There was a recent study done in Yellowstone Park on the elk population. Elk have two natural predators in the park, wolves and cougars. The study discovered that the elk have a tendency to retreat into the forested areas during the day and return to the grassy meadows at night. The reason might well be that wolves generally hunt at dawn and dusk in grassy areas, whereas cougars hunt at night in the forests. Elk will go where their predators aren’t.
Then there are the stories of elephants. One can’t say that they “mourn,” as that seems to be a distinctly human emotion. But it’s curious how they explore their dead, and while they do it, even have liquid that resembles tears draining from behind their eyes. They will forego feeding to hang around a body for long periods, an unusual habit as they need to feed about 20 hours a day to get sufficient nutrients. There was even a recent story of how a family of elephants returned to the home of a human friend on the first anniversary of his death.
There’s also the story of Brazilian Joao Pereira de Souza and Jinjing. Jinjing is a penguin that was rescued by Joao from an oil spill. Even though the penguin may disappear for days, even months at a time, it always returns to the small fishing village where Joao lives. They swim together, take walks around the island together and engage in what appears to be conversation. The small community of 1,300 people considers Jinjing the island mascot.
In a week where all of these animal stories caught my attention, they made me start thinking about connections in the human world, often connections that are hidden or obscure in ways we don’t often recognize or understand. Recognizing relationships in the human world can be elusive, even though they are pervasive and understanding them may be critical to our future.
For instance, all of us in the animal kingdom have predators. It’s not just elk. There are human predators. Looking back through old Life magazines, one will find lots of pictures of film stars advertising cigarettes. In those days, it was cool to smoke. Soldiers going off to war were given free packs of cigarettes and the tobacco industry soon had a whole generation smoking, and ultimately coming down with lung cancer and all manner of respiratory diseases. These days it’s vaping and opioids. Like the elk, we need to recognize the habits of the predators and function accordingly. And the predators are not just foreign terrorists. In our country, it could be vampire capitalists.
As humans, we would do well to cultivate the memory of an elephant. Most have already forgotten the severe flooding in the mid-west this past year. Farm fields were flooded and were never planted. Driving across the state in late summer, it was surprising to see so many places where weeds grew instead of crops. Failing farms and suicide grieving families understand the relationship, the connection, between a changing climate and their grief. Will the rest of us see the connection as the farm economy falters or fails and prices rise at the grocery store?
Another recent study found that mountain lions in the Santa Cruz mountains had three times as much mercury in their bodies as their inland brothers and sisters. This was the result of the fog coming off the ocean. Coal burning plants release mercury into the atmosphere that settles in the ocean and is eventually released through a complex chemical transformation into the atmosphere again in fog. Then it settles in lichen on the shore, that deer eat, and so on up the food chain. The same mercury meal happens in the ocean with swordfish, tuna and other sea predators. How many of us knew burning coal not only speeds up a warming planet but endangers coastal food webs as well? Did we ever even imagine that connection, that relationship?
I had a good friend who lamented some months before he died that he wasn’t sure he had made a difference in the lives of those around him. I’m not sure if it was a temporary moment of angst or if he really believed it, but I knew different and assured him of the meaning, love and compassion he had brought to many. It reminded me we need to let our mentors and care givers know that they are appreciated. If a penguin can return again and again to a life giving friend, we can also respect and honor our life giving relationships.
It’s difficult to understand all the connections. The world is a web of relationships. Pulling on one strand affects the whole web. What we do has an impact, often unseen! May our actions be considered and thoughtful. May our contributions be life giving.