If I Could Talk to the Animals
June 12, 2006

One of the eggs I bought yesterday at the UBC Farm market has a nubby, wrinkled shell. The happy chickens are getting old. They are in the last months of their productive lives and a number of the hens have died of old age recently. We can them the happy chickens because they are free range, open air chickens. They do what chickens seem to love most: search for bugs in the grass, graze to their heart's content, and fluff their feathers in luxurious dust baths. A couple of weeks ago my son had a fine time pulling up vibrant green clover from outside the pen and sticking it through the holes in the fence, so the chickens would compete with each other to gobble it up greedily. When my friend Kathy came to visit the happy chickens last summer she had a half-hour long conversation with them. The whole conversation was a riff on: "How are you lovely ladies? Have you been laying some lovely eggs today?" Kathy has parrots at home, so she is a bird lover at heart. While it has occurred to me to have conversations with parrots because they can mimic me or answer me with a phrase they've learned, it's never occurred to me to talk to chickens.

I have never had the honor of conversing with chickens, but I do like to visit them whenever I'm at the farm and see what kind of mood their in. On rainy days they seem quiet and subdued, and on warm, breezy days they are perky and hungry. I might talk to dogs to give them commands, and I might greet a cat I see on the sidewalk, so it will come over and allow itself to be petted and scratched on the chin. We all have affinities toward different creatures. There are experts who are conversant in cat chat. There are horse whisperers, and dog talkers. Some people have an intuitive knack for communicating with animals in both verbal and nonverbal ways. Recently, a woman named Bonnie Bergin claims to have taught dogs how to read and obey simple commands such as "walk", "sit", and "stay." Interspecies communicator Jim Nollman has musical conversations with dolphins and killer whales using unique instruments he has created specifically for that purpose. We humans generally love to communicate, so it's easy to see why we would project that desire onto other animals, insects, and even plants in our environment.

Over the past year I have been researching the tradition of "telling the bees." The ancient Greeks thought of bees as the messengers of the gods. Up until recently, it was a tradition in some parts of England and Ireland to tell the bees about significant events in the local community. An old folk saying goes "Marriage, birth, or burying, / News across the seas,/All your sad or marrying/You must tell the bees." Most important was the tradition of letting the bees know when their keeper had died, and to turn the hives away from the direction of the coffin as it was carried out of the keeper's house.

"The procedure is that as soon as a member of the family has breathed his or her last a younger member of the household, often a child, is told to visit the hives and rattling a chain of small keys taps on the hives and whispers three times:

Little Brownies, little brownies, your mistress is dead...."

("Tell the Bees...Belief, Knowledge and Hypersymbolic Cognition" on the Museum of Jurassic Technology website:Telling of the Bees)

The hives were often draped in black crepe, and in some cases, the bees visited the coffin of their former caretaker during the funeral. Sometimes the woman delivering news to the bees would dress to suit the occasion, wearing black clothes for mourning, and pretty tea dresses for births and marriages.

Last summer I visited UBC farm on a regular basis, almost weekly. I was most often drawn to the honeybees, especially the hives in the clearing by the fire pit in the middle of the farm. I would sit by the bees with my journal on my lap, meditating on their work. I found they had an incredibly calming effect on my mind and body. I felt spiritually uplifted after I had visited the bees, and have since found that it is a native belief that bees and wasps have a cleansing effect on soma and soul. While a wasp is hovering around you, you can acknowledge the privilege and honor of being visited by this sacred insect. This in turn likely has a bio-feedback effect on your body, calming you down so that the wasp is less likely to sting you.

Visiting with the bees became a ritual I look forward to every week. In this simple way I "commune" with the bees. Commune is the common root word of both community and communication. It is from the Old French verb communer, (to share). Humans have the natural desire to share, to be together, to bring together, to speak together and listen to each other. Listening to the honeybees was a kind of therapy for me, reconnecting me to a deep admiration and curiosity I have always had about bees. My mother's father and my own father were both beekeepers in Saskatchewan. Sadly, dad had to give up beekeeping after developing an allergy to the stings and nearly losing his life while tending his hive. Needless to say, I've been a bit afraid of bees ever since that incident. Then one day two years ago I came upon a small swarm of honeybees wrapped around a city tree. I was drawn to the swarm, and felt completely safe and mesmerized by their presence. At that moment I overcame my fear of honeybees.

It seems that every week I learn a new fascinating fact about bees. For instance, did you know that wild bumblebees are generally more attracted to native flowers and European honeybees are more attracted to European flowers? In the past week I have observed bumblebees in laburnum, Spanish lavender, and allium, and honeybees in blackberry and buttercup blossoms. The next time you see a honeybee or bumblebee, make a note of which flower they were pollinating. Notice how the size of the insect can determine which flower they fit into to pollinate. Giant bumblebees fit nicely into Fat Foxglove blossoms, and I have seen tiny black and white bees fit into the blue flowers of rosemary.

So what did the bees have to say to me? Besides having a soothing, calming affect on me, I think they gave me a mission to study and protect the pollinators in order to maintain the health and safety of that particular aspect of the local food security systems. Pollinating is the most important job bees have in relationship to creating a food supply for humans. Pollinators need to be protected and celebrated. I feel I've been given a life task, a job that may that makes sense to me in a deep, soulful way. Suddenly I have an affinity towards butterflies, moths, bees, and even the tiny ants that crawl all over the blousey pink peony blossoms in our garden. This affinity is passing quickly and easily onto my son, who at age five is in his prime "bug bonding " time. David Suzuki, in an interview with Shelagh Rogers on CBC radio (April 13, 2006) said that when he was a child he developed a deep love of bugs. This led him to studying the lives of fruit flies, genetics, and of course, engendered a deep love of and concern for the ecology of our planet.

Another important thing I have learned from the bees, from the woman who taught dogs to read, and from my chicken-loving friend Kathy, is to stop and talk to the animals. I spend more time with cats on sidewalks. I squat down to their level and ask them about their day. I inquire after the health of sleek black crows with fat worms in their beaks. I put my hand on the bark of a Douglas fir and listen to its calm, sacred silence. This opens up my imagination to the possibility of a two-way conversation with the natural world. I invite you to talk to the chickens, cats, and the bees, the birds, animals, and insects that you meet. You never know...they may just talk back to you!