If only they could talk


The Interspecies Internet interests me a lot more than the Internet of Things: it’s such a beautiful, simple idea at its core, even though it would take a lot to get it to work.

Peter Gabriel on animal-human animal communication: “What was amazing to me was that [the animals] seemed a lot more adept at getting a handle on our language than we were at getting a handle on theirs,” says Gabriel.’

The Interspecies Internet: Diana Reise, Peter Gabriel, Neil Gershenfeld, Vince Cerf

In the 1980s, Jim Nollman experimented with making music with the help of animals:

Smithsonian Folkways: Playing Music With Animals (Jim Nollman with 300 Turkeys, 12 Wolves and 30 Orcas)

(I like The Lesson a lot. So do my cats, who sit near the speaker with their ears cocked, though they’re not so fond of Cello and
Wolf Pack.)

The most frustrating part of writing The Wildings and The Hundred Names of Darkness was having to translate cat communications (or what I guessed were cat communications) from whisker, scent and touch to speech. I did the best I could, but it was like a more frustrating version of translating from Bengali to English (that’s still speech-to-speech); you’re trying to convey vibrational language (whiskers) or complex scent communications (spraying, scent-marking) into English. It’s clunky, though one way around it is to take the liberty of going inside an animal’s mind, and writing about that interior dialogue. (Tania James does this brilliantly in The Tusk That Did The Damage.)

I don’t know much about animal language, but the research on it is fascinating — from Jim Nollman’s Interspecies.com page on four whale species and communication:

“Other cetacean calls, including most of the toothed whales (i.e. odontocetes) are seldom used by composers. and even less less seldom heard by the general public. Orca calls are jazzy, edgy, and strident. Beluga calls are often dense and otherworldly, produced by a species with more discrete kinds of calls than any other animal. Dolphins are as high pitched as the hearing tests we all took as kids. The great whales — the blues, fins, bowheads, etc — sing low and monotone.”

The idea that animals might have language, thought, empathy, consciousness, a sense of self is unsurprising to anyone who lives with companion animals, or who has observed animals in the wild for however short a length of time. But Brandom Keim wrote a thoughtful essay in Aeon on why humans find it difficult when trying to comprehend animal consciousness:

“I was walking in Jamaica Bay on a bitterly cold and cloudless day when I saw semipalmated sandpipers again, running ahead of a pounding surf that caught the afternoon sun and sprayed their retreats with prisms. As Elizabeth Bishop observed in her poem ‘Sandpiper’ (1955): ‘The roaring alongside he takes for granted,/and that every so often the world is bound to shake.’ I wondered what it would be like to be one of them, to run with the flock and feed in the surf, to experience life at their scale and society. Simply put, did they enjoy it? Were they cold? Did they remember their journeys, feel a connection to individuals with whom they’d flown, a concern for compatriots and mates?

Asking those questions made me appreciate just how deeply I’d internalised the taxonomic system against which Prosek strained, as well as the habit of explaining animal behaviour in mechanical terms. I’d regarded the sandpipers as embodiments of their species and life history, but not as individuals, much less as selves. This oversight was not coincidental. The very history of taxonomy and attendant studies of animal behaviour is intertwined with a denial of individual animal consciousness.”

I’m curious about what would happen if animals could communicate with humans. What would they think of us, and our predatory, planet-dominating ways? Would they find us amusing, as we find some of them? Would we have to dissolve the idea that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’? Probably, because one of the first things we’d learn if animals could talk is that we’re just another animal; a strange, blundering, destructive, cruel, creative, curious species, inventors of bizarre and interesting devices.





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