Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog


May 7, 2010

This past weekend, my husband and I walked together on the grounds of the Yorktown Battlefield here in southeastern Virginia, across the York River from our home. The day’s temperature exceeded 80 degrees, and when we crossed from the sun into shaded woods, the cooling felt wonderful on our skin. In that kinder light, we took in the multiple shades of greens around us. The songs of birds, and at the pond, the sight of turtles sunning on logs, pleased our senses.

Our chosen walkway led off from the tourist-crowded areas near the Visitor Center or Surrender Field where Cornwallis acceded to Washington. Except for an occasional car or jogger, it was mostly us—and the trees, birds, turtles, and what we knew had to be a thriving ecosystem of small hidden mammals and insects all around us.

I’ve been dwelling on that walk all week. As soon as we neared the turtles—at our soft approach, two plunged into the water—I felt an immediate lightness, a physical sensation that’s hard to describe but that’s familiar to me. It’s been with me forever, around animals, almost any animals. When I’m in Yellowstone National Park (or even back in my days in the Kenyan bush), no matter how stunning the scenery around me, a distinct “ahhh, now this is wonderful” comes over me only in the presence of other animals.

Equally wonderful at Yorktown was the quiet. It can be called calm, or serenity, or tranquility, but for me, quiet does the trick, even though, of course, noises could be heard: the birds’ warbling, the turtles’ splashes. It’s quiet when the sounds are low, soothing, and natural.

And how rare is that kind of quiet in today’s world? I’ve felt it in sacred spaces, as when sitting in a pew at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and gazing at the monumental architecture—even when muffled footfalls surrounded me. I’ve felt it in our sunroom, a place where technology is off limits and I cocoon with my books. But mostly I feel it when I’m with animals, as when I sit with our former-feral cats in the big, leafy, outdoor enclosure my husband constructed. Often I visit these dozen treasures in order to feed them, and then I’m encouraging a shy one here, talking to a bold one there, and enthusiastically distributing treats.

But oh when I just sit! I hear the quiet: Grey or Lili offering soft meows of welcome, the buzz of bees, always the birdsong, and in this season, faint sounds of the local ice cream truck’s Turkey in the Straw that are so ubiquitous as to seem almost natural by now.

A writer called George Prochnik has published a book that I’d like to read, In Pursuit of Silence. In a New York Times column last Sunday, he noted, “Evidence for the benefits of silence continues to mount.” In the classroom, in hospitals, when people try to resolve conflicts, quiet has been shown to increase the likelihood of a favorable outcome. “These are macro benefits,” Prochnik writes, “but often silence feels good on a purely animal level.”

That it does. And mustn’t our human quietness be good for animals too? So that it’s reciprocal, and when we can offer or protect for them quiet places to be, away from harsh sounds or intrusive noises, they too thrive?

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.