Humans have had pets or animal companions for thousands of years. They have protected us, helped feed us and, in times of stress, they have been a source of great comfort. Their non-human minds have confused and fascinated us. They have also taught us a great deal.
I was returning home earlier this summer, after a long walk up my hill in a very rural area of New York, when I saw a small animal a hundred yards or more downhill from me. It was black and, at first, I couldn’t tell if it was a large bird, maybe a raven, or one of my three cats. As I got a little closer, and the animal just sat there, I realized it must be my cat Max.
I called out to him, and he started up the hill to meet me as I walked down towards him. As he got close, I stopped. He stood up on his back legs and rubbed his head against my hand, as if urging me to pet him, and I couldn’t help but comply. His giving such attention to me led to my opening up to him.
I then tried to continue to walk home, but Max made it difficult. He walked a figure eight between my feet, rubbing against me as frequently as he could. Why do cats do this? When he walks with me, it’s as if he is trying to weave a spell that would halt me in my tracks. I stopped to pet him. He sat down and stared off at part of the scene around him. And I did the same. Maybe that’s all he wanted. Maybe he was telling me to slow down, look and listen. Smell the roses.
I noticed a dead branch of a maple tree supported by an evergreen. I noticed blackberry bushes, and little wild strawberries. Thirty years ago stately trees lined the road. Then the road crew came with their big machines and devastated the trees, cutting them down so the road could be made wider and the plow could clear away the snow. This, at first, outraged most of us who lived here. Two neighbors chained themselves to their favorite trees. Now, we’re glad the road is plowed and the trees are returning.
I listened to the gentle wind, birdcalls, insect cries and it sounded like the world was purring to me. If we give the world a chance, it speaks to us.
Not that Max or any cat is “perfect.” There are things he does that make me angry or cringe. But because of him I listen more to what the world around me has to say. Sometimes it purrs. Other times, it cries or rages. I listen because without this land, what was I? For Max, the land, the road, the trees, the other animals were not just part of his home—they were part of who he was.
This, this scene all around me—without it, I didn’t exist. Not just that it was part of my identity. My lungs breathe in sky, so when I speak, I speak sky talk. To walk forward, I press back against the earth, so each step I take is the earth walking. One movement of many feet. We humans have such powerful words in our heads we easily lose sight of what nourishes those words. My cat taught me this today. In this day and age of false talk, we need to be reminded of such truths or we might lose it all.
In these days of hurricanes and other disasters, I feel fortunate to live in a place where the earth is now gentle⏤and I am distressed seeing what so many have lost, homes and possessions, friends or family, and pets. I know everything can change at any moment. This is even more of a reason to listen, carefully. Even more reason to appreciate what I have and to work to preserve the environment that sustains us all.