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.


8 Replies to “Nickering”

  1. Good looking beast. Another generation to take the reins in her turn.
    And the communication between mare and foal, like other parent offspring relationships is quite fascinating to observe. It’s wonderful that you get to share such observations with your daughter. Another generation to take the reins in her turn.

    1. Thanks, Clem. The Wolhlleben quote continues in a way that I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on and is even relevant to the current SFF discussion on regenerative agriculture: “However when we step into farm fields, the vegetation becomes very quiet. Due to selective breeding, our cultivated plants have, for the most part, lost their ability to communicate above or below ground. Isolated by their silence, they are easy prey for insect pests.” What do you think of this statement? I’m pretty sure that this was not a deliberate breeding toward silence but at most collateral damage in breeding for more “economic” traits. Is there any breeding being done to deliberately augment productivity by better use of microbial and fungal assistance? More collaborative soybeans?

  2. you must found a few minutes between rainstorms for those great pics. and they the animals do talk, we the humans just have to have enough imagination, and slow down long enough to listen. nice post

  3. Fine telling and stunning pics.

    I like that dignified, unfussy, nonjudgemental style of parenting the other mammals do so well. Thoroughly affectionate but not too busy or bossy. Nothing ” tiger mom” about it.

    The human ability to verbalize every crazy thought that crosses our craniums is surely a mixed blessing.

  4. Michelle,
    Lovely post. Your description and awareness of Velodia speaks volumes of the communication you share. I recall making whickering sounds of my own when I communicate with a horse, although I was never able to get that really deep vibration in the chest. When my children were babies I would hum to them. It didn’t matter if I knew a song or not, just the vibrations of humming felt deeply satisfying to me and they seemed to respond positively.

    I’m finding myself more and more curious about networks of fungal hypha. This spring I’m working with someone knowledgeable about edible mushrooms to inoculate some logs at the edge of our woods. I’ve always felt that trees isolated at the edge of farm fields seemed so lonely, perhaps the constant tillage of the field cuts them off from the trees in the forest. Maybe this is why we should maintain wind breaks along and surrounding fields in order to maintain the fungal network. Perhaps plants bred for life bathed in chemicals planted in soil disturbed by tillage are “deaf”. I don’t think they are genetically predisposed though. I think they would hear just fine if they grew in a soil filled with fungi.

    Humans don’t have mycelium connecting us, but I think we do connect with world through the bacteria and other microbes that live on our skin and in our gut. I’ve mentioned before that when I am handling compost I feel a tingling across my skin. I think of all the microbes that live on the surfaces around us and how they communicate with us through the “telephone” of microbes on our skin, informing us about our environment. I think we damage our “phone line” when we overuse hygiene products to “protect” ourselves from dirt and bacteria. In the process we remove or hinder the beneficial bacteria on our skin and hair. When we eat highly processed food we create a different ecosystem in our gut. When I eat freshly picked food bursting with vitality, my inner body feels enlivened, lit up. I think of the plants I eat, freshly picked for food, and how the metabolites in their tissue help adjust my metabolism to the rhythm of the seasons. Like the trees isolated at the edge of a field, we become deaf and mute, cut off from the world. But like trees in the forest we too can hear and communicate with the world as long as we don’t kill off our symbiotic microbes.

    I loved your phrase “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.” I agree that our natural state is living within this universal intelligence!


    1. re soils, microbes, and fungi a couple of thoughts come to mind…

      The first is about the results of a study in northern New England some years back that was examining the changes to the soils near waterbodies after the first ten years of a federal
      conservation program. This was in response to large dollar buyoffs of farmers and ranchers to
      stay more than 200 feet from ponds, streams, rivers and lakes, primarily to reduce nitrification.
      The program essentially paid farmers the amount of money that they would likely receive for planting those acres. Believe that congressional budget was 17B$ US for the first ten years of this
      program nationwide, and the soil research effort was to document changes from baseline studies performed 10 years previously before a second ten year program was authorized and funded.

      At one site along a heavily forested stream the researchers were puzzled that the soils were
      almost identical to those in nearby pastures. Normally soils in woodlands were significantly more “spongy” and served to filter animal waste, fertilizer and fertilizer by-products in the rain runoff going toward lower elevation waterbodies. They re-ran their tests in nearby areas with similar results and were completely stumped until they met an octagenarian farmer from the area who remembered that the wooded area had been active pasture until about 60 years before. A quick check revealed that the trees were about 60 years of age or less. The implication was that the spongy bacteria and fungi filled absorbent soils, once destroyed ,would take a very long time to revert to a pre-pasture state, if they ever did.

      The second observation is the reporting that today’s common vegetables have significantly less nutritional value than vegetables grown and assayed 50-75 years ago. For example see

      And although the reporting is not widespread, the state of vegetables perhaps not a thrilling media event, these nutritional concerns are juxtaposed with a larger record of known changes to our local worlds that include other environment wide issues such as increasing pesticide, antibiotic, and hormone usage, as well as plain vanilla long distance airborn pollutant contamination, the increase in estrogen mimics, breast and prostate cancers, lower sperm counts in young men, and earlier onset of puberty in young women.

      All this considered, and still determined to remain positive, added together these issues present us with a significant uphill battle to even think about the meaning of “sustainable” or “organic” as applied to food production.

  5. Welcome Ohu, a real beauty. Gorgeous pictures Michele. Fascinating descussion on communication. When we lived in Wyoming, Colonel our 2300 lb. 18 hands draft horse. Communicated with motion I learned, as all must around large animals, to have a Hand on his flank to feel movements. Saucer sized
    hoofs will make their prescence known, on feet.. Think many chemical and biologic tracers must be similarly blunt signaling. “My space adapt to presence,” To symbionts welcoming to others harsh, possibly noxious. Fascinating how micro and macro always have same rhythms, shapes and adaptions.

    1. Hi Colby, it’s possible that one feels most intensely alive when a very large horse puts his weight down on your toe and doesn’t even notice that he might be implicated in your sudden excitement! Such pain! Such recriminations!

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