risotto is.

It’s this.

Outside the restaurant, I found an excellent mural of a peregrine falcon. Since a fungal encounter with a falcon in the dead of winter in my picaresque early twenties, I take raptors as universal signposts from Athena assuring me that I’m on the right track.

“Okay,” I told her. “I’ll learn a risotto recipe.”