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Our Creatured Connection:
Excerpts from a Lecture at Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven, CT
Earth Day, 1999
by Sue Holloway, Ph.D.
Swan Photos By Merri Zetterstrom, Milton, VT

About twelve years ago, I took a course in language and culture. We read a study about Koko the Gorilla. Koko had been taught ASL -- American Sign Language -- so he and humans could communicate with each other — on humans’ terms, that is.

The study posed the question: Is the gorilla’s language equivalent to human language?

It was decided that gorilla’s use of peoples’ language was not comparable to communication of human adults. This was based on Noam Chomsky’s notion of human language systems, which, used in their most sophisticated forms, have infinite variations possible.

Koko’s use of ASL, on the other hand, used language in simple structures, resembling that of a young child. People assumed, therefore, that humans were superior to gorillas in range of language use. Perhaps it was this study which inspired the president of PETA to claim that animals have the intelligence, at least of a retarded human...

But now, two researchers who work with Koko, Francine Patterson and Wendy Gordon, are making a case for the "personhood" of gorillas. They base this conclusion partly on the gorillas’ use of language (as we humans comprehend it.)

To Patterson and Gordon, language is more a way to locate commonalities between humans and apes, than to find differences. After all, humans and gorillas share 99% of the same genetic makeup. The researchers have found that Koko and his other gorilla friends are creative with language. The gorillas use humor and abstractions, are aware of the meaning of death, can fantasize and play. In the ways they express themselves, these gorillas appear more like us than different.

* * *

Interspecies communication is a fascinating topic. It has long been understood by different cultures. Paula Gunn Allen, a Lakota Sioux, tells in her book Grandmothers of the Light, the story of a woman who, as she posed a question, received an answer immediately, from a chickadee. Allen pointed out that some people see this as symbolic or metaphoric; but the story is to be taken quite literally as a form of spontaneous communication.

We don’t need to look to other cultures, to comprehend an amazing communication going on, a responsiveness between human and non-human forms of life. Eco-theologian Thomas Berry refers to this as the "communion of the universe." Frontier physicist David Bohm calls this the "enfolded" reality. Stories of experiences comparable to the one Allen tells exist from people in our local Connecticut shoreline communities. Many have involved swans.

Kathryn Burton, of East Lyme, noted that these beautiful creatures seem to "read" peoples’ minds. In 1997, there had been run-ins on Lake Pattagannsett between jetskiers and a male swan. In 1998, a compromise was set: jetskiers had to be off the lake at 6 p.m. "Every day," Burton told me, "the swan family would head out of a protected cove, onto the lake -- at exactly 5:50!"

These birds seemed to be aware of human conventions in other situations, as well. Friend/poet Claire Zoghb of New Haven tells a story of swans providing confirmation of a significant event in her life. Claire and her partner Nick had been together for several years, but were waiting for his father’s approval before they married. For unknown reasons, the father refused to grant his blessing at that time.

wpe2F.jpg (28542 bytes)"One morning, I awakened as he slipped a band on my right hand, the Lebanese tradition. And I knew that, while some of the old ways are precious, we had moved beyond one that limited us."

Later that day, when they visited New Haven harbor, five swans appeared, all in a line. Zoghb reports, "As we approached, the swans flapped their wings, slapping the water’s surface, struggling as they lifted up. To see them fly expressed perfectly what I felt: we were free." The swans rejoiced with the lovers. The swanly presence was interpreted as being interactive with the human condition, and intuitively received as being laden with meaning.

wpe2F.jpg (15138 bytes)The swans’ participation in their engagement provided a sense of natural joy to this couple. As a writer, reflecting on the deep meaning of the synchronous event, Zoghb researched the significance of the number five. "It’s the marriage of the masculine and feminine!" Hieros gamos. Sacred marriage.

With the swans’s flight, Nature was laying a blessing; confirming. "The swans are not just there to look at; they are part of our lives," my friend affirmed. There are other such stories, of swans who have timed their arrivals as a blessing for special occasions.

A few years ago, a state representative from the Westport area described how the Saugatuck River swan came onto their property, and strolled by just as they were giving their wedding vows! There was no sense of accident or chance. "I guess he felt we needed something to mark the occasion..."

A similar event occurred in summer of ‘97 in Stony Creek. A wedding party walked across Thimble Islands Road from the Congregational Church, to gather at the beach pavilion for pictures with the sea as backdrop. Just before the photo session began, the swan family with two cygnets appeared. They walked out of the water, onto the beach, pausing at the best possible angle to be included in the photos. The bride in her white lace gown and black-tuxed groom just naturally gravitated closer.

Each time, the coming of the swan represented a "natural gifting" of impeccable timing,a celebration of love.

Another such episode was told by Janet Gregan of North Branford, who reports that a swan appeared at the lakeside memorial service of her mother. It was the day that would have been her mother’s 80th birthday; and the family gathered at the cottage she loved.

Her mother had enjoyed watching the birds but had never mentioned swans. Yet one appeared that morning. Her daughter felt it was "Grammy coming to participate in the celebration of her life." Swans continued to be prominent in a variety of ways, throughout that day and the next. When they searched for a guest book for the memorial service, they found one with a picture of a swan. Late afternoon at high tide, the swan reappeared. Janet and her daughter fed him, as the sun set; then watched tearfully as he gracefully floated off. The next day, Janet claimed a little china swan she remembered from her childhood.

Although relatives continued to visit daily, no one ever again sighted a swan in the cove. The family is convinced that the swan appeared for the memorial as a sign from "Grammy" that "all is well; she is home and happy." Ms. Gregan described the inexplicable presence of the swan at her mother’s memorial as a swan song.

Can it be that Nature "speaks" to us? It seemed so, also, in the appearance of a black swallowtail on the freshly dug grave of a cygnet, who had died one cold November night. The butterfly’s unexpected presence was deeply consoling to the person burying the young swan. Such responsiveness among earth’s creatures may be, not the "exception," but a glimpse of the truer nature of reality.

Audrey Shenandoah, Onondaga clan mother, explained in a keynote address at the Global Forum on Environment and Development for Survival, that there was no word for ‘nature’ in her native language, and no concept of humans being separate from other forms of life. "It is a distinction we don’t recognize. The closest words to the idea of ‘nature’ translate to refer to ‘things which support life.’" She urges that we rethink our concept of "nature."

Theodore Barber, author of The Human Nature of Birds, believes that, once we comprehend the intelligence and depth of emotional life; once we are aware of the possibility of a deep friendship with the birds and other species, it will serve as a quiet revolution, changing our lives forever.

Post Script: Holloway reports that, as she finished writing this, she looked out the window, and a swan was flying by!

Note: Some of these anecdotes appear in Dr. Holloway’s book, Swan in the Grail. She is adjunct faculty at SCSU, teaching Educational Foundations and Ecofeminist Writing in the Women’s Studies Program. This also appeared as an article in The Source, (5/11/99), a newspaper in Madison, CT. Reproduced by permission of Shoreline Publishing, Inc.

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