While out on a feeding frenzy by the trees, Sari, my newest dairy goat acquisition, decided to lay her head across my shoulders while I was sitting on the ground and snuggle. It was rather heart heart warming (even if it was after a half an hour of chewing cud in my ear), particularly since she’s kind of a prickly personality and a bit obnoxious at times.
It made me wonder about relationships with animals. Dogs, as we all know, are most commonly considered man’s best friend. They love you, try to communicate with you, (sometimes) listen to you. Even cats, though they’re often more independent than dogs, also create connections and emotional attachments with people. This makes sense because we’re all predators and have common ground to be friends. Trained to not pee on the rug and all that jazz.
But goats are prey animals. They have all these instincts and stuff. And yeah, I get it, my goats were raised with people and learned to trust us and have been domesticated, etc. But me, with clear predator eyeballs and scary bigness, can mess around with my lovely prey friends, grab their faces, pet their throats and near their eyes. Sari particularly was so not into that when she first came here. That she trusts me now, makes me stop and think about friendship and language across species.
Through love (or fear, unfortunately) animal friends learn what to do to please us. Our reasons for returning this affection is often varied. It seems like the more we’re able to understand each other’s wants and wishes, the more attachment seems to form – as in, “don’t poop on the floor” and “oh yes keeping scratching that spot” along with “guard the house” and “feed me” and other various desires. In a perfectly logical way, this symbiotic relationship is about understanding basic necessities and supplying them for mutual benefit.
But in my more existential moments, I wonder about cross-species communication on a different level. We as humans can declare superiority with our big brains and conquering the natural world oh yay, but a lot of time I think we don’t give our animal friends enough credit. If any of you out there work closely with animals, I think you’ll understand what I’m talking about. As much as our animal friends cannot speak our spoken language, I think that we cannot (or don’t spend enough time to) speak their language in return. Their own way of communicating is probably not in our range of immediately comprehension, so we dismiss it as inferior – I think wrongly so.
I think cross-species friendship can tap into understanding of each other that is not just communication of basic necessities. Something more; a not-quite-language created between two species. It might all be my imagination, and I’m not sure we can understand what really happens in their brains (particularly with prey animals), but that moment of other understanding that isn’t quite understanding so much as a suggestion, is rather magical.
Like I said. It’s probably in my head. Or applying my own ideas to actions that mean something else. Who really knows what happens in a goat’s (dog’s, cat’s, rabbit’s, etc) brain. Yet somehow I’ve gained the trust of three animal friends by paying attention and being receptive.
But anyway. In an effort to bring this discussion back to writing, I had this thought: language barriers, especially when dealing with sci-fi or fantasy where there’s aliens or robots or half-animal creatures or things that grew up in the woods, is not a complication to be taken lightly. Their brains are literally different, complex, growing up with different assumptions and complex reasonings that are all tied back to chemistry, biology (or mechanics), and environment. Like with animals, maybe we just have no way of being able to understand what they’re saying. Or with Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, there’s no real way of being able to access the network in which that species communicates. Or maybe they don’t operate the same way we do anyway. Or maybe being able to communicate means that we have to change the way we think, how we think.
But that might be a little extreme.
Any which and either way, communication problems between simple ol’ humans is bad enough – it’s even worse when you try to add a dimension that we’re, well, making up. However, language barriers, misunderstandings, and half-understandings can also really add spice to a story – and it can be really fun, too. It can add both comic relief (stretching and yawning in their culture is, whoops, actually a come-on) and conflict (delicate negotiations go awry because smiling is actually a sign of aggression), which is the life-blood of any story. Like many things in writing, communication (by culture and language) is something to be mindful of, and also a great tool if wielded effectively.
In other news:
I had a stick that I was using to flick at the goats so they’d back off from stuff they weren’t supposed to eat in the flower garden. The idea was born out of laziness because I didn’t want to get get up from my seat. I put the stick down for half a second and Sari ate it.
NaNoWriMo word count: 17,813