Sometimes people reserve the word “neighbor” for humans alone. But here I want to speak about my nonhuman neighbors and what they do for me. I live in New England, and to make sure I stay in touch with both myself and my local world, each day I try to walk in my community’s “town forest,” which is a typical mixed wood with both conifers and deciduous trees over very diverse undergrowth. While there is much research that says walking in the nature is good for my brain and other parts of my body (summarized nicely in Chapter 7 of Ratey and Manning’s 2014 Go Wild), what I particularly notice and enjoy is something else, namely, merely glimpsing other animals whether they be frogs, snakes, butterflies, turkeys, white tailed deer, hawks, woodpeckers, owls, a variety of songbirds and more.
Frankly, my sense is that most of the time these neighbors in the local forest hide, slipping away as I approach. But when they do show themselves, and especially when they linger to take my measure, I find that I arrive at myself in a way that does not happen often in the exclusively human world so dominated by carpentered, built spaces and humans’ relentless self-focus.
I try to be respectful of the privilege of noticing these neighbors—I am, after all, walking through their home even though the law of my own kind says that humans alone, and certainly not any nonhumans, own and control this wood. Our laws ignore—indeed, are altogether autistic about—something truly basic about the woods where I walk. My nonhuman neighbors transform those parts where I walk because my encounters, though brief, feature an energy that my human world only rarely supplies. And there is another miracle, too—any subsequent time I traverse a path along which I have previously spied one of these neighbors, I find the place has changed, and so have I. As if on cue, when I again come to a place where a previous encounter occurred, I eagerly look about, staying respectful, to see if the neighbor I saw previously is anywhere nearby. It is as if the encounter had consecrated that very spot, and I easily feel this when I return.
These encounters and their effects inform my teaching in many ways, one of which is summarized by the geologian Thomas Berry: “we consider ourselves blessed, healed in some manner, forgiven and for a moment transported into some other world, when we catch a passing glimpse of an animal in the wild” (A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics, page 7).
These visits with my neighbors anchor me in the realization that I, my family, and all the graduate students and undergraduates I teach also live in a world that can be enchanted if we will notice and take other animals seriously and thereby learn that all of us share community in a more-than-human world.
~ Dr. Paul Waldau
Director and Professor of the Anthrozoology program