The Loneliest of Species

Jay Griffiths in Lapham’s Quarterly:

INDIA. Punjab. Kurukshetra. A refugee camp for 300.000 people. Refugees exercising in the camp to drive away lethargy and despair. Autumn 1947.

The long-tailed macaques leap like embodied jokes, making the very trees laugh with their sense of swing. A baby monkey jumps from liana to liana, curls its fingers around a branch, and dives into a stream: aerial then aquatic acrobatics. A gecko runs up a buttress flank of mahogany and freezes, alert, silently glued to the trunk, its tiny tongue licking up termites. High in the trees, a Thomas’ leaf monkey, with its long white tail, whiskers, and mohawk, blinks and gazes, blinks and gazes. The Sumatran rain forest, filled with the jungle music of crickets and frogs, is home to all the creatures of The Jungle Book. I’d been invited to join an ecotourist trek to see orangutans, a critically endangered animal. The hope of seeing one was only a part of my delight: to put it simply, forests make me happy.

Academia demonstrates what the heart already knows: nature-connectedness is correlated with emotional and psychological well-being, from the Japanese shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) to the joy inherent in Norwegian friluftsliv (free-air life) or the rush of oxytocin in dog owners when gazing into their dogs’ eyes. It is easier, of course, to love one’s cat than to care about the chestnut clearwing moth or the rufous-fronted laughing thrush, but pets can be the ambassadors of the natural world, leading us by the paw into a world richer than we could ever know by ourselves.

When a wild landscape is lit with birds and ribboned with animal presence, it tells us that all manner of living things are well, and it draws us inextricably into a shared happiness, whether in a savanna or rain forest or the woodland humming with joy evoked by Tennyson’s lines of “doves in immemorial elms / And murmuring of innumerable bees.” Thus the giraffes who caress one another with low hums, a gentle evening song of the envoiced world. Thus puffins, clowns of the air, possibly the most visually cheering of all birds. Thus rats, who if tickled chirp like children laughing, while bonobos, if tickled, laugh until they fart. Laughter is a signal, a form of communication that tells others that the laugher is not only happy but wishes to spend more time with the laughee, welcoming the exchange as reciprocal. When we respect the fact that all species are necessary to the well-being of an ecosystem, this sense of shared happiness can potentially include everything, from baby elephants at play to the leeches that crawl up our legs as we walk through the forests of Sumatra.

More here.