One of my earliest memories is of a window half way up the stairs in our family home. It was of colored glass, azure, emerald, and gold, and had a banner like scroll with the words ''Consilio et Animis'' pricked out in scarlet and black. For hours my brother and sister and I would sit watching the play of light glinting through the glass, casting patterns on the carpet and walls, staining them green and gold, all the time wondering about the meaning of those mysterious words.
In the end we invented our own interpretation. Since our home was a haven for animals of all sorts and consideration for them all-important, those words could only mean one thing. It became our battle cry: ''Consilio et Animis,'' ''Consider the Animals!''
When our father arrived home from work, his favorite thrush or blackbird met him at the gate; he had only to whistle and birds were drawn to him. In our eyes he was another Pied Piper, one of our fantail pigeons perched on his shoulder or on his cap. Our mother was always tending to birds with broken wings, succoring half-drowned kittens, feeding starving strays. We had to move warily through our house for fear of treading on the titmice and finches that invaded it, or the wintering robins.
We had epic rescues of swans trapped in ice, of rabbits caught in traps, blackbirds entangled in the netting of our neighbor's fruit. One spring a tawny owl took to perching on the kitchen pulley, flitting silently out of the door at nightfall. Certain elderly aunts eyed him very uneasily, scuttling hastily through the kitchen and sitting down very gingerly in the parlor. ''Don't worry, he won't peck you,'' we would assure them, but they remained suspicious of what might be lurking under the cushions and winced when our tame hare leaped onto their laps.
We were absorbed by the sounds and smells and sights of the surrounding country, by the thumping of hares' paws as they danced in their March madness, by the night barking of dog foxes, the harplike twanging of swans' wings. We waited for the first autumn flights of the wild geese, hearing them honking over the village in long skeins on their way to the sea. We played in the neighboring farms, sniffing in the warmth of the cows' flanks, the clover-scented breath of the big Clydesdale horses, the creamy coolness of the dairy. We came on badgers and fallow deer in the beech woods, otters in the river; on moonlight nights a vixen often played with her cubs in our garden, rolling over the lawn and skipping across the rosebeds.
And all the time, as we went through the fields or waded along the riverbed, the consciousness was growing on us that we shared the earth with those creatures that sometimes shared our home with us. We did not own it. This was their kingdom, not ours. Only if we obeyed the Law that we read of in Kipling's Jungle Books, only if we kept the command of ''Consilio et Animis,'' had we the right to be secret sharers, perhaps even honorary citizens, of the animal world.
In those years there was, along with our parents, another all-important figure who gave us fresh insights into the relationship with animals. He was an elderly emigre Pole who liked to come and sit in our garden to sketch or merely to feel the peace of the place. He was a gaunt old man with very bright black eyes and a beaklike nose that lent him an almost birdlike appearance. At first we were half disconcerted by his oddity. ''He looks very unhappy,'' we said, distressed by the sadness of his expression and the strangeness of his English. ''He is only homesick,'' our mother said.
As we grew used to him we came to depend more and more on his coming. He sat in a corner of the garden, sketching birds or red squirrels and talking to them in Polish. We went creeping up beside him, waiting till he laid down his sketchbook and began to tell us about the wildlife in his own country.
Sometimes he sat so still we had the impression that he had become part of the garden, grown into the leaves and grasses and birdsong. ''Stop chattering,'' he would command us sternly. ''People talk too much. Animals don't like it. The great thing is to be silent and listen.''
We did listen. We learned from him to be so quiet that we could almost hear the grass growing, the flowers opening out, birds' feathers faintly rustling, and the leaves whirring as they swirled to earth.
As he did his exquisite sketches of robins and wrens and chaffinches, he often recited Polish nursery rhymes to us or sang songs from the Tatra Mountains , delighted by our laughter at the sound of his language. In exchange we taught him some verses of poetry that we especially loved and were sure would appeal to him. He repeated them over and over, a smile lighting up his face. ''Tak, tak,'' he said. ''Yes, yes. That sums it all up.''
For ever after these lines of Coleridge held for us the added enchantment of old Jan's accent and the feeling he put into the words: He prayeth well who loveth well Both man and bird and beast . . . All things both great and small, For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.
Beyond the colored glass of our window the world now seems a less kindly place than that of our childhood. At times, with factory farming and experiments on animals, it takes on the dimensions of H. G. Wells's nightmare island of Dr. Moreau. Yet, whenever we despair at so many signs of man's inhumanity to man and to beast, we have only to think back:
There is old Jan, his sketchbook on his knees, like the guardian spirit of our leafy garden, murmuring over and over ''Both man and bird and beast'' while the three of us correct his pronunciation with peals of laughter. Our father wanders down the path followed by his attendant thrush, and our mother stands at the door holding yet another stray dog in her arms. We recall the command that came to us in early years:
You are sharers of earth, not owners of it!
And we come back to the scroll with the commanding words:
''Consilio et Animis.''