Hey guys! It’s Annie again, for another installment of Tuesday Book Journeys. This week I’m going to bring it back to the Earth, to some other species which inhabit it, and throw out suggestions for some incredible books on different forms of animal and plant consciousness. I know – it sounds a little wild, but bear with me, because these books are truly something else.
Since I was a kid, and perhaps even more as I’ve grown up, I have been the quintessential dog person. There is an unparalleled love I feel when I give my pups a big old hug after being away for too long, when they jump up to greet me at the door, begging for more attention. I know it’s cheesy, maybe a silly way to start off a literary blog, but it is unlike anything else.
I’m sure you, like me, have wondered if animals can really understand what we’re saying. If their barks form some kind of linguistic vocabulary, or if their grunts and tail-wagging and ear-perking-up could convey elaborate thoughts within the species that were somehow obscured to us. When we talk about them behind their back, do they know? When we spell out T-R-E-A-T, do they roll their eyes, embarrassed we think they can’t spell?
Regardless of the linguistic divide, I’ve always felt something was going on behind those eyes.
A few years later, when I was in college, I learned about this funny little thing called Oxytocin. It’s kind of the reason behind love, in a bit of a reductive, overly science-y way which still feels undeniably true. If you are unfamiliar, it’s a hormone that gets released at some very key times to reinforce human bonding. It gets released in its largest quantities during childbirth, to bond a mother and child, after doing the deed, to bond lovers, and, surprisingly, when humans gaze at their dogs, to bond best friends.
In a class I once took called Hormones and Behavior, we looked at a study which compared the oxytocin levels in humans and dogs when gazing at their owners, other humans, and other dogs. In both humans and dogs, oxytocin levels spiked when look at their own dog or owner, and remained relatively stagnant in the other conditions. There is a true bond, one encouraged by millennia of codependent neural mechanisms and evolutionary advantage, that surfaces now in this finely tuned circuit of love.
For me, hearing this was not just affirmation of the unprecedented obsession I have for my dogs and my future inclination to, instead of having a baby, have a dog, but rather a larger argument for the unity and subconscious interaction between humans and animals, humans and nature. Obviously, this is a different kind of connection than my childhood dream of having a nice chat over dinner with my dog. But this connection feels like so much more.
A few months ago, my friend told me he was reading a book about an octopus. In response to my understandably confused facial expression, he quickly added, “but it’s not just about an octopus.”
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith sets out to identify the fallacy in our understanding of consciousness and intelligence as something that is fundamentally human. He delves into the deep sea to study cephalopods as an analog to the complexity of mammal brains. Life began in the oceans, he reminds us, so it only makes sense for the height of consciousness to exist in this original place.
“What are the earliest and simplest animals that had subjective experience of some kind? Which animals were the first to feel damage, feel it as pain, for example? Does it feel like something to be one of the large-brained cephalopods, or are they just biochemical machines for which all is dark inside? There are two sides to the world that have to fit together somehow.”
These are the questions Godfrey-Smith raises in his book, and these are the types of questions I mean to raise today. It is not a matter of who is smarter, who knows more, but rather a glimmer of hope to consider possibilities of other forms of intelligence. What can consciousness look like in other species and in nature, and what can we learn from these earthly modes of operation?
Another book which deeply considers this is The Curious World of Seaweed. This book is brand new, published on August 6th of this year. Author Josie Iselin delves into the reasons why marine algae are able to provide the bedrock for ocean life. They are foundational to the habitats of their fellow sea creatures. Throughout the book, Iselin details sixteen types of seaweed, and the symbiotic relationship it has to humans, giving these species life through vibrant botanical illustration and scientific inquiry.
My next suggestion is an amazing bestseller entitled Braiding Sweetgrass. A botanist and member of the indigenous Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer expertly writes of the intelligence, care, and generosity we are constantly receiving from plants and animals around us. She speaks of the gifts we receive from goldenrod, strawberries, squash, and sweetgrass, proposing what we can offer back in return. Kimmerer takes us on a journey to an almost political call to action, and that is this: if we are to counter the faces of climate change deniers and ecology ignorers, we must begin to acknowledge the reciprocal energy of nature. She seeks to identify the purpose of individual plants from the folklore and practice of indigenous communities to provide a narrative that is emblematic of the unity between humanity and the resources we consume.
Lastly, I wanted to throw in one silly suggestion, Sad Animal Facts by Brooke Barker. This book is not quite the scientific compendium that my other recommendations were, but it is simply such a joy to read through. Barker puts a ridiculous spin on some fun facts about our dearest animals. “Red squirrels live alone” or “Cats can’t taste sweet things” she writes, accompanied by the most darling little illustrations of dejected pets. Definitely worth keeping on your coffee table for a good early morning laugh.
I’m Annie, a recent UC Berkeley grad and publicity intern here at Art + Deco Agency. I’ll be your resident blogger, chatting with and about emerging voices in the literary industry and getting you started on your summer reading list. Catch me here every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday!