Listening To Other Species

Author's Note:

This particular post was created for a service at my local Unitarian Universalist church. I am posting it here in its entirety so that the resources I used can be available to whoever is interested. 

Listening to Other Species

This morning I want to talk about three concepts as old as the First Nations. They are observation, communication and interdependence. I believe that living in our advanced, technology-driven culture has impoverished us by creating a separation between us and the rest of life on the planet. Not having to place a bare foot on soil or to take our food by our own hand almost makes us think that mankind is somehow separate from other lifeforms. What I see, however, is men and women who feel distant from each other and from all life, a state that often leads to depression, and I think this grows out of our separation from the pulse of the planet. So let’s examine these three concepts.

First, Observation: How can using my senses to experience all of life enrich my spirit?

Let me begin with a paragraph from John Muir’s book “My First Summer in the Sierra.” Since we are all mountain dwellers here, perhaps you will identify with his message.

“One of these ancient flood boulders stands firm in the middle of the stream channel, just below the lower edge of the pool dam at the foot of the fall nearest our camp. It is a nearly cubical mass of granite about eight feet high, plushed with mosses over the top and down the sides to ordinary high-water mark. When I climbed on top of it today and lay down to rest, it seemed the most romantic spot I had yet found--the one big stone with its mossy level top and smooth sides standing square and firm and solitary, like an altar, the fall in front of it bathing it lightly with the finest of the spray, just enough to keep its moss cover fresh; the clear green pool beneath, with its foam-bells and its half circle of lilies leaning forward like a band of admirers, and flowering dogwood and alder trees leaning over all in sun-sifted arches. How soothingly, restfully cool it is beneath that leafy, translucent ceiling, and how delightful the water music--the deep bass tones of the fall, the clashing, ringing spray, and infinite variety of small low tones of the current gliding past the side of the boulder-island, and glinting against a thousand smaller stones down the ferny channel! All this shut in; every one of these influences acting at short range as if in a quiet room. The place seemed holy, where one might hope to see God.”

What I like about this passage is how well Muir captures the immersion of his experience. He takes a childlike delight in the composite sensation of this one place, at this one time, and articulating it so clearly for us that we can feel like we are there. He uses language that we know to illustrate an experience for us that we also, probably, know, which makes it easy for us to understand his feelings of delight. Too bad communication isn’t always that simple!

If we are lucky, we are born to mothers and fathers who are gardeners. Gardeners who do not condemn grubby knees, soaked socks, torn sweaters or uncombed hair. Who themselves, at some time in their lives, have rubbed their noses with pussy-willows and dandelions, who have carried butterflies on their fingers, have captured frogs and fish and felt life struggle in their grasp. In children, all of these are delights--they only become fears or foreign if taught that they should be. What child has not imagined being some other creature? Of being tall as a tree, free as a bird or as beautiful as a flower? Didn’t you? I know I did!  

When we are young we are eager to explore our environment and are constantly learning through observation. As we get older, we develop language that we can use to describe these observations. When encouraged, we become better and better at describing what we see, smell, hear or touch and therefore become better and better at seeing, smelling, hearing and using touch to inform ourselves. When we get really good at it we can write like John Muir!  Too often, however, we allow these more “animal-like” skills to lapse as we rely more and more on the relationships we maintain primarily with language.

What if being observant about our environment, especially the live elements within it, were critical to our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health? What if a walk in the woods is as important to the health of mankind as prayer?

In 2008 the University of Michigan conducted an assessment of memory and attention in which participants walked through either a downtown city area or an arboretum. The people who walked through the arboretum scored significantly higher on both measures. Earlier this year, the experiment was repeated, with a twist: researchers wanted to know the impact of these same walks on people suffering from clinical depression. Even when test participants were primed to stew on negative thoughts before heading out, the “positive effect” was so strong that one conclusion reached was that nature walks could provide a cost-efficient supplement to traditional treatments for major depression. 

Similar studies linking time in outdoor environments to various factors have documented improved academic performance in students, reduced crime rates, faster cure rates for hospital patients AND a predilection to greater spending in shopping environments having mature trees. (Now you KNOW that's important!) This by no means summarizes all the studies that have taken place or that are currently in process, but the message seems clear: we need time in green environments at a level that is not yet fully understood. What message is our psyche getting when we are outdoors that encourages all these positive side-effects?  The truth is, we don’t know! But study after study points to our need to be in natural environments.

I'll end this section with a quote by Carlos Eyles, in his book

The Last of the Blue Water Hunters.

“In all my time spent in the ocean wilderness, it has never once asked for nor taken a piece of me. Quite the reverse: it has healed that which was wounded; it has given freely of its gifts and asks only that I pay close attention to it. Upon my entry in to the ocean, it fills my spirit, cleanses my soul and repairs my tattered heart.”

Our second concept, Communication: Must we talk to communicate? What other methods do we have? What methods might other species be using to get our attention?

How many of you have been or are now owned by a pet? Is there any doubt in your mind that your companion attempts to communicate with you? How large is their vocabulary? Do they even have to use sound? It is amazing to me just how much disgust and disappointment my cat Ziggy can communicate when he fails to get fed within five minutes of his initial call for dinner. Sound familiar?

Jane Goodall, the famed primatologist has said: “You cannot share your life in any meaningful way with an animal and not realize they have different personalities.” If we can detect personality in our pets,  then, certainly, they are communicating. They just usually aren’t speaking English. Which forces us to practice our foreign language skills!

Let’s look at some specific examples of how other species are communicating.

Warning calls issued by West African Diana monkeys and Campbell’s monkeys to alert others to either raptor or leopard threats have been shown to be learned communication--the youngest members of the communities responded more slowly or not at all to the specific threat until the alarm calls had been reinforced. 

Numerous accounts, some anecdotal and many research-based, document what appears to be grieving on the part of dolphins, primates, dogs, birds, whales and cats. Classic symptoms of lack of appetite, crying out, trying to feed the dead companion or family member, returning to the dead body, defending the corpse from scavengers—all point to emotional attachment on the part of the survivor for the one they have lost. These attachments are not limited to their own species—dogs in particular are known for their grief at the loss of a beloved human. So it is clear that many animals grieve--but they also express joy quite readily. 

None of these instances of communication or emotion on the part of breathing things really surprise people very much. We seem to accept these characteristics from things that bleed the same color as we do. But what about thinking and communication in and between species that don't bleed red?

In the nineteenth century, Gustave Fechner wrote that he believed that plants had emotions and that humans could promote healthy growth through these emotions by talking to them. I confess to practicing this in my own yard, somewhat sporadically. My neighbor tells me she works very hard to communicate with her plants--she threatens them with death by dissection for poor performers. I’m not sure this is what Gustave meant. 

It’s been known for several years now that plants can signal each other by emitting gases or other chemicals to warn their neighbors of danger by insect, fungus or pruning shears. That “newly-mown grass” smell is an example of this particular capability. German scientists studying wild tobacco noticed that when the plants were infested by caterpillars, the plants released a distress GLV, or green leaf volatile, that attracted predatory bugs who like to eat caterpillars. While this may not be exactly “conversation,” it is most certainly interspecies communication. These non-verbal forms of interspecies communication have been documented in bacteria--it would be foolish to assume that higher orders of life can’t do the same.

Prince Charles has maintained for decades that we should all be talking to our plants--and now there is a study to back him up! Scientists at Bristol University have used powerful recording equipment to listen to corn saplings--and heard clicking sounds coming from their roots. Researchers say this is the first solid evidence they have of the plants own language of noises, inaudible to human ears. Recording these sounds and playing them back to the plants encouraged root development growing in the direction of the speakers used to broadcast the sound. Maybe the plants were giving each other a pep talk when they were recorded? Grow, team, Grow!

Once again, we are beginning to learn through scientific inquiry what we didn’t know before. How long will it be before we begin to decipher the language of plants?

What happens to our perception of the world if we have to assume that every living thing is sentient enough to perceive a threat and respond to it? What if that response involves communicating with other species? What are we missing by not sensing or observing the calls of species outside our genus?

Which brings us to our third concept, Interdependence: Despite our standing in the animal kingdom, we are regularly felled by disease we do not fully understand. What losses to the ecosystem would make us even more vulnerable? Who do we depend on to maintain a planet that supports us?

One of the more alarming things I learned from biologist E. O. Wilson is that if mankind died out, he could think of only three species of parasites that would die off with us. I so thought we were more special than that!  This, it turns out, is part of the trouble with being at the top of the food chain--just ask lions and tigers and wolves. Disruptions to our environment cause small ripples that get bigger and bigger until they dethrone the top predator, who uses more resources than the smaller species below them.

I’d like to share an example of interdependence that holds special significance for many of us: the Cacao tree. Perhaps you have shared its fruits in a mug of hot chocolate? Cacao trees have an intricate ecological relationship with fungi that inhabit them. Back in 2003 scientists discovered that certain “good” fungi serve to protect the trees from other fungi pathogens. So species of endophyte fungi preferred by cacao trees could be used as biological control agents to protect them from the more toxic invaders. This is important to know, because if a tree has a fungus that is threatening the crop, the current standard practice would be to apply a fungicide. In the case of cacao trees, this would kill the very thing protecting it.  While a tree with the “good” fungus might show signs of the “bad” fungus, it does not develop into a debilitating, non-productive state. Remove the “good” fungus and the bad one has nothing to keep it in check.   

Fast forward to September of last year, when researchers at Penn State discovered that a common virus that regularly infects humans but causes no disease killed 100% of breast cancer cells within one week within the context of tissue culture dishes in the lab.  While it is unlikely that the virus could be introduced as a direct agent to kill breast cancer cells, the fact that it does so on its own is another example of how we may be dependent on other species to keep us healthy. We simply do not know all the ways in which we are connected to other life on the planet. And that’s a problem.

Let’s look at five groups that scientists are debating as to which is the most important to our own survival. The first group is primates. The welfare of primates is of concern to us because they are the primary dispersers of seeds that maintain the rainforests. These forests absorb carbon dioxide and prevent soil erosion at such a large scale that they impact the entire planet. 

Also impacting the entire planet are the next four species groups: bats, fungi, plankton and bees. Fungi is the species least at risk, but its important to understand what it does. Without fungi, we simply would have no plants. It is a fungi that allows plants to obtain nutrients and water from the soil. “Rather than directly sucking these essential building blocks of life into its roots, plants have to rely upon the fungi to gather it for them from the surrounding soil.*” Fungi are also an essential element in the composting of dead plants and animals so that the nutrients embodied within are returned to the environment. And I would remind you that without fungi, we’d be without bread, cheese, chocolate and beer. I mean, if we lose those we might as well throw in the towel, right? 

Plankton are more threatened. Both pesticides and pollution are doing a number on plankton blooms. Again, “plankton” is not a single species, but a drifting stew of microscopic life. Plankton produces half of the world’s oxygen.


Plus it is the basis for the ocean food chain, of which we also make use. And finally, this versatile stuff serves something of the same role as fungi, in that the bacterial parts of plankton break down organic material in the water and consume dead organisms. 

Bats protect us from insects that would devour our food supply. They also


a good measure of that food supply. They are threatened by pesticides and by a relatively new disease known as White Nose Fungus. White Nose Fungus is decimating bat populations, and has been progressing from the east to the west since 2006. The North American death toll exceeded 5.7 million bats as of January of this year. This disease has an effective mortality of more than 75%. The fungus has been confirmed in 19 states, two Canadian provinces and even protected areas like Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “This die-off represents the most extreme decline of North American wildlife caused by infectious disease in recorded history.” (WNF, US Fish & Wildlife)

In addition to our pollinating bat friends, bees are under incredible assault. Colony Collapse Disorder has gotten all the press, but honeybees are not the only ones in trouble. And like our bats, the die-off of our native bees is also associated with the pesticides that weaken their immune systems. The latest class of pesticides are nervous system disruptors--and have already been outlawed in Europe, where CCD struck first. Even so,


Bee numbers have. . . fallen by up to 80% in some parts of the world.... The situation has grown so critical that beekeepers are warning there will be no British honey left in the shops by Christmas.

" (Animals We Can’t Live Without, The Telegraph)

If we were observing our food crops on a daily basis, we might notice the lop-sided apples that signal incomplete pollination. We might notice that our harvest was not as large as the previous year’s. We might observe fewer bees, wasps and other pollinators in our gardens. If we were feeding ourselves exclusively from our own gardens, we would most CERTAINLY notice, and we would certainly try to figure out what was going wrong. 

Ninety percent of the rivers and streams in the U.S. are contaminated by pesticides. Of the sampled fish, more than 80% carry pesticides in their flesh. Nationwide, one-third of our aquifers are contaminated. Insects are scarcely the only thing being poisoned.

I’m sure you are familiar with some of the communications systems that smaller life forms use to warn predators off: black and yellow or red and yellow coloring, stinging spines, noxious smells. If we listened to our noses, we would probably never use a bottle of smelly pesticide. If we knew that the lingering effects of those pesticides had been linked to Parkinson’s, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, asthma, autism, learning disabilities, birth defects, Alzheimer’s and several types of cancer, we would certainly stop using them on our own lawns, since our children are even more at risk than we are. There are currently 41 studies which link pesticides to asthma. We’re bigger and badder than the bugs we keep trying to kill, but the joke may be on us. 

The First Nations, while they were hunter/gatherers, somehow managed to survive the insect nuisances and threats of their times without eradicating them. Maybe, in their connection to the land, they saw that the bees and wasps had a role to play. Maybe they weren’t so blinded by their own hubris as to assume that if they couldn’t eat a particular thing, it had no value. Maybe they spent more time observing and in that observation saw creatures all playing their roles, contributing to a dynamic larger than themselves. 

There’s really no telling how large that dynamic is. We keep looking for the edges of it in science. I’ll leave you with one last quote to contemplate on that topic, from the Christian Mystic, Meister Eckhardt:

“We ought to understand God equally in all things, for God is equally in all things.”

Some References:

How Hospital Gardens Help Patients Heal

  -- Scientific American

Landscape and Human Health Laboratory

-- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Trees Mean Business

-- Kathleen L. Wolf, Ph.D., University of Washington

The Smell of Freshly-Cut Grass is Actually a Plant Distress Call

-- Mad Science

How Urban Parks Enhance Your Brain

-- Eric Jaffe, the Atlantic Cities

Interspecies Communication

-- Wikipedia 

Interspecies Communication in Bacteria

-- The Journal of Clinical Investigation

Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots

-- Irene M. Pepperberg, Pomona College

Pets and Health: The Impact of Companion Animals

-- Dana Casciotti, PhD

White Nose Fungus

-- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Behind Mass Die-Offs, Pesticides Lurk as Culprit

-- Sonia Shah, Yale Environment 360

The Xerces Society


The Animals and Plants We Cannot Live Without

-- Richard Gray,

The Telegraph

Pesticide Exposure Found To Increase Risk of Parkinson’s Disease

-- Science Daily

Wide Range of Diseases Linked to Pesticides

-- Beyond Pesticides 

Fum & Gebra

-- YouTube -- Just for fun! Watch some interspecies play!

Learn to Speak Prairie Dog!

Learn to Speak Prairie Dog!

Rain Garden Standouts

Rain Garden Standouts