Listening for what animals can tell us

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I know that animals talk; I saw him - black tip on the tail, reddish flank - and he saw me. I had turned on the porch light, and the whole snow-covered backyard was illuminated. He looked at me, or at least at the light, and ran.

Opossums never run when we turn on the light. They forage for sunflower-seeds spilled from the bird feeder, oblivious to all else. Raccoons look warily about, but they stick around, unhooking the suet feeder from the post, or, in summer, sipping the remains of hummingbird nectar from the feeder they've knocked to the ground.

But the fox stared at me with intelligent eyes, as if to say something.

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Days earlier, we had seen his tracks in the snow. We saw squirrel tracks, too - a few feet from our back door. The fox tracks met the squirrel tracks in a great upheaval of snow and fur.

We also saw a moth, fluttering by the light. A big, brown moth, hatched too early.

It was snowing hard: large, swirling flakes. We got three inches that night. I thought of the Polyphemus cocoons stored in our garage. They were still intact when I checked - lightweight, hairy, and tan-colored. Little hardened blankets against the cold, bearing secrets.

One summer we heard loud, trilling cries from the forest. At first we thought some poor creature was being murdered - slowly. It happened night after night; we would shut our bedroom windows and shudder.

Then a friend found some baby raccoons in a tree, and we took our kids to see them. The babies made the same noise; so finally, we knew.

In an old copy of "The Illustrated Library of the Natural Sciences" there is an article about the "Poor-me-one." A bird of the goatsucker family, native to South America, it reputedly makes a sound like a lost soul wailing. A woman who had heard the sound said she hoped never to hear it again.

We, however, find ourselves fascinated by the sounds of animals.

We have a cat whose purr is like the start-up of a lawn mower. "I can't concentrate," complains one daughter (trying to do her homework) to the other (the cat's mistress).

No one knows, exactly, the mechanics of a cat's purr. Some hold to the theory of vibration in the blood as it passes through the carotid artery. Some (our vet included) think it is airway noise. "But there's never been any grant money to study it," she said. "It's a modern-day mystery."

I RECENTLY READ "The Chronicles of Narnia," by C.S. Lewis, to two of our four daughters. We loved the books, with their mythological creatures and talking beasts.

"I wish my stuffed animals could talk," said Allison, our oldest.

"I wish," said Susannah, our second oldest, "that life was like in Narnia. I wish all the animals could talk."

I paused for a moment, and agreed, that yes, it would be wonderful if that were so.

They ran off to their rooms for another game, perhaps to have make-believe conversations with fuzzy blue whales and button-eyed grasshoppers.

We even had a ladybug infestation in our house. I could hear squeals from upstairs, "Oh, here's one!" and then a window opening for its release. Live ladybugs in one's house is somewhat fantastical, but still within the bounds of the ordinary.

Foxes were interesting, but still possible. Not like the talking beasts of Narnia, or the talking stuffed animals of childhood dreams.

And where did the Narnia stories come from? Or any fairy and fantastical tales, for that matter?

Isn't there a longing in all of us for the wondrous, the too-good-to-be-true truths; for some faint glimmer of grandeur?

As I was thinking these thoughts, I wondered what to tell my daughters: that yes, there is a truth, a beauty, that life is not just humdrum, that these stories point to an enduring and transcendent reality. I wanted to say, like Dr. Doolittle, "But animals do talk, you know - you just have to listen the right way."

I looked out the window.

It was early spring now, and the sky was blue. Not just any blue - but a blue washed clean from the cold, raw harshness of winter. Blue like a hope, a budding, the first bud of pussy willows. The kind of blue, that, when you look into it, you feel invigorated, like after a deep and refreshing draught.

The forsythia were blooming against the sky, and on a sprig of pure yellow perched a cardinal. He was shockingly red. Red, yellow, blue - the primary colors; so basic, so everywhere - so perfect in juxtaposition, they seemed all at once to be sending a message, sounding a bell, waving a semaphore flag, just for me.

I shouted for the girls. "Animals talk!" I cried. "Like in Narnia. See?"

"What? Oh - a cardinal," said Allison, trying to sound excited.

"It's nice," said Susannah, looking at me with a quizzical expression. "Can we go back upstairs now?"

I realize we all apprehend things differently, but I am stubborn in my belief. I still say animals talk.

I just can't quite make out their language.

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