I’ve heard that the Bedouin celebrate the birth of a foal as an event second in importance only to of emergence of a poet, which seems an admirable way of looking at things to me. After weeks of anticipation and nervousness, I am celebrating the birth of a tall, black filly with one white foot and a star on her forehead.
Her mother, Velodia, is a mare of ancient Portuguese lineage. Even without her pedigree, Velodia’s nobility would be abundantly clear in her impeccable manners and intelligence. She rarely does anything that is ill-considered or rude. She is a massive horse and yet she is maintains a careful and delicate physical courtesy towards both humans and other horses.
On the other hand, the noble Velodia has the habit of letting her bottom lip hang down, like any old nag, when she is napping deeply on a warm morning. This is probably her most endearing trait, since it brings her down to our level – she’s just a country girl like the rest of us.
Right now, she is not getting to relax much as her new foal, ‘Ohu (cloud or mist), is a firecracker of a filly. She canters everywhere she wants to go, and if she is not cantering she is doing leaps or bucks and plunges or sudden stops and spins on her gangly legs. Velodia, excellent mother that she is, has been on the job at all hours feeding, protecting, and teaching her foal how to behave. She does this last by example but also with deep, almost sub-sonic noises: nickering, or more precisely, what the British horse-folk call whickering. It is a noise that is strangely affective – I can feel the vibrations of Velodia’s whickering in my stomach not just in my ears. It seems to me that her nickering is bringing her foal into tune, into alignment with her.
The nickering and whickering of horses isn’t a language such as we speak that uses syntax, structure and representation. At least I don’t think that it does. But to think that the language of horses is not subtle and effective in other ways – in ways of emotional and physical attunement for instance – is a narrow and rigid understanding of language and communication.
Peter Wohlleben, in The Hidden Life of Trees writes that: “Dr. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver has discovered that [trees] also warn each other using chemical signals sent through the fungal networks around their root tips… In the symbiotic community of the forest, not only trees but shrubs and grasses – and possibly all plant species – exchange information in this way.” Language and communication is happening all around us, between animals, between plants, between microbes, in a grass-land or a forest, and, no doubt, in tide-pools and oceans.
In these days when our own language and communication have become corrupted, especially at the level of national and international politics; in which we must deal with the corrosive claim that “we live in a post-truth era;” in which civility is being turned against itself and no one seems to know how to slow the downward spiral, in these days it seems vital to remember that not all language and communication suffers from the sicknesses of civilization, that there are ways of meaning that are not symbolic and therefore true in a way that symbolic thought and communication is not. It is important to remember that we are embedded in an intelligence that is far greater than our own, and that this intelligence can be seen at work all around us in the lives of plants and animals.