Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Art Of Animals

There was an episode of Beverly Hillbillies featuring a chimpanzee that painted on canvas ..... to great critical reviews. A good-humored jab at “modern art” no doubt. But I’ve had some pretty memorable experiences witnessing animal behavior that probably has practical reason if you were to insist on analyzing it scientifically, but that from all appearances seems as though the animal is performing – and usually for the sheer joy of it.

For years I walked trails in the woods with my now departed malamute, Aspen – a dog who loved life so much that I have no doubt that his very musical howls were him laughing aloud. I didn’t often let him off leash because he wouldn’t always come immediately when I called. But if I was certain that the woods was clear of other hikers or runners (that’d really shake up someone’s day to be walking along a trail, only to be surprised by the approach of a large wolf-looking dog) I’d let him run.

The minute Aspen was off leash he would make a mad dash off-trail. He’d run in circles. He’d run in figure eights. He’d look for fallen trees and other obstacles just to jump over them. And it was beautiful. A silver streak. A blur of white fur, gleaming eye, hanging tongue, and a smile – joyfully jumping over branches and making hairpin turns around obstacles that weren’t there.

Potter that I am, I wish my pots had half the whimsy of an Aspen dash in the wood.

Betty is a friend who has always taken in strays and injured animals. I remember one year when she took in a very young flying squirrel that had obviously been orphaned. I was actually shocked to witness the circus act this little under-aged Rocky performed. He’d circle the small room, climb the curtain, tightrope walk the curtain rod and then, like a gymnast dismounting a balance beam, he’d throw himself with wild abandon into space, only to glide gracefully down to his starting point in the room and begin the circle again. And for what?

Again, science may analyze this playful behavior as some survival practice. It sure looked like the joy of art to me.

And what got me thinking about the art of animals?

On my daily trip to the trails I always drive by Winona Lake. Winona Lake is the second biggest natural glacier lake in Indiana. That’s not big. That’s just big for Indiana. At this time of year when the disparity in temperature between water and air can be so great, it’s not unusual for a mist to come off of the lake. And if the air is very, very still, as it was the other morning, that mist can hover heavily above the water. You can see clearly above it to blue sky, and you can see clearly below it to the water, but you cannot see through it to the opposite shore of the lake.

That’s just how I found the lake on my way to the trails last Friday. A low mist hung over the glassy surface of the water.

And just as I turned the corner toward the lake, a great blue heron rose up out of the water right in front of me. But it didn’t just fly up, up, and away. Instead, it flew just barely over the surface of the water and just below the mist that hung above. So with each slow, methodical beat of its wings it created an image that I’ll probably never forget.

For what seemed several long minutes the heron flew like this – each upward stroke of wing getting lost in the mist …… then beating again downward until the tip of its wing nearly touched the surface of the water. What’s more, this heron dance to which I was witness occurred in tandem, as the reflection of the heron appeared to be traveling just beneath it. Two birds flying in perfect formation, belly to belly...

Black wingtip touching black wingtip then parting and nearly disappearing back into mist.
Black wingtip touching black wingtip then parting and nearly disappearing back into mist.
Black wingtip touching black wingtip then parting and nearly disappearing back into mist.

...on and on for more than one hundred slow, lazy yards. A graceful waltz.

Go ahead and tell me that Aspen, Rocky, and that heron didn’t know what, or even that they were creating. I might half believe you.

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