April 13, 2021

Waldo, let’s talk about this…


Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.

-Ken Liu


Three days ago, on the Marlborough rail-trail, the high temperature was 65℉.  This morning it was -2℉ with windchill.  Waldo, in his ever-present sable coat, is more comfortable down around the -2℉ than the 65℉ or above.  I know that to be true by his behavior.  Especially when it gets above 70℉, he pants, soaks up water like a dry paper towel and lies down in the shade often.  When it’s cold out, he trots along without interruption, doing his Waldo thing.  Today, he pauses only for a good sniff at something that appeals.

Waldo also knows things about me.  He knows when I am going to leave him in his crate.  I don’t even have to tell him to go there.  When he sees me go through my pre-leaving routine, he just walks in and sits down on his bed, looking up at me with an expression of forlorn expectation.  His ears are down, his head sags and his tail wraps around his butt so the white tip sticks up between his front legs.  He knows what’s coming.  There is definitely communication between us that is more than the sounds I make (Waldo seldom makes any).

For communication to take place, there must be some common ground between those who are trying to communicate.  When Carl Sagan and Frank Drake were thinking about what messages to send to extraterrestrials from Arecibo in 1974, they considered this carefully.  In order to communicate with any aliens who might find these spacecraft, common ground first had to be established.  It was decided to use binary mathematics to describe the molecular structure of life on Earth, among other things.  Binary mathematics is universal and maybe the building blocks of life is as well.  If an extraterrestrial intelligence could decode this message, there would be a basis for communication.  So, I can’t help but wonder, what is the common ground that Waldo and I share?  It certainly isn’t an understanding of math and biochemistry.

Some of it is obvious; we both need to eat, sleep, pee and poop.  We both are genetically social animals, so we also share a desire for communication, play and affection.  As we go through life, we both make allowances for each other, either separately or together, so that those desires are satisfied.  The one big difference between us is that Waldo depends on me for everything, whereas I get some of what I need from others.  I keep this in mind and try to include him in what I do as much as I can.

Humans also have commonality with other species who aren’t as social as we are.  I once raised a cheetah in East Africa when I lived there.  One might not think so, but they actually make great pets.  They were trapped and used by the ancient pharaohs as hunters, much like falconers use their birds.  Yet, cheetahs are very solitary animals in the wild, ranging alone over many square miles of savannah and adults only get together in pairs for a brief period during mating season.  Yet my cheetah was as bonded to me as Waldo is.  So, there must be something there that is common between animals and humans more than just a desire to congregate in social groups, because cheetahs don’t have that desire.

And take birds.  Harvey, my yellow-naped Amazon parrot, is a member of a taxonomic class that is the closest living thing to a dinosaur.  The ancestors of birds and humans parted ways many hundreds of millions of years ago and we have evolved separately since.  Yet there are African Grey parrots that can carry on meaningful oral conversations with people when they are trained to do so.  Detailed communication that is much more than just the aping of the sounds they hear people make.  And they, too, enjoy affection and getting attention from people.

The Buddhist in me thinks that what this commonality that all animal life seems to share, at least among those with some baseline level of intelligence, is a deep feeling of compassion, an appreciation for the life energy of the other, and a recognition of the loving magic of being alive.  Maybe that comes part and parcel with consciousness and is the deepest expression of the essence of what all of us are made of.

I am reasonably sure that to be true of Waldo and I, at any rate.


Fort Meadow Reservoir on a cold, clear day.

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