, Gloucester, MA

May 3, 2013

Communication across species' lines

Journal Pages
Susan S. Emerson

---- — I was scanning the New York Times Book Review bestseller list to see who got to the top, and although I rarely glance at the listing of children’s books, I was looking for a birthday gift when my eye caught this title: “The One and Only Ivan” (recommended reading for 8- to 12-year-olds). I could hardly ignore serendipitous coincidence; Ivan was also the name of the child for whom I was gift searching.

It happened that this Ivan was a gorilla, not a fourth-grade boy, but no matter. I decided to go for it. I found the book, bought it, and read the first page, then stayed up long into the night to finish its 305 pages in one sitting.

Not wanting the book to end, I continued reading on to the back flap of the jacket to discover that Katherine Applegate’s Ivan was based on the life of a real gorilla who now resides in Georgia’s Zoo Atlanta.

The whole point of this column has just been challenged, as I knew it would be, in the above paragraph. “Spell-check” corrected my use of the pronoun “who” to refer to a gorilla, suggesting instead I use, “that.”

I knew where this was going, but just to confirm, I picked up the dictionary, and it concurred with Spell-check: “who” is a relative pronoun to introduce a clause when the antecedent is understood to be a “human.” Anybody who saw Steven Spielberg’s movie “E.T.” will agree there’s room for interpretation when using the pronoun “who.”

I like to argue semantics, like to split hairs. In this instance, I’ve become my mother. She elevated the animals, fish, and even philodendrons in her life, when she spoke of or to them, to the level of “who.”

Ivan the gorilla and his best friend and confidant, Stella, a wise and aged elephant, pass the years of their dismal confinement resigned to their fate. Stella says the best they can hope for is moving to a good zoo, clarifying for Ivan, “A good zoo is how humans make amends.”

To pass the time, Stella and Ivan share their earliest recollections of jungle life, but the memories are painful. Later, with the help of his human friend, Julia, Ivan takes surprising action to change his circumstances.

On the heels of finishing “The One and Only Ivan,” I picked up Time magazine (April 15 issue) to find a fascinating and related article, “The Mystery of Animal Grief.” It examined the mores of creatures other than humans — the proclivity of elephants, bonobos, chimps, baboons, dogs, cats, rabbits and even crows to mourn the deaths and tend the remains of the dead in their own animal families.

Both the book and the magazine article illustrate to me how much we humans ignore the intricate modes of sensitivity other creatures and perhaps even plants (ever read “The Botany of Desire — a Plant’s-Eye View of the World” by Michael Pollan?) employ to communicate.

If we believe, and certainly most of humankind seems to, that ours is the only or at least by far the most superior mode of communication among all the Earth’s players, we might take a closer look around at the deeper secrets yet to be learned from our fellow creatures.

We might applaud the efforts of Ivan the gorilla to cross those lines of communication, and respect his yearning to be once again with his own kind.

We might stand in awe of a flock of crows who gather, “with near ceremonial coordination, to land and surround the body (of a fallen comrade), often in complete silence, bringing sticks and bits of grass to lay on top of (his) remains.” And we might be, as our Native Americans were, one with, and equal to, the earth and the sky.

And I don’t care who hears me say, “Look at you! You’re the most elegant tulip in the garden, and I thank you for that, dear one.”

Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.