Human hubris makes us imagine ourselves as masters of the world, disregarding the other, non-human life forms that the universe teems with. Our thought processes and efforts are all directed towards the human condition, from our politics to our literature, and understandably so, since the condition of one’s own community will always hold centre stage. But it is of vital importance to the human mind, and indeed human existence, that we acknowledge the complex needs and obscure feelings — obscure to us, that is — of creatures that share this planet with us.
There is a passage from The Tusk That Did The Damage, Tania James’s multi-perspective novel, where the protagonist receives a parrot from her father as gift on her 15th birthday. The young girl wonders, sometimes, whether Daisy the parrot was depressed. “Why couldn’t Daisy be depressed?” she asks. “Why couldn’t she feel a host of emotions, some of them beyond our explanation? She could fly, so if her body were capable of acts beyond human limitation, couldn’t her mind be capable of emotions beyond our own, like Wing Boredom or Flock Joy or Plummet Buzz, things we couldn’t feel and, therefore, could never understand?” Why, indeed.
Animals experience things in ways vastly different from us, with multiple limbs and multiple eyes to multiple hearts and varied breathing mechanisms—none of which humans can claim to possess. Why then should they not have emotions beyond our comprehension? People who attribute emotions to pets are accused of anthropomorphising them. But there is no reason why our inability to perceive something must necessarily prove that it doesn’t exist. The dog whistle, inaudible to the human ear, is very much part of the dog’s list of real sounds. A far more astonishing example of the capabilities of non-human life forms can be found in plants, situated even lower in the hierarchy of species. Plants have their own connected community, their own emotional experiences and a life far richer than we could imagine for them.
Forester Peter Wohlleben in his astonishing book The Hidden Life of Trees sheds immense light on what goes on in the minds of these seemingly silent beings. The roots function as the brains and social networks of trees, with a whole “wood wide web” active at all times underneath the forest floor! So we have trees exchanging information on nutrients, nursing each other back to health, keeping the injured alive for decades and sending danger signals to each other. And yes, trees in forests do bring up their young under their own shade, rationing off water supplies and limiting freedom for long-term benefits of healthy growth! This may all sound far-fetched to the average person, but for biologists these are truths long known.
And that leaves us to introspect on our concept of human supremacy, of mental and emotional abilities being exclusive to the human race. In truth, plants, animals and humans — even the elements, the planets and celestial bodies — are all fragments of one large cosmic whole. The word ‘cosmos’ is Greek for ‘order’; it is the opposite of chaos. “It implies the deep interconncectedness of all things. It conveys awe for the intricate and subtle way in which the universe is put together,” says Carl Sagan.
The order and harmony of our tiny planet in a remote corner of the universe can only be kept intact through a deep respect for this interconnectedness and for all non-human life forms. We owe at least this much to the planet that nourishes us.
Zehra Naqvi