Since I was a young girl, my heart has hurt to see animals suffer.
When I witness an animal in distress I feel an ache within me, a weight in my chest, a struggle to breathe. I feel the hurt viscerally, a hurt that’s not my own but becomes mine as it rushes through my heart.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.” ~ C.S. Lewis.
I woke this morning to a blanket of snow covering the world. Heavy, wet snowflakes fell, weighing down the branches of any poor tree already come into bud. The late bloomers stood straight and naked, unaffected by the whirling winds of the spring snowstorm.
My mind flew to the lake just north of my home, and to the lonely bald eagle I knew would be there, huddled in his nest, feathers fluffed under the snow. Beneath him would be one lone chick, just born yesterday. And they both would be hungry.
My heart’s been aching for the birds. Last week, while mother and father eagle guarded their nest, they were set upon by an intruder, an unknown female eagle who swooped up and over the nest in the dark of night and engaged the mother raptor in a bloody battle.
The next morning, mother was gone. Father was alone. And as he called out alarm in all directions, turned his eggs and resettled himself, the danger was clear. A lone eagle with no partner would have to leave the nest to hunt, exposing his eggs to elements and aggressors. Chances for survival of the young eaglets would be slim.
In the following days, the intruding female lingered about the nest, hovering over father on an overhanging branch, following close behind when he set flight to find food, and stealing the catch from his mouth when he returned, hungry and exhausted.
The little chick—defying the odds and pecks from the intruding female—burst into the world on a sunny day, right on schedule. He bounced joyfully in the nest, his head bobbing just high enough to be visible on the webcam. The intruder appeared, curious, and the father screeched at her to leave. There was no food, no mother, and a snowstorm on the way.
This was the image alive in my mind when I woke in the night, restless, from within a dream. Some half-asleep part of me had been huddled in father eagle’s nest, sharing the cold hunger and apprehension of the unknown. I rose from my bed in the moonlight, and a tear came to my eye as I rolled open the blinds and surveyed the falling snow dancing gracefully through the trees.
Let nature take its course.
This is how we know it must be. Life must be left alone to live and die and rebirth herself anew. Nature finds balance, and takes care of her own, in her own way. We humans, with our limited cards to play, hold no stake in that wild game.
Or do we?
In grade school I was enraptured by Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom,” the documentary TV series that opened a window onto the wild landscapes of Africa, the Amazon, and other evocative locales foreign to my small-town American world. Every Sunday night I sat transfixed inches from the screen, marveling through the camera lens at the lives of faraway animals in their natural habitats. A fox hiding her kits in an underground den. A crocodile bursting from a bog in a blaze of teeth, scattering a flock of water birds. Rhinos traversing long stretches of grasslands, arriving with splashing delight to the prize of a muddy watering hole.
I loved the show dearly, with all my little girl heart. But how I struggled when the predators came to hunt.
When the lion stalked the herd of gazelles, I hunched my shoulders and winced, shuddering at what I knew would come next. I could barely peek through squeezed-shut eyes when the giant cat overtook the gazelle at the edge of the herd, toppling her, and taking her down in a fit of legs and paws and dragging her across the tall grass. I crumpled to the carpet with hands over my eyes, feeling some part of me had been taken down too.
I always prayed for the gazelle to escape. Sometimes she did. When that happened, as the big cat slowed in defeat and the gazelle shook off her fear and ran ahead to rejoin her herd, I would melt with relief. The cat would remain hungry, yes. But nothing would have to die.
“How can it be true that this is what life does?” I wondered. How could life be so cruel, to feed one life on the death of another?
Around that formative time—I must have been only in first grade or so—I experienced a connection that would become one of my most persistent memories. One afternoon as I walked home from school, I realized I could feel the animals.
In my childhood it was still common to see huge lumpy caterpillars, the kind big enough that each of their individual cupped feet were visible as they crawled. Some were leaf green and a little slimy, the kind with grotesque spots on their heads that looked like big scary eyes. Others were black and orange, furry and a little pokey. Nowadays such caterpillars have become sadly rare, as have the butterflies born from their jeweled cocoons. But back then, they were everywhere. I loved them like I loved the water skippers in the ditches and the ladybugs in the garden—with total adoration.
The caterpillar of my memory was a slimy green one. I saw her crossing the sidewalk far ahead of my arrival, as I always scanned the ground a few squares ahead when I walked to avoid smashing any tiny creatures with my shoe. She was headed for sure disaster in the street, and I lit up at the chance to help her.
I bent down to admire her for a moment, gently plucked her up and rested her in my palm, and carried her to the nearest tree.
“There you go, little caterpillar,” I assured her as I placed her tiptoe on the highest branch I could reach. “Now you’ll be safe.”
By that time in my life I had probably picked up a hundred such caterpillars and talked to them. But this one stuck in my memory, because she is the first one I felt “talk back” to me.
I noticed that when I lifted her, I felt a wave of uncertainty ripple from her, an almost imperceptible energetic field pushing against my unfamiliar fingers. And once I placed her on the branch, I felt her shift into ease in a wave of freedom and familiarity. Like a tuning fork tuned to her frequency, I resonated with both her recoil and her relief. I walked away knowing that she felt better. And so did I.
From those early years I took it upon myself to move every living thing possible out of harm’s way. Saving life—especially animal life—was my most practiced part in the life-and-death symphony of the wild world.
I didn’t exercise the saving instinct to be a super-heroine to the animals. I did it because I couldn’t not do it. I couldn’t witness the threat of harm without feeling harmed myself. I did it for my own sake.
In my sixth grade literature class, we read the “The Death of the Moth,” a short story by English author Virginia Woolf. It was the most horrifying thing I had ever read.
The story unfolds as the narrator, in her sitting room, spies a moth who flies across the room to approach a nearby window. Thwarted by the glass, the moth flits back and forth along the windowsill in a frantic attempt to escape to freedom. In his frenzy he falls on his back, then struggles to right himself, kicking and shaking and becoming exhausted.
Watching with cool curiosity, the narrator considers helping the moth. She recognizes that with a mere touch of her finger she could help him right himself. With a flip of her wrists she might open the window to facilitate his escape. But at last she decides against intervening, instead content to watch with curiosity what will happen if she lets nature take its course.
The hours pass, and the moth becomes weaker, falls still, and dies. The light of the sun illuminates his lifeless body from across the invisible barrier that he could not find a way to break through.
When I finished the story I was furious. I understood it was just a story, and a metaphor at that. But I was still heartbroken. How could a person let another being die for no reason other than her own curiosity?
By then I had come to terms with life being fed by death. But allowing something to die unnecessarily, when one had the power to help it live? That was unconscionable to me.
In my 20s, I stayed for a while at the home of a lanky and mischievous old man who purported to be a magician. He may well have been one. With a wild mane of silver hair and a twisting twirling gray beard down to his belly button, the Magister (as he called himself) lived in a trailer house in the mountains, with a black cat named Merlin and two dogs he swore up and down were half-breed wolves.
Together with a few of my friends, I camped out in his front yard for a summer and a fall. The Magister seemed a little crazy. We were convinced he was hiding from the law, but none of us dared to ask him whether—or why—it was true.
We weren’t there to question him, but to learn from him. He was a master herbalist. He taught us to make medicines from nature, to gather healing plants from the hillsides, to follow our intuition to groves of mullein or scraggy bursts of wild junipers. He held a depth of esoteric knowledge unparalleled in my life, and had a tremendous library tucked in the back room of his trailer, filled with rare books on philosophy, nature, and mysticism. I was a little afraid of the old man’s madness, yet I forgave him his eccentricities. I trusted him.
Until one lazy summer morning, as the magician and I sat together in his living room, and we noticed a spindly spider tiptoeing diagonally across the wall. A lover of spiders, I smiled to watch the little brown creeper hastily make her way over the hills and valleys of the wood paneling, disappearing behind the sooty black exhaust pipe of the wood stove.
The old man frowned. “That spider is lucky it found a hiding place. It was almost a dead spider.”
“A dead spider? Why?”
“The spiders and I have a pact,” he answered. “If I see a spider in the house, it’s telling me it’s ready to die.”
I looked at him in shock. “Why would you have a pact like that?”
“I don’t like them, and they don’t like me. So we came to an agreement. I see them, they die.”
I stood up from the couch and crossed in my slippers over the dusty-stained rug to peer behind the stove. There the spider rested, quiet, hidden. Momentarily out of danger.
I fished a plastic cup from the kitchen sink, squeezed it behind the stove, flipped the spider into the cup with my index finger and carried her outside.
When I returned, the screen door slamming behind me, the Magister wrinkled his nose and sneered. “Young lady, you just disturbed the agreement I have with nature.”
As I plopped back down next to him I was defiant.
“I have an agreement with the spiders, too,” I told him. “If I see a spider in the house, she’s telling me she wants to live.”
After that day, I didn’t trust the old man anymore.
I argued in a similar vein later in the week with my boyfriend at the time, who shared my tent on the magician’s land. As we sat on the front steps of the trailer at dusk, we noticed Merlin the cat stalking a bouncy green frog along the sidewalk. I immediately jumped to my feet, shooed away the cat, and carried the frog to safety.
My boyfriend was annoyed. “You can’t do that,” he scolded me. “To choose one animal’s life over another is disrupting nature. We need to let nature take its course.”
I snapped back with an answer that surprised even myself.
“I am part of nature. Saving an animal from harm is nature taking its course through me.”
He tilted his head to one side, took a long look at me, and smiled.
“Huh. Well that’s an interesting way to look at it.”
Of course, I can’t save everything. And I’m not supposed to. I look for what is mine to touch, and what’s mine to let alone. But when I have the chance to save a life, I’ll always try.
It’s ridiculous to suggest that we humans are not participants in the course of nature. Of course we have a stake in the game. We play our cards everywhere.
Destroying habitats. Extracting resources. Factory farming. Building walls.
Planting gardens. Picking apples. Cleaning up oil spills. Preserving wild spaces.
We are part of nature, and we have power to alter her course with our choices. If we understand that we are not separate from her, but intimately connected to her, we can make choices that heal instead of harm. By recognizing ourselves as part of the game, we can take responsibility for the moves we make.
Years ago my brother built a trade as a fur trapper and bowhunter in the forested mountains of Idaho, near the place we grew up. Stalking deer and elk, setting traps for bobcat and coyote, and pulling tags for everything in season was pure joy to him. A dove. A rabbit. A fox or a goose—anything that gave chase would be his prize. He loved to tell with great pride the story of the day, feet balanced at the edge of a bobbing canoe on the river, he took down a deer on the bank with his arrow from 200 feet away.
I resented him for it. I resented him knowing he was not hunting for the wild meat or the income from pelts (though he did take advantage of both), but for the sport of it. The thrill of the chase.
I also resented the pain he caused. When he recounted a story of trapping and treeing a raccoon, or chasing down an injured doe, I could feel the wide-eyed terror of the captured animal without having been there. I considered my brother an enemy of life—the animals’ life, and mine.
But I needn’t have resented him so. My brother, like me, is an expression of nature. There is something wild in him that thrills at the hunt, no less genuine than the wildness in me that thrills at the rescue. As much as his pride annoys me, I admit he heeds an inner call as organic as mine. Neither of us chose to be the way we are.
Aren’t he and I, in our mirroring magnetisms, just playing out the paradoxical game of nature herself? She provides the safe shelter, yet she also provides the prey.
Even now I wonder if I’m being too gracious with my brother. Old habits die hard.
Nonetheless, the point remains. Nature feeds both impulses: to preserve life, and to destroy it. Both are required. And neither is a curse. The lion and the gazelle are fighting for the same thing: survival. Aren’t we all fighting for that?
Before night falls, I check in on the eagle webcam one last time. In the calm of dusk, the day’s heavy snow has settled to a light drift. In the shadow of the naked branches of an old cottonwood, I make out the proud head of father eagle, vigilant in his nest. For a moment, my heart is calm.
I think of the intruding female, and what must have befallen her to cause her to invade another eagle’s nest. Biologists say she was likely displaced from her own nesting place, perhaps suffering the loss of her own mate or her eggs, and now she also is fighting to survive. For trying to make her way in a harsh world, I feel no anger toward her. Only compassion.
I roll the blinds closed and lie down for another night’s rest. I reach for the book at my bedside table: A Joseph Campbell Companion. I flip to a random page and my eyes fall on a passage by the author that seems it was written just for this moment.
in the sorrows of the world.
We cannot cure the world of sorrows,
but we can choose to live in joy.
At times in my life I’ve wondered whether sensing the suffering of animals was a curse of sorts, an affliction that would keep me from ever feeling peace. I believe the desire to preserve life is a gift. But it’s also a painful one, and I’ve feared that over time that desire would break my heart too deeply to go on.
Now I understand that sharing in the world’s suffering is not a curse. On the contrary, it is my joy. Every life I touch with compassion leaves me feeling more complete, more myself, more alive. It is what I came here to do. Ironically, what provokes my deepest suffering also gives me the opportunity to offer my deepest gifts. And in that, there is peace.
So I guess I am still doing it for my own sake.
These days I try not to agonize so much over death. As much as it hurts me, I know it’s a necessary part of the game. But when given the choice between preservation versus destruction, I always know which side I’m on.
Let nature take its course. Just let me be there too.
We all have an intuitive ability to feel the world speak to us, though some of us have forgotten how to use it. I wish more of us would remember. What would we hear? What might we feel? What kind of world might we create if we knew that the web of life is a body we all share, and we all belong to her?
We cannot—should not—try to save every eagle chick. But if we learn to listen, we might remember a rule of the game that so many of us have forgotten: All Life is Sacred.
And when we remember that, we might finally ignite within us the power to heal the world.