The Healing Power Of Animals

We have been volunteering at the mountain lodge in Bosnia for almost five months now, and during that time I have developed a deep attachment to the two cats here. Pekka, a petite Tabby female or ‘Little One’ as we call her and Ellis, a large male mountain cat who we lovingly call ‘Chunk’. They feel like my children.

The way I treat Ellis and Pekka is ideally (dream pre-child scenario right?) how I would bring up a child. If they want comfort, they got it, they want freedom, no problem, they want to talk to me, I listen, they annoy me or are mean, so I walk away (and vice versa!). They are loved unconditionally but not spoilt. I have my own life and they have theirs. I love them but they are not my world.

Some psychoanalysts have argued that a child becomes full of rage when they realise that their mother has an independent life of her own. When I read about this theory it dawned on me that this is a very Western thing. In indigenous cultures children are brought up by the whole community and not by a single parent (most often the mother). Is this therefore the beginnings of Western problems? Is this where our hostile, singlular, greedy culture seeds from?

I see parents all the time who seem dependent on their children for their reason to be, their sole purpose in life is to over-provide, over-complicate and over-think for these small humans. There seems to be no collaboration between parents and children and so children seem only to end up as a product of parents illogical rules and irrational fears. For example, I was with a friend of mine and her small son. The child was obviously adventurous and had brave intentions – he wanted to go on the biggest slide. However, my friend fearfully followed her son around telling him what he couldn’t do (and I totally get why she is like that – the media constantly tells us how dangerous the world is). Imagine a whole childhood of this kind of over-control! Where was the encouragement and support to achieve his individual goal of climbing the biggest slide in the playground? Is it no wonder children so forceably rebel?

There is one thing all children should know (above dull counting and boring sentence structure); that nature is so very precious. More so now than ever before. Yet it seems schooling systems, parents and society in general doesn’t bother to teach this plain and simple fact – that our world is more than just human. The way the world currently works is selfishly self-serving putting humans at the top above everything else that exists and dwells here with us. That some humans even think certain other humans are not so human. That some humans even regard their pampered pets more human than some other humans. How confused and mixed up we are! How our importance is regarded in terms of profit, ego and status not happiness, nature and community. If we saw the very soil beneath us as sacred then surely we would not currently be experiencing the consequences of industrustrial consumption that threatens the very life supports of the earth.

Ellis and Pekka are lucky. They have a whole forest as their playground. They can sniff rocks and fat sprawling mushrooms, pad in soft wet moss, explore dark cosy dens and scramble up trees. They have a house they can retreat to, they have warm hands that stroke them. What could make their life ‘richer’? I’ve never met any adult who has said that the one issue steming from their childhood was a lack of things, too much time with their parents or of having too much freedom. Always the issues from childhood are to do with feeling totally accepted and fully supported by their parents as persons in their own right.

My parents, for example, want me to have the usual mainstream things like a house, car, children, marriage and a job. For them this equals success and happiness. Thankfully however, my parents wish more than anything else for me to be happy. Unfortunately my happiness is not theirs! I hope they know that I just can’t reconcile myself to that kind of life anymore. Although I do still really struggle with attachment for superficial things, for me, that life seems totally meaningless with the knowledge that the very earth under our feet is being systematicly destroyed (ironically at the risk of our very own extinction); and doing my best to actively move away from that is worth something more than just plainly material. Why would I put any emphasis on struggling to buy a house and keep down a job when I know our true home is being decimated for oil, corn and lining the pockets of the 1%?

At one volunteering project we were lucky enough to do a workshop on non-violent communication. This is a method of saying or listening to difficult emotional topics without saying or doing anything rash or regretful. Something I’ve always found incredibly difficult. I laugh during arguments or funerals and cry if I have to talk about personal stuff or feelings. I am angryily soft. I am either too light hearted or too serious. A tragic jester.

To non-violently communicate difficult issues with others takes sustained practice. We also volunteered with a pedagogy family who’d been actively doing this in a mentor situation with vulnerable teenagers for over ten years and still had ego difficulties. It is so hard because humans want things to be easy, they role play a scenario in their heads with the perfect outcome but in reality there is no perfect outcome. But isn’t life delightfully imperfect, after all what is there to learn from a perfect life?

Humans often are very predictable, going down the same path over and over again, likely destructive hurtful paths. A simple yet common example, if someone never washes the dishes then it is likely they never will, maybe because they never think about it, but often it is certainly not a personal attack on you. This scenario then becomes about how you handle it, accept that person, maybe find other ways that person contributes. If you stay furious with a person who doesn’t wash dishes because it never enters their mind, then you are harming yourself. You have to then ask yourself – why am I so angry?

I myself play out the same harmful routines again and again. Never quite able to change my ingrained mindsets. Triggers set in place from past actions. By living life as I do now, always moving, facing new people, places and situations and creatively resolving the endless issues thrown up by living on a bicycle; I am confronting my damaging mindsets, my ruts, my harmful ways of thinking and being in community with others. I am constantly faced with people I have problems with, things they do that frustrate me and I am constantly faced with my own behaviour, how I talk to someone or do something, how I can live more considerately or talk without blame. I believe this is what life is for, to learn how to live in a way that accepts all, doesn’t sway you from your ideals but also keeps your mind open to the ideals of others and allows you to change as you learn and experience life for yourself. The best way to learn is to do.

“People used to be simpler; they thought less and so decided their problems more boldly; but we think to much; we are eaten up by logic. The more enlightened a man is the more he is given to reflection and hair-splitting; the more undecided he is, the more full of scruples, and the more timidly he approached a task.”
‘At Home’ by Anton Chekhov, 1887

And here yet again I am reminded that indigenous cultures practice very well what Western culture finds so very difficult. They are profoundly practical. As anthropologist Jeremy Narby puts it, “They did not talk of doing things; they did them…. People in Quirishari taught by example, rather than by explanation. Parents would encourage their children to accompany them in their work. The phrase ‘leave Daddy alone because he is working’ was unknown”. And many other indigenous cultures don’t sit around discussing, talking, signing things off, over thinking, over politicising, wasting words. They just do.

And not to make a negative comparison but animals also just do. I amuse myself sometimes at the thought, that to me it seems, cats don’t have to deal with hurt feelings, grudges, anger, hair-splitting or drama; at least not in the same way as we do (imagine an animal version of a soap opera!). If another cat comes to their territory then there is a primal routine to partake in, during which each cat knows the rules of engagement and the results of each outcome. To watch this routine is fascinating, to listen to it is mesmerising. This to me seems like everything is in order. Everything abides by a natural law.

A friend of mine once said of his young daughter, “she loves watching the birds in our back garden. She is always pointing and saying, ‘Look! Look!’ But I’ve never noticed them before”. How many soundscapes only include healing nature sounds? Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist, has spent much of his life recording natural habitats. In 2002 he states that it takes him nearly 2,000 hours to obtain one hour of untainted natural sound. In 1968 it only took him 15 hours. Such a massive impact of human noise and industry on our planet!

I feel so lucky to wake up each morning to the sound of birds. Just birds. Soundscapes in this modern age so often include human sounds, cars, machinery, shops, that we miss the bird calls, the trees creak, the frog plop. When I feel unhappy or angry I look for Pekka or Ellis. Putting my nose deep into their thick wonderful fur, feeling the rhythmically purring body and taking in their gentle scent feels like a tonic for me. It heals everything in me that needs healing (maybe we look to our children to heal us?) Funny how life can be just that simple, if you choose it to be.

Ellis and Pekka have two commodities that are hard to come by in our modern age. Freedom and space. I feel that we all should have these things, as basic human rights (and I say this knowing that there is more slavery in the world today than there was when it was ‘legal’!!). We will be leaving the mountain lodge soon and every day I think of how much I will miss Ellis and Pekka. But on the other hand I am looking forward to the freedom and simplicity I feel only when we are travelling by bicycle. This sort of nomadic life is never easy, unpredictable and unstable, but it gives me so much.

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