This past summer, I often found myself talking to animals. They never talked back. It started with a Dall sheep that I encountered while hiking back to my campsite in Denali National Park. I had seen a few of the sheep dotting the landscape, but when I walked over a knoll, I saw that there were seven of them grazing around me. The apparent patriarch, horns arched like crescent moons, saw me bursting into this feeding scene and didn’t seem to like it. He walked toward me, and I backed up and continued toward my campsite. He kept following me — trotting, then stopping and walking, then running toward me again. After a while of this, I turned to him and asked him why he was following me. I said that I had come in peace. He stared, followed a few more times and eventually lost interest.
“I come in peace.” It’s a tough thing to communicate convincingly.
My experiments in interspecies communication continued throughout the summer. I sang to grizzlies as I waded through brush and trilled at three short-eared owls soaring above my tent below a yellow moon. Some animals communicated back inadvertently — leaving signs of where they had walked and slept, where they had scratched the bark off of birch trees, where they had died.
One day during a backpacking trip, I turned around and saw that I was sharing my campsite with a caribou. He rushed toward me, then paused, then ran parallel to where I began walking, then paused again, then ran toward me once more. I was nervous, tired and cold — on day five of a weeklong solo trip. I yelled, “I’m just walking here, like you. I’ll leave soon.” He came at me again. By this time, he was about 15 feet away. I grabbed my only defense (bear spray), pointed it his way and yelled, “I come in peace!” I am not sure I have ever been a more ridiculous sight. Did I really expect him to believe that?
Animals seem to sense something other than words. Indeed, words don’t accomplish much, as tempted as I might be to yell, “I’m a vegetarian!” “I go to Yale!” in a kind of plea for mercy. Once, I was watching a red squirrel perched in a black spruce near my cabin. I had been standing a few feet away from the tree trunk for some time watching him. Then I pointed the fellow out to a friend. As soon as I pointed, the squirrel looked down, saw us and erupted into a frenzy of fear. In another ridiculous gesture, I knelt in the moss and apologized, but the words were of no use. He squeaked and screamed and eventually skittered off.
I’ve wondered about this dilemma of communicating that I come in peace with humans, as well. Through journalism and hitchhiking, in particular, I have found myself in the homes and cars of strangers, often asking quite personal questions soon after shaking their hands. I’ve wondered what I can do or say that will tell them that I mean no harm. How can I make them feel at ease and be their most honest and real selves?
The answer is a work in progress, an ever-unfolding series of experiments. We already know the basics: Look people in the eye, smile, pay attention. Ask questions and follow-up questions. Notice what they say and don’t say. Care.
Talking to animals has helped me talk to humans. It has taught me to be less afraid and defensive when something wild looks me in the eye.
Once, a friend and I listened to a radio program about the limitations of language and how difficult it is to communicate with anyone. I was frustrated by the pessimistic remarks about all of this distance between people. I was eager to bridge it. My friend and I sat cross-legged on the floor, staring at each other. At first, we blurted out ugly facts about ourselves, grueling confessions, as if these would somehow make us closer. Eventually, we stopped talking. We sat there for what we later estimated was between five minutes and three hours, looking at each other until shadows coated half of our faces. Our minds eventually emptied — drained of distraction, freed from fear or defense — as if repeating to one another in truth and understanding, “I come in peace.”
We must work to quiet the chatter of our own minds. If you are talking to someone while there’s a phone buzzing in your pocket, some place you’re about to run to (and might already be late!), some task you’re stressed about completing or forgetting, even some clever remark you are preparing as a reply, you can say calming remarks about your vegetarianism or elite education or claim to peace, but what you will communicate, more than anything else, is that there is something more important than the thing this someone is saying. Asking a question or claiming to care with such a mind is like yelling that you come in peace while pointing ultra-powerful pepper spray at a nonviolent creature. No one’s buying it.
Diana Saverin is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.