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When I first picked up the book How Animals Talk written by William Long, I felt hesitant from his language, typical of the late 19th century.  He was truly an intellectual figure of the times: male, white, economically privileged.  And he used words like “civilized Man” and “savage” and “beast” and “negro.”  Not to mention, he was a sport hunter (though after reading, I later learned that he was of the sympathetic type, in juxtaposition to President Teddy Roosevelt, an avid trophy hunter and conservationist).  At the time, I couldn’t handle this worldview and had to put the book down for a couple of years until I was mature enough to read it through his lens and maintain open critique to this vastly different worldview from my own.

The foreword and preface, written by two revolutionary and radically different scientists/philosophers (Rupert Sheldrake and Marc Bekoff, respectively), introduce the work as a piece that provides great insight into animal psychic abilities and animal emotions.  However, neither the foreword nor the preface give any indication to the actual theses and details of the book.

Two years after storing the book away to collect dust on the shelf, I decided to pick it up and read it again–this time with a focus through the lens of the author.  I didn’t read the book linearly.  I started from Part II: How to Know the Wood Folk and worked my way around.  The first chapter describes “On Getting Acquainted,” consisting of three main elements: observation, empathy, and intuition.  Speaking to fellow sport hunters, he emphasizes that one can never become fully acquainted with a “bird or beast so long as you seek them with a gun in your hand.”  He then proceeds to describe in vivid detail the act of being in the woods a particular way so as to invoke curiosity in other animals; this requires remaining in one particular spot for an extended period of time (often for hours and hours).

It reads very well, transitioning smoothly back and forth between narrative and theoretical conclusion.  His insight reveals itself even further with the remaining two chapters in Part II, where he stresses that silence is key to developing a deep connection with a wild animal.  The closer in proximity you are to the individual, the deeper the connection.  Moving from there, I enter Part I: How Animals Talk, starting with the third chapter “Chumfo: The Super-Sense”.  This follows the last chapter of Part II well because it explains in detail the effects of being in silence and at close range.  He introduces the concept of “chumfo” (or “super-sense”), indicating the process of heightened senses, as a term he acquired from an indigenous people of Lake Mweru in Africa (he did not give a name of these people despite the fact that numerous people reside on Lake Mweru and even more in recent times).  It is a concept very difficult to describe in the English language because we simply do not have a word for it; the closest word for it in English is “sensibility.”  However, this experience is named in numerous indigenous cultures of today, not just the people of Lake Mweru. At the end of Part I, he talks about “natural telepathy” and once again, the importance of silence.

I came to appreciate the valuable insight I received from this book.  This is not a scientific nature book but rather a book to help the reader re-conceptualize a worldview where life is animated and has feeling, consciousness, and flexibility.  During the time it was published, scientific naturalists like John Burroughs rejected it as a legitimate source of knowledge about wild animals, due to its “sentimentalizing wild animals and nature,” assuming sentimentality and realism were incompatible when talking about nature.  A lot has changed since then and researchers and scholars have fortunately transformed studies about animals (in biological disciplines, philosophy, and human-animal studies) to open our intellect to a more holistic interpretation of nonhuman animals.  But we still have a long way to go…

What makes this book even more extraordinary is that he talks about phenomena that’s been known in traditional ecological knowledge for a really long time and is currently being explored in recent modern subjects such as biosemiotics, cognitive ethology, sensory ecology, spiritual ecology, and phenomenology.  Using creative nonfiction and artistic narrative as a means of attempting to describe animal experience is an amazing feat for his time, and I applaud him.  He shows that even a person working within the confines of their racialized socialization can create thought-provoking, emergent work.