What do gorillas think about? Or hens?
‘A hen stares at nothing with one eye, then picks it up.’
(in looking up McCaig’s line (from ‘Summer Farm’) just now I came across two curious comments on it:
‘Could refer to a weathervane as an inanimate hen only has one eye. “Nothing” refers to the wind and the weathervane is picking it up.
The one eye can also refer to one perspective.’
Hmm. Or it could be a beautifully observed and exact description of a hen, in characteristic action. Sometimes the surface is what matters)
This thought came to me when I was reflecting on something that happened yesterday. I was walking up Earl’s Dykes, a curiously-named side street in Perth, pondering the possible meanings and implications of two utterances I meant to write an article about; and it struck me that probably no other species on earth engaged in such speculations.
What do gorillas think about, if anything?
I have loved gorillas a long time – since my brother and I were small boys playing with plastic Britain’s models of them in our old plum tree – and my kind sister gave us a book by George Schaller, The Year of the Gorilla, about his time spent in the Virunga volcanoes observing Mountain Gorillas. It was published in 1964, so I suppose it must have been fifty years or so since that happened. Schaller was one of the first to counter the popular fictional image of the gorilla as a savage and dangerous monster with actual observation that it was gentle, shy, vegetarian and family-oriented, so his book is of great importance in establishing what has now become the mainstream opinion of these beautiful but sadly threatened creatures.
So I do not mean to be churlish in recalling a passage that has stuck with me, and I hope I am not being unfair in recollecting it from memory, since I do not have the book to hand. The gist of it was that Schaller at one point found himself in close proximity to a large group of gorillas; he and they were sheltering from a downpour (I think this is in the chapter titled ‘am I satyr or man?’). He found himself wondering much the same as my opening line: what was going on behind those watchful, somewhat wary eyes? Not much, was his conclusion, and I think there was a line that likened his companions to ‘rather dim relatives in fur coats’ (if that is not so, or my recollection is awry, I apologise).
My point in recalling this is to wonder whether we do well to plume ourselves on what we consider our unique and superior intellect; maybe we should take our singularity in this respect as a warning rather than a mark of distinction. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a work I enjoy but do not revere to the extent that some do) proposes (if I recall correctly) that humans are only third in intellectual attainment on our planet, behind mice and dolphins. This is satire, of course, but for me it does not strike quite the right note; I increasingly wonder if our reverence of intellectual attainment is not itself the problem.
Schaller’s gorillas sitting somewhat dolefully in the rain (they are prone to colds and pulmonary ailments) or dappled with sunlight as they feed at leisure may well have no mental preoccupations whatever – but is that not something to be envied rather than despised? Do they not attain effortlessly that same absorption in the moment, that pure existence in the present, that is the aim of meditation, which we humans attain only* through rigorous discipline, quieting the mind with mantras and controlling the body through physical training?
Maybe it is the surface that matters. We have much to unlearn.
*I am in error here, of course: we can attain it by various means – drawing, painting, making music or listening to it.