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Naming the Creatures

Posted on Saturday, May 27, 2006 at 08:57AM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , , | Comments2 Comments

My mind returns again and again to the traffic-killed animals I saw in my first week on the road. Perhaps it’s because I know I’ll be resuming the walk this coming week, and so will have to see, and deal emotionally with, more of the same.

I keep thinking about the total absence of skid marks.

Way back when I was in college, in the late 1960s, I read a then-new and exciting book by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, entitled The Savage Mind (Univ. of Chicago, 1968). About three-quarters of the way through that book, the author began talking about the difference between the way people in the French society he belonged to named birds, dogs, cattle, and horses.

What Lévi-Strauss said was this: To a bird representing its species in a fable, the French would feel free to give a regular human name — Pierrot, say, or Jacquot. (We English-speaking North Americans might similarly make up an animal story in which a blue jay representative of all blue jays is called Jerry.) But dogs, cattle, and horses would never be given such true human names. Pet dogs would be given their own list of names, similar to human names but patently separate: Fido, Sultan, and the like. Individual cattle would be given names pointing to their most obvious attributes: Blanchette for the white-colored one, Douce for the sweet-tempered one. Horses, especially racehorses, would be given emblematic names — like, in North American tradition, Man O’War and Seabiscuit: names that would conjure up odd associations similar to the odd little pieces that players move round and round the board in a game of Monopoly

What strikes me hardest about all this is nothing that Lévi-Strauss himself said. What strikes me hardest is that each of these systems represents a different way of distancing the animal from the human.

Birds get stuck with a single name to be shared by the whole species: every blue jay is Jerry, every parrot Pierrot. Thus we spare ourselves the need to discover them as distinct individuals. It’s like saying, “All [insert racist epithet here] look alike to me.” Dogs get individual names that identify them as dogs, not humans — lovable, but deprived of human rights — which is precisely why to call a human “Fido”, if you’re not his close friend, could start a barroom fight. Cattle get enough of a name to distinguish them in a herd, but not enough to adopt them into the family. Race horses get names useful for betting on, but not names that might start people objecting to the ways in which they are from time to time run to death.

The ultimate step in this sort of distancing is what happens to the animals on the side of the highway. We’ve distanced ourselves totally from them.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why there are no skid marks.

I’m not going to say that this is totally wrong. Just speaking personally, there are creatures I really have no strong objection to depriving of life: the tick that found his way onto my leg last week, the aphids that attacked my beloved cockspur hawthorn, or the smallpox virus. I do believe that we are stuck with taking certain kinds of life in certain contexts. Even as a vegetarian I have to kill plants. When I had pneumonia, I let the hospital shoot me full of antibiotics to kill off the infection. It felt right, in the Quaker sense, listening to God, to allow the hospital to do that.

But still, different people draw this line in different places; some have no objection to depriving a cow of life for a steak dinner, whereas I would object very much. In terms of willingness to take life, I fall somewhere between the steak eater and Francis of Assisi, maybe closer to the steak eater than to Francis, while the steak eater falls between me and a cannibal, and closer to me than to the cannibal. And I fall much closer to Francis than to the person who doesn’t brake for animals on the highway. For the person who doesn’t brake, the animals on the highway are just totally outside the line.

This might perhaps be a good place to bring the Judæo-Christian idea of the “covenanting community” into our discussion. My friend the steak-eater, and my friend who doesn’t brake for animals, and I myself, might all be people who consciously identify ourselves with some such community. But the community I identify with includes the cattle and the wild animals on the road in a way that other people’s communities do not. Mine makes the cattle and the wild animals a little bit more like citizens — and a little bit less like property or mere obstacles.



Do I sense some objections from the sidelines at this point?

I fear that if you’re not an avid student of Christian or Jewish theology, this sudden introduction of the idea of “covenants” may be a bit bewildering. Perhaps your own ideas of what “covenant” and “covenanting community” mean, have something to do either with (a) God handing down some list of rules (the covenant at Sinai, etc.) that everyone is supposed to obey, or else with (b) some list of rules in and of itself, a covenant in the sense of a legal contract, such as the “neighborhood covenants” that many modern subdivisions have to prevent people from putting rusting cars on cinderblocks in their driveways.

If that is so, then right now you may be thinking, “People cannot just pick and choose their community and its rules, the way you say that you and your steak-eating friend and your non-braking friend do! Whatever community you find yourself in, you have to obey its rules. And if you both find yourselves in the same place, then the rules must be the same for both of you.”

But this view of what covenants and covenant communities are about, is one that derives basically from the Puritan approach to society and religion. It’s not really what the Hebrews were getting at in the Bible, when they used the term “covenant” (berîth).

The problem is that the Puritan movement began as one that wanted to enforce the Biblical rules of God’s Kingdom on whole geographical areas like Geneva or Scotland or New England, usually over the objections of local opponents. And most Puritans have accordingly been fairly legalistic types: if they have seen something going on that they didn’t like, like dancing on the Sabbath or smoking cigarettes in the workplace, they have had a tendency to say, why, let’s fix it by passing and enforcing a law. Our American culture has long been heavily influenced by Puritan thinking, and as a result most of us tend to take Puritan ideas about things — including the Puritan understanding of covenants — more or less for granted.

The truth of what covenants are is less simple than that. Moral covenants of the Puritan law-and-enforcement type don’t work unless there is something to support them in people’s hearts. Prohibition — the banning of alcohol in the 1920s United States via an amendment to the U.S. constitution — failed in the end because so many people had nothing in their hearts that moved them to make them to honor the law. The Mosaic code itself failed whenever the Israelites stopped believing in it, as the Old Testament records. Moral legislation of the Puritan type cannot stand on its own. But a covenant, in the Biblical sense, can stand on its own just fine.

The truth is that, for the people of ancient Israel, as also for other nations of that time and region, covenants were not the codes and treaties — or at least, not simply the codes and treaties. Rather, a covenant was the larger relationship of mutual commitment within which the code or treaty came into being. When God said to someone, “I will make a covenant with you,” what He was saying was, “I will form a committed relationship of a certain type with you. And here are some signs” —- the clauses of the covenant — “that will enable you to experience that relationship, and will show you what kind of a relationship it is to be.” It was like God saying to a couple, “I am going to make you fall in love, and have a committed relationship of a certain type.” Only in such a context could a given set of rules of behavior even make sense, let alone have any chance of working. A rule that a given man is supposed to call a given woman and tell her when he is working late will make no sense if they’re not married, or if they are married in name only.

Really, the comparison of a covenanting community to a marriage is a very useful one. (It crops up in the Bible, too, perhaps most wonderfully in Hosea 1 and 2.) For a couple who agree to marry, the rules are something like: “We’ll be partners, love and cherish and be faithful to each other, take on the challenges of living together, hold ourselves accountable to each other, and bear each other up when times are hard.” But the couple doesn’t come to these rules as a purely voluntary act. Something above draws them together and makes them able to love and put up with and believe in and spend a lifetime with each other. It ordains that they will be right for one another. Without that something above, the marriage cannot work. And that something is not a thing that they can initiate or control, in the “I’m gonna make you love me” sense. It is something that happens to them, and that they then yield to and are guided by.

Friends would say, and indeed have said many times, that the marrying couple are brought together and married to each other by God and not by man:

…The right joining in marriage is the work of the Lord only, and not the priests or magistrates; for it is God’s ordinance and not man’s; and therefore Friends cannot consent, that they should join them together. For we marry none, it is the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses. (George Fox, in a letter conventionally dated 1669)

So what makes a marriage or covenant is not the agreement (or contract) between the human parties. Rather, what makes it a marriage or a covenant is that process of it coming into being from above — being initiated and given direction and form by God before any human agreement happens. God says, “This will come into being,” and lo, it does: the couple find themselves turning into partners; Israel finds itself a nation with laws.

And the way the couple winds up living happily as partners, if indeed they succeed in doing so, is then according to the pattern initiated by God. They don’t make the rules of their marriage up for themselves; rather, their life together brings them face-to-face with principles of marital co-existence that work for them, and that probably existed long before they were born, and they learn from experience how important these principles have to be.

And much the same might also be said of the covenanting community that was ancient Israel — or of the covenanting community that is the Church — or the covenanting community that is the Society of Friends. It was seldom, if ever, a matter of people deciding by their own abstract reasoning to be members of any of those things. Indeed, when people choose such things in such ways, it seems to me that it generally doesn’t work. It has generally, rather, been a member of people discovering that they simply belong in a particular community — and discovering that obedience to certain principles of behavior is important to enable that community to be what it is and endure.

And that is why my friend the steak-eater, and my friend who doesn’t brake for animals, and I, might actually be legitimately describable as members of different covenanting communities, with different rules. Might be, I say.

Of course, the possibility also exists that one, or more, or even all of us, might be mistaken. It might be that the same rules really do apply to all three of us, but one, or more, or even all of us, have gotten the rules all wrong.



Well, this immediately raises some interesting questions in my mind about myself and my two friends. For instance, why are our understandings of how certain animals fit into our community so different? Is it that God ordains different sorts of communities; or is it that one of us is hearing what God is saying a little more clearly than the other? Or might it even be that we are listening to different voices inside, and mistaking them for God?

Let me carry this line of questioning a little bit further.

Now, how you treated a member of your covenanting community was always, everywhere, significantly different from how you treated an outsider. A member of your covenanting community — be it nuclear family member, fellow tribesman, or fellow believer — was someone of your own kind, entitled as such to more of your attention, more of your trust, more of your forgiveness, a greater investment in nurturing. The way you treated someone of your own kind, as distinguished from the way you treated others, was very logically and straightforwardly described in our English language as kindness.

This definition worked the other way, too: to understand what “kindness” is, you didn’t need to ponder abstractions like trust and forgiveness and nurture. You could simply start by looking at the way in which the normal, healthy people you knew treated their own kind.

Those who were not your kind were not protected from your harder nature by the power of kindness. Those who were your kind, were —

Way back in the 1960s, religious environmentalists were already pointing out that one of the key questions that would decide the outcome of the environmental battles in North America was that very old question that the earnest young man asked Christ: “Who is my neighbor?” In other words, “Who is a member of my covenanting community? Who should I see and treat as one of my kind?” Christ responded with the story of the good Samaritan, who treated an outsider (an enemy Jew) with kindness, and thus made himself one of the Jew’s kind.

If we apply the same principle to the non-human creatures, it is stunning to realize how many of them treat us with kindness — and how many of them that don’t, still affect the world in ways that make the world a far more livable place. Birds eat mosquitos that would otherwise eat us. Oceanic algae make the oxygen we breathe. Even predators like lions, according to those who have studied them, try to work out principles of co-existence with humans.

Have all of these creatures thus made themselves members of a covenanting community with us — creatures of our kind? If they are of our kind, does that mean we should change our behavior for their sake, as we would for our human kind in a parallel circumstance? Should we drive slower on the highways, as if they were residential streets where children were playing?

If we resist accepting them as our kind because it would hurt our income, make us give up steak, or make us drive slower on the highway, what does that mean?

But on the other hand, if we agree that they are our kind, but only with our lips, and not in our hearts, is that going to do any good? Or will it be more like Prohibition — a law that doesn’t succeed because too many people fail to feel a rightness in it?

Can a mere law make us feel that animals are members of our covenanting community, entitled to be treated with the same kindness as human members? Or is it necessary that we feel God uniting us to those creatures, in the same way that a couple needs to feel themselves joined by God to each other before they take the step of getting married?



Whatever that thing is in us, that sees animals in front of our headlights as obstructions rather than as folks — that thing that names race horses as if they were tokens in a board game — in my honest estimation, that thing is in fact one of the cosmic forces that will help determine whether our world lives or dies. Why? Because unless it is reined in, tamed and brought to heel, so many non-human species will perish from casual human destructiveness that the planetary biosystem will go to pieces.

But the right way to deal with that thing in us — oh, that is not a simple matter at all. You can’t just pass a law. Or rather, you can try, but it probably won’t work.

That, I suppose, is one more part of why I’m walking.



…The waiters set a leg of mutton before Alice, who looked at it rather anxiously, as she had never had to carve a joint before.

“You look a little shy: let me introduce you to that leg of mutton,” said the Red Queen. “Alice — Mutton. Mutton — Alice.” The leg of mutton got up in the dish and made a little bow to Alice; and Alice returned the bow, not knowing whether to be frightened or amused.

“May I give you a slice?” she said, taking up the knife and fork, and looking from one Queen to the other.

“Certainly not,” the Red Queen said, very decidedly: “it isn’t etiquette to cut any one you’ve been introduced to. Remove the joint!” And the waiters carried it off, and brought a large plum-pudding in its place.

“I won’t be introduced to the pudding, please,” Alice said rather hastily, “or we shall get no dinner at all.” (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, 1871)

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Reader Comments (2)

I am not an animal-rights activist or even much of an environmental activist. However, some time ago, I had a slightly related insight.

I was thinking about how the redwood trees (or many kinds of plants and animals) spawn millions more seeds than could ever hope to grow in the region where they fall, and in fact, if they all took root and grew they would overcrowd themselves almost immediately. This profligacy is generally explained as being because the environment is hostile and the parent tree (or fish) has to produce many more seeds in hopes that a few will survive to replicate the species. I was wondering how we would feel if instead we thought that redwood trees were altruistic. They know that they only need a few seeds to grow but they produce many more seeds in order to feed the other animals and bacteria and plants that depend on them. And the entire ecosystem depends on this kind generosity at every level. How would we feel called to respond to this kind of generosity in the world? Just wondering.

-- comment posted by Robin M., http://robinmsf.blogspot.com/
June 13th, 2006 at 12:02 a.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 03:49PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Interesting that cats are not among the species discussed by L-S (or not in this passage), and that T S Eliot has written an entire poem "On the Naming of Cats." That poem includes distancing, but primarily distancing in the service of acknowledging the dignity of the cats. Names of my family's cats, from c. 1940 on: Fritzy, Wrigley, Chessie & Peakie (after the RR), Eloise (Plaza girl), Ingabrit (name of little girl from school), Nicholas & Amaryllis (named by fancy), Hank & Buddy (named after characters in Beau Geste), Indigo, Rachel, Golda (after Meir), Fanny (after Mansfield Park), Lucy, Scooter (after Rizzuto), Hikari (<Japanese for "light"), Ursula. Now, this is just me and my parents, grandparents, cousins, & sister, but it's indicative of a taking of the cats into the households, maybe not with full voting rights (they just sit on it if they want it, anyway), but always regarded in planning.

Why our broader array of technes should lead to the assumption that it is right that there should be more of us, and anywhere we want to be, and doing whatever, I know not. We should incline a little more to zero population growth, as a desideratum, not a rule, out of respect for other species, and for our own relatedness to them, in the world they have helped make possible for us-them.

My mother used to say, that if cats had opposable thumbs, they'd be ruling the world. But: maybe they would decide to benignly not bother to rule the world. An ordering tyranny may rule a world, but not govern it.

Anyway. Your account of including animals in our sense of the world, and your account of travelling amidst a variety of people with the idea of listening to them, not instructing them, harmonize. We are here to learn who else is here.

Mar 2, 2009 at 10:15PM | Unregistered CommenterEllen Martin

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