One of the powerful lessons our planet has to teach us (if only more would listen!) is the miracle of complex systems. Scientists are beginning to understand that our old paradigm of mechanistic reductionism does not honor how intricately and elegantly chemistry, geology, oceanography, paleontology, astrophysics and biology are woven together. Our most challenging and pressing issues are all connected: health and access to healthcare, diet, climate change, overshoot, pollution, education and resource access, to name but a few.
As I write this post, I’m crammed in a corner of my attic office. My partner is building me a bookcase in the middle of the room. There’s sawdust on the rug, piles of books all over the floor, tools and shims and clamps and screws on the floor and file cabinet. We’re chatting about nothing much as I write and he mutters to himself and runs power tools. I pause now and then to look out the window, where a frigid winter wind is blowing, and to run my eyes lovingly over the books heaped around my feet, waiting patiently for their new accommodations.
Several others have occupied this attic space before me. The house, after all, is almost 200 years old. The horsehair lath and plaster walls, covered with old-fashioned wallpaper; the slanting ceiling; and the wide planks of the floor, painted a light shade of grey-brown, have contained and witnessed many thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams.
When I moved in, I adjusted to the space and what was here, not only because I was overwhelmed and homesick for my place in Colorado, but also out of respect for the rooms, the house, and my partner and his memories and history in this place.
Now, nearly five years later, I have rooted firmly into my new life. I no longer feel like a visitor or a temporary roommate. These two adjoining attic rooms know me. I’ve slept here. I’ve pulled Tarot cards, burned candles and incense, cleaned, smudged, written countless words, cried, listened to music, exercised, danced, and nursed illness and injury here.
We humans have a tendency to consider ourselves Masters of the Universe. Between that assumption and the truth, that we are but one species among billions of other forms of life, some of which we remain ignorant of and many of which have lived on this planet millions of years longer than we have, yawns a chasm of ignorance, arrogance and self-destruction.
A study of complexity opens up a wider awareness, however. This space is not truly mine. I’m a temporary occupant, and I care for and about these little rooms, but they were here long before I was and may yet shelter other lives when I am through here. In fact, I wonder if I don’t belong as much to the space as it does to me.
That thought leads me to wondering if I’m shaping worlds, creating characters and writing stories, or if those worlds, characters and stories are shaping, creating and writing me.
We didn’t plan it, but somehow last weekend my partner and I found ourselves up here with tools and a crowbar, disassembling a largecounter, built by a previous occupant. I didn’t find it useful as anything but a bookshelf, and it took up a lot of space. I was beginning to think about removing it sometime in the future in favor of a couple of bookshelves. The stars unexpectedly aligned perfectly on this snowy, cold weekend, and we rolled up our sleeves and started making a mess.
Tearing out the counter damaged the wall. I spackled and sanded and began to think about paint. I tore a small sample of the old wallpaper out of a corner of the closet and took it to the paint store, where I picked out a buttery cream color (Cottage Cream—I love paint color names!) that toned with the wallpaper.
That’s why, this morning, I’m an island in a sea of books while my partner inches busily around one of my new bookshelves with tools and hardware in the middle of the room. In the adjoining room, the first coat of paint is drying. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I won’t be able to do a final coat before I leave for work. I hate living in chaos. On the other hand, it’s possible my shelves will be ready in time for me to get some of my books off the floor before I leave!
It was tempting to tell myself this morning that I couldn’t do any writing in such a mess. Instead, I decided to allow the temporary chaos around me to write this post, to shape this morning, and to mold me in this moment in time. At the same time, we, the current inhabitants of this house, are shaping a more usable and personalized space for me.
We humans are not graceful about being shaped by anyone or anything. We resent and resist. For some reason, we don’t feel as though we should have to deal with disagreement; inconvenience; difficult people, situations or feelings. We’re equally outraged if others complain about the impact of our behavior on them.
I see a different truth. Each individual life on earth is literally shaped by everything around it, both living and what we call nonliving. Our inability to discern a direct superhighway between ourselves and a total stranger on the other side of the world doesn’t diminish the power and reality of our interdependence. It just means we’re terribly and dangerously ignorant.
Those who came before me to this attic aerie chose wallpaper, paint, shelves, window coverings, and where to fasten things to the walls. Now I, in my turn, am molding the space to my needs and preferences, but the space itself is not passive. Sunlight, moonlight and draughts move through it in a particular way. The red bricks of the chimney rising through one of the rooms radiates heat. The floor dips, creaks and sways, dictating where I sit, sleep and exercise. The low, slanted ceiling does not accommodate some stretches and dance movements. The narrow, steep stairs limit what I can bring up in terms of furniture.
I am shaped, influenced, limited, challenged, rearranged, smoothed down and roughed up by my two little rooms, just as surely as I’m deconstructing, patching, sanding, painting, scrubbing and reconstructing my physical surroundings. Together, we create my life. We are partners. I am who I am because of my living space, and it is as it is because of me.
My whole life has shaped my writing, and in the last few years my writing has shaped my life. As I weave story and work with characters and other worlds, they enter my dreams and my thoughts. I carry their influence with me as I live. Because of Our Daily Crime, I ask more questions in the world, am more present with others, and listen more carefully. The discipline of posting weekly demands I find a way through discomfort, change and upheaval, and write anyway. I am not the Princess and the Pea. I can write even if my surroundings are not ideal.
Nobody but me could write my Webbd Wheel series or create the space I need. Perhaps no other story or living space in the world could have written this moment’s version of me.
Sometimes the inside of my own head astonishes me. It’s amazing how much of our internal framework is undetected bullshit that runs our lives. For example, this is a belief I’ve always accepted without ever thinking about it:
I get what I deserve I deserve what I get
I have it, therefore I deserve it
I deserve it because I have it.
You have not got it therefore you do not deserve it
You do not deserve it because you have not got it
You have not got it because you do not deserve it
You do not deserve it therefore you have not got it. —R.D. Laing, Knots
This piece of nonsense masquerades as a Universal Law, and I believed it!
So, what does it mean to deserve something?
Interestingly, the word “deserve” comes from the Latin word “deservire,” meaning “serve well or zealously” (Oxford online dictionary). Serve as in servant? Serve as in slave?
Serve, as in somebody else has the power to judge the value of our service, regardless of how we evaluate it?
Now, there’s a slippery slope of disempowerment!
The more I mull this over, the clearer it is to me that being judged as deserving or undeserving is a human construct. It’s not real. It collapses when I try to examine it. Do we really believe that we get exactly what we deserve? Children are starving because they deserve to? People die of cancer because they deserve it? One percent of the population has most of the financial resource because they deserve it and the rest of us don’t?
No. I don’t believe that.
My reading of current complex systems science (please see my Bookshelves page) has taught me that life is defined by living. Life wants to live, be it a bacterium, a fern, a woodpecker, or a human being. Life is persistent, adaptive, and depends on the passing on of genetic material and energy gradients. Life is solely occupied with meeting its needs for life, and most successful life teams up with other kinds of life in complex systems.
There is no deserve in all that. There is no implicit guarantee of rights or resource. Successful life often leads to population overshoot, at which point the successful species uses up its resource and predators of the overshoot population increase their population to take advantage of the abundant food and energy supply.
I did nothing to deserve the circumstances of my birth as a white female in the United States. I’m no more or less deserving of life than a mycelium spore. If I die of some kind of drug-resistant organism, my death is nothing more or less than the inevitable consequence of my species being in overshoot.
We humans spend a lot of time fighting with one another, as any overcrowded population will. There’s current buzz about hate, oppression, immigration and white supremacy. My own view is that all those issues are not the root of the matter, but distractions. The real issue is our unconscious and false sense of ourselves as human supremacists, superior to the sacred cycles and processes of life and death. Most of us believe, behave, and act as though our needs are more important than the needs of other human beings, and certainly more important than the needs of all the other countless and magnificent forms of life with whom we inhabit this planet.
We will discover—we are discovering—that we cannot stand alone, however. In fact, most life on the planet can do much better without us than we can do without it.
Life and death are the context in which all our experience is embedded. We’ve only begun to identify some of the laws that govern the way they work together. We’re only now realizing how interdependent all forms of life are, even as we actively destroy other species we depend upon for food and water.
As human beings, we have needs. If our needs don’t get met, we die. This is so for every form of life. We either live as part of a sustainable complex system or we die as a species. As individuals, we are born and live because of those who have died before us, and our inevitable death gives life to those who come after us. It’s really very simple. Debating whether we ourselves or any other form of life is deserving or not is an idiotic waste of time and energy.
The concept of deserving is one more piece of mental clutter, along with pleasing others and arguing with what is, that I’m joyfully letting go. For years I’ve hurt myself with it; it’s limited me and been a heavy burden to carry. Without it I feel lighter, freer, and I notice an increased sense of reverence and gratitude for my life and all the life around me. I am not supreme. I’m a child, a student, and one small life among many others, all of which have equal value to my own and much to share and teach, if I can set my human arrogance aside long enough to listen.
As Loren Eisley writes in All the Strange Hours: “Life, life for the purposes of life, and is that then so small?”
In the farmer’s market on Saturday morning, we stood in line to buy bread. We did not stand in line to buy a peach raspberry pie and bread, but that’s another story (with a happy ending. The pie was worth it.) Next to the baker’s display was a booth set up by a local businesswoman who specializes in unique homemade dog treats. As my mother is owned by a dear border collie and I’m always on the lookout for something they might like, I idly checked out the booth while my partner waited in line (to buy bread, not pie.)
I found rows of attractively-packaged, carefully labeled, very expensive bags of dog goodies, most of which were vegetable-based and proudly labeled as containing “no animal biproducts.”
Sometimes I feel pretty despairing about the world. I’m sure this businesswoman is a well-meaning and hard-working person trying to earn a living in central Maine who cares about dogs. However, it would be good to avoid spelling errors on her labels and dogs are not vegetarians or vegans.
There is, in fact, debate among veterinarians and scientists about whether dogs are omnivores or carnivores, but recent research based on physiology suggests dogs are indeed carnivores. Many wild canines are apex predators. Many perform the vital function of carrion eaters and scavengers. Dogs are not vegetarians.
There are a lot of dark monsters walking the streets right now. Rampant narcissists, greedy capitalists and fanatical ideologists are slowly consuming the world. There’s another ogre abroad, though, one bathed in blue light and wearing angel wings, and that is our willful ignorance and denial of the physical and biological realities we live and die with, our inability to work elegantly with complexity and shades of grey and the cult we’ve made out of love and peace.
Photo by Michael LaRosa on Unsplash
One of my favorite writers on Medium, Kay Bolden, recently wrote a piece entitled Love is a Warrior, Not a Saint. She is absolutely correct. Love is not a saint. Love sees things clearly. Restricting our dogs to a vegetarian diet is not love. It’s animal abuse. If we love our dogs, we appreciate them for the magnificent companions and colleagues they are, and dogs are not vegetarians. If we love our dogs, we give them a nice raw, bloody, meaty bone now and then and we do not force them to struggle on a grain or vegetable-based diet and handfuls of supplements in order to address their nutritional needs. Wild canines form packs and hunt. They kill birds, rodents, rabbits and even larger animals, tear them apart with their teeth and eat them raw. That’s what a dog’s ancestry is. Refusing to accept that is not love.
Dogs have evolved with humans for thousands of years and have adapted to scavenge and forage amongst people. Most dog owners know that their pets will, if able, routinely eat all kinds of rubbish and frequently suffer digestive consequences. If humans are wiped out overnight in some kind of a plague, our dogs will consume our dead bodies, form packs, and begin hunting.
I despise what human beings have done to animals. Animal testing, the terrible practices of factory farming, our idiotic greed for things like rhino and elephant horns and furs, and our irresponsibility, cruelty, stupidity and malice have done no end of harm to the entire animal kingdom. We seem bent on destroying every habitat on the planet (often so that people can feel self-righteous about how peaceful and loving they are as vegans and vegetarians, never mind that Big Ag wipes out hundreds of thousands of organisms and poisons the soil in every field it monocrops, not part of the natural process of life and death) as quickly as possible, leaving nothing but sterile wastes behind us. We do this. People. Homo Sapiens.
Photo by Jamie Morris on Unsplash
Bleating about love and peace and refusing to recognize carnivores, herbivores, the extraordinary complex system of Planet Earth and the necessity and function of all parts of it is just as bad as clearcutting the rainforest. Mother Nature is about prey and predator. When it’s healthy, the natural system is a complicated, dynamic dance of life and death involving countless organisms. Carnivores hunting and eating meat is not an act of violence or hate. Predators hunting prey is the natural order of things. Life on earth depends on it.
Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost our innate wisdom and connection to life. The modern age is all about arrested development. We’re like small children in sunny nurseries having a tea party with our stuffed animals and dolls. We’ve distorted love and peace into something prim and sweet, entirely artificial and entirely one-dimensional. Peace and violence are mutually exclusive. Love is entirely peaceful. Death is entirely hateful and violent. Love and peace are pretty. Love and peace are nice. They’re tolerant. They contain no animal “biproducts.”
Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash
What dangerous, infantile lies. Love is the face of the Divine, and the face of the Divine looks upon fire and flood, thunder and lightning, sand and ice and sea. The face of the Divine looks upon the musky violence of reproduction, the grinding bones and tearing tissue of birth, the vast cycles of predators and prey that encompass each layer of life from the smallest microbes to the largest animals. The face of the Divine orchestrates the checks and balances that ensure population control, which is often driven by disease, famine and drought. The Divine dances a passionate, sensual, joyful dance, knee-deep in blood, semen, bone, flesh, fat, hair, scales, feathers, rot, vomit and excrement.
Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash
In the midst of this beautiful, intricate world it’s we alone who have the fantastic hubris to refuse to participate. It’s we who deny the very ground of our being, the substance and structure of flesh and bone and biology. We rant about inclusivity and equality while we steadily eradicate life on earth, self-destruct, and allow ourselves to be divided from one another, never pausing long enough in our fatal greed and grotesque need to win and be right to understand that life and death already are inclusive and equal. We all must eat and drink, successfully procreate if our genetic material is to survive, and die. We’re all part of the magnificent turning wheel of life, whether we like it or admit it or not. We’ve allowed our contemptible ideologies, our fears, our ignorance and our absurd desire for the higher moral ground to weaken us and we’ve become the most dangerous form of life on the planet, not only to ourselves but to every living thing around us. Then we project our madness onto the animals who depend upon us, reward the criminals who market vegetarian dog food and call that love. We call that being peaceful.
No. That’s not my love. My love and compassion are bigger and wider than that. I love the glorious cycle of life and death, even if it means I dip my hands in blood and endure the stench of decaying flesh. I muster the humility to learn about interconnectedness and how to participate elegantly in life and death. I love myself and others for what genetics, evolution and biology make us. I work for peace. I can wield the tool of violence if necessary. I respect and welcome death, recognizing it as a sacred consort to life.
The seed for this post was a podcast by Pat McCabe, also known as Woman Stands Shining, who is a Diné (Navajo) mother, grandmother, activist, artist, writer, ceremonial leader and international speaker. In the podcast, she speaks about the idea of making an offering as part of our spiritual work.
Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash
That idea started me thinking about offerings, what it means to make one, to whom we make them, and why. Spiritual and sacred practices are a strong theme in the trilogy I’m writing, starting with The Hanged Man. Mother’s Day has come and gone and Father’s Day is ahead. Many of us mark these days with offerings of some kind. For Earth Day, I joined a small neighborhood group and picked up trash, and I framed that activity as an offering. Yesterday I cleaned up my summer-only dance space and danced there for the first time this season. As so often happens, during that hour of dance this week’s post crystallized.
An offering is “a thing offered as a gift or a contribution” according to a quick Internet search. A gift is “a thing given willingly to someone without payment.”
The act of making an offering is ancient, a practice we began long before we could go out and buy a gift. Various cultures have historically engaged in ritual sacrifice (an act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to God or to a divine or supernatural figure), an altogether different degree of gift from a cute coffee mug.
I’ve long struggled personally with gift giving. There’s something in me that resents and resists the cultural mandates we’ve created to give gifts of a particular kind on certain occasions or days of the year. It seems to me modern-day gift giving has moved away from making an offering and into a demonstration of possessing money and spending it on some new piece of something, just for the look of the thing. We may feel real love, or gratitude, or whatever, but the only way we know how to express it is by buying a card (never mind the trees) and some kind of a gift.
I know that’s how we do things, but what does it accomplish, aside from contributing to our capitalist economy? Is that what we most want from the people in our lives — more stuff — or is that what we take because we can’t get what we really want? Is a coffee mug all we think we have to offer? Is a coffee mug all we think the other will accept? Are we unable to recognize and cherish an offering unless it comes gift-wrapped?
Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash
I’m thinking a lot about Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, because I’m writing about her in my second book. Traditional offerings to Pele included tobacco, brandy, silk, crystals, tropical flowers and food. Offerings to Pele and other divine figures around the world involved ritual, prayer, music, song, dance and sometimes a sacrifice. Things, yes, although many were objects from the natural world, but also time. Presence. Creative, sensual and/or erotic expression. Community celebration, guided by spiritual leaders. Reverence. Appreciation. Gratitude. Acknowledgement of the Divine’s connection to the people and the natural world they inhabited.
Making an offering on this level is a demonstration of commitment and willingness to participate in the complex web of connection between people and nature. It’s a practice, not a one-time event. It’s flexible and not limited to the calendar or the clock. If there’s a community or individual need to speak to the Divine, time is set aside to do so. No money or commerce need be involved, because the offering is of self.
The offering of self, however, is often invisible, especially to our nearest and dearest. It’s so fatally easy to take one another for granted. The very act of feeding those we love is an offering we’ve been making and accepting since humans began. The acts of growing, harvesting, gathering, hunting, sharing and preparing food, absolutely necessary for survival, are almost obscured now by money and time constraints, ecological concerns, health issues, ideology and who does the dishes. Whether we recognize it or not, feeding another person is an offering of life. Parents know that making that single offering to just one child, let alone other family members, is a colossal, exhausting, unending task. Yet it’s so often completely invisible, and who has time to enjoy the act of offering food to another (or ourselves, for that matter), or incorporate ritual, play or creativity into our eating? It’s just another chore in our busy days.
So, if our offering is invisible, unrecognized, unappreciated or even rejected in favor of something like a coffee mug, does it mean we’re worth nothing, we are nothing?
Of course not, but it feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it?
Making an offering means letting it go into the world and having faith in its worth. An offering is a gift, and a gift is a thing given willingly, without payment, remember? There isn’t a scorecard. It’s the practice of offering that enriches our spirit, not the outcome. Unfortunately, everything about our modern culture trains us to depend on immediate reinforcement. We’re hooked on likes, claps and our stats. We gloat over the number of our friends, subscribers, comments and shares. Deadliest of all, we compare our popularity and performance with the popularity and performance of others.
What others think about us and how the world perceives us is becoming more important than our own integrity and the authenticity and quality of our offerings. We’re forgetting how to trust and have faith in silence, in invisibility and in not knowing. We’re forgetting that our worth is not defined by others.
What about the offerings we make to ourselves? What about our ability to meet our ownneeds, spiritual, physical, creative and emotional? Do we have any self to give ourselves? Do we tell ourselves there’s no time, no money and no point? Do we tell ourselves that whatever our self-expression is, it’s not worth anything, meaning we can’t sell it to someone or no one will approve of it?
I danced yesterday in an old woodshed that was attached to a local one-room schoolhouse more than 100 years ago. It leans and tilts. The roof leaks. The windows and doors aren’t square and the wind blows through gaps. I swept out the winter’s accumulation of mouse and bat droppings, leaves and dirt. It was a warm, sunny day and as I danced I gradually peeled off my clothes until I was naked. The sun came in the west window and made a square on the floor.
I thought of trees and stones offering their bodies to moss and lichen, the earth offering itself to plants, and blossoms offering themselves to sunlight and insects.
I thought of smiling into a stranger’s eyes and complimenting a cashier on the color of her blouse.
I thought of the creators of the music I was dancing to making an offering of their talent, enabling me to offer my dance.
I thought of homes, rooms and gardens I’ve created that are long erased. I thought of people I’ve loved with my whole heart and volunteer work I’ve done. I thought of my partner, who was running an errand in town so I could eat bacon the next morning. I thought of picking up trash on Earth Day and the new trash that’s been thrown out car windows since then, and how futile that makes me feel.
I thought about words, all these words, all these stories and ideas and thoughts in my head that are here and in my books. I thought about all the words written by others that I read each day and appreciate and share.
I thought about procreation, the red tide and the milky seed our bodies offer to life, to hope, to continuance. I thought about offerings of tears, of blood, of pain, of rage and of surrender.
Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash
Offering is a circle. Life offers itself to us, and we can choose to offer ourselves to Life. What better offering can we make than our fully engaged participation and presence with ourselves, our experience and others? Such a gift can’t be bought or sold. It might not feed our fame, popularity or bank account. We probably won’t get validated by statistics or Twitter. Some people may never recognize or value it.
But our self-esteem will bloom. Our joy will increase. Our words and choices will add to the positive energy in the world. We will become self-empowered and spiritually strong and resilient.
I smiled and laughed and shouted as I danced, whirled and stamped and clapped. I offered up my white, winter-tender skin to the sun and air. A mosquito bit me on a knee; a blood offering. No one saw me, except maybe an astonished spider or two. No one cared. It was an offering of self to self, a private thing. It gave me joy. It gave my body a chance to move and be grateful. It fed my creative well.
As an oral storyteller, I’m committed to gathering old tales from all over the world and retelling them because they contain blueprints for life. Each story is a teacher, a small piece of code, a seed, a fragment of wisdom, a snippet of DNA. Stories speak to us about who we are, who we have been and who we might yet be. They speak in the voices of place, people, history and culture.
Photo by Alan Chen on Unsplash
Story does not exist without storytellers. Literacy is not necessary, as long as people remain connected enough to pass story on orally. A culture which unravels and frays in its ability to form healthy connections and bonds and at the same time stifles the acquisition and sharing of knowledge is in grave danger of losing stories, and when old stories are lost much of the collective wisdom of our ancestors is lost with them. We become crippled and impoverished. We lose our way in the world and we have to spend time and energy reinventing wheels we learned how to make hundreds of years ago.
As a storyteller, then, I come to you this fine spring week when the snow is ebbing in Maine, leaving behind rich, greasy mud, with the old story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Every old story is in fact many stories. A piece of oral tradition is like a many-limbed tree. As it grows and matures it branches out over and over. Every teller who passes on the tale adds or takes away a piece of it, reshaping it according to the teller’s context in history and place. Still, the skeleton of the story remains recognizable, because the bones contain the wisdom, the old truth, the regenerative pieces that are reanimated over and over by those of us who share them.
The essential truth contained in the idiom “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” has appeared in many times and places. According to my research, the first time was in the Bible, in the Gospel of Matthew, as a warning against false prophets. The sermon goes on to suggest that actions speak louder than words. Thereafter, the phrase was repeated in other Christian religious writing and from there entered into European vernacular. A Latin proverb arose: “Under a sheep’s skin often hides a wolfish mind.”
A 12th century Greek wrote a fable about a wolf who changed his appearance in order to get access to ample food. He put on a sheepskin and mingled with a flock of sheep, fooling the shepherd. The disguised wolf was shut up with the sheep for the night. The shepherd decided he wanted mutton for his supper, so he took his knife and killed the deceitful wolf, mistaking it for a sheep. Here is a branch in the story tree. The Gospel reference warns against deceitful teachers. The Greek fable warns that evil-doing carries a penalty. The bones of the story — the consequences of a wolf disguising itself as a sheep — are the same. The story is now two-dimensional. Such a pretence is dangerous for both wolf and sheep.
Another iteration occurs three centuries later in the writing of a 15th century Italian professor. A wolf dresses himself in a sheepskin and every day kills one of the flock. The shepherd catches on and hangs the wolf, still wearing the sheepskin, from a tree. When the other shepherds ask why he hung a sheep in a tree, the shepherd replies that the skin was of a sheep, but the actions were of a wolf. There it is again: Actions speak louder than words.
Aesop wrote two fables having to do with wolves gaining the trust of a shepherd and killing sheep, but the wolf is undisguised in these cases. Even so, the common theme is clear. A wolf is a wolf, and cannot be trusted with the sheep.
In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Italian, French and English writers adopted versions similar to the early 15th century Italian tale, in which the wolf pretends he is not a threat to the sheep.
Most of us know the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, whose origins can be traced back to 10th century European folk and fairy tales. In the familiar modern version, a wolf disguises itself as Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and the innocent too-sweet maiden is fooled and subsequently eaten.
My favorite story of wolves and, in this case, goats, comes from my own childhood, the tale of the wolf and the seven kids (young goats). The mother goat must leave the house and warns her seven children about the wily wolf who might try to gobble them up. She says they will recognize her by her sweet voice and white feet, and they mustn’t open the door to anyone else. I was mightily amused by the wolf’s machinations in trying to fool the kids: Swallowing honey to make his rough voice sweet, whitening his black feet with flour. Of course, he does fool the kids and they are eaten, but, much like Little Red Riding Hood, the kids are saved from the wolf’s stomach in the end.
As an adult, this tale doesn’t seem nearly so amusing.
Lastly, modern zoology makes use of the term “aggressive mimicry,” which describes a method of deception by an animal so it appears to either predator or prey as something else.
I’m deeply troubled by what I see going on around me in the world. It appears as though many millions of people are no longer able to discern the difference between wolves and sheep, and this is creating dire consequences for all life on Planet Earth.
How did this happen? Why did this happen? When did this happen? How are we producing college graduates who don’t recognize wolves in sheep’s clothing? What kind of a so-called educational system, public or private, produces such myopia? For two thousand years we’ve understood the dangers of failing to clearly see the difference between sheep and wolves. Such a failure of judgement is bad for the wolves as well as the sheep. Tracing this old tale through time (when most of the world’s population was largely illiterate and uneducated), clearly shows us this is a learned skill. Little Red Riding Hood, the seven kids and several confused shepherds, all innocent, naive and inexperienced, had to learn to recognize a wolf when they saw one, or starve or be eaten. Critical thinking is not an innate skill. Parents, teachers and leaders must actively teach it.
Photo by Michael LaRosa on Unsplash
Here is a wolf. It’s an apex predator; intelligent, flexible and canny. The wolf is evolved to survive and pass on its DNA. It’s not confused about what it eats or the meaning of its life. Its job is to do whatever is necessary to survive and successfully reproduce. As a predator, wolves are an essential part of the complex system we call life. A healthy population of wolves benefits both the land and prey animals.
Photo by Jamie Morris on Unsplash
Here is a sheep. It’s an herbivore, a prey animal. It’s evolved to produce milk, meat and wool, survive and pass on its DNA. It eats grass. It too is an essential part of the web of predator (including humans), prey and plants. Its presence, properly managed, benefits the land and predators.
One can certainly throw a wolfskin over a sheep and say it’s a wolf, but that doesn’t make it so. Now we have a sheep in the throes of a nervous breakdown, but the animal is still a sheep. It still needs to eat grass. We cannot change a sheep into a wolf.
Likewise, a wolf wearing a sheepskin does not begin to crop grass. Wolves eat meat, no matter what kind of a skin they’re wearing. A simple shepherd might be fooled by a single glance in the dusk if the disguised wolf mills among the sheep, but five minutes of observation will quickly reveal the truth. Sheep do not tear out one another’s throats. A wolf cannot be changed into a sheep.
The wolves of the world, those who prey on others, naturally have a large inventory of successful speeches and manipulations. They study their prey and learn quickly how to take advantage of it. They are everywhere, in politics, religious organizations, schools and cults. They’re athletic coaches and businessmen, people of influence and power. They’re the shadows behind conspiracy theories and cults like QAnon. They disguise themselves with projection and gaslighting, mingle freely with their prey and pick them off, one by one.
In the natural world, an overpopulation of wolves eventually runs out of prey animals. At that point, the wolf population goes down dramatically while prey animal populations recover. Nature seeks a balance of life, and if we create endless flocks of fat, stupid, blindfolded sheep, the grass will run out, wolves will increase, and slaughter will commence as the sheep begin to starve for want of food.
That’s a lot of destroyed land, dead sheep, fat and happy wolves and then, in the next generation, a lot of young wolves starving to death and, (one hopes) a few smarter and wiser sheep and shepherds.
People say we’re a superior species to wolves and sheep. I don’t see much evidence of that recently. We can’t seem to remember what we once knew well. We teach our children how to press buttons and look at a screen and pass a standardized state test, but they can’t tell a wolf from a sheep, and neither can we. The wolves are not confused, but the sheep are milling around aimlessly like … well, like sheep, ripe and ready for slaughter. We’ve allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into believing our true nature is expressed by appearance, words and socioeconomics. Actions don’t count, and neither does DNA. Off we skip to the slaughterhouse, following honey-tongued wolves dusted with flour, who praise us for our compassion, compliance, inclusivity and political correctness while drooling at the prospect of all that food. Meanwhile, our planet degrades so that no one else is properly fed and natural checks and balances are destroyed. Even the noncompliant, troublemaking sheep who manage to escape slaughter will starve. So will the wolves, eventually, after they’ve devoured everyone else.
Maybe then the complex system of life can begin to heal. I hope so.
In the meantime, I’ll be separating wolves from sheep and telling stories.