Have you ever wished there were a way to find the best books on a particular subject? Welcome to Ben Fox’s Best Books series, a website for finding and discovering stand-out works on a delightful variety of interests. Many thanks to Mr. Fox for including my book, Survival Skills, in this amazing project, along with five other outstanding works sure to please animals lovers everywhere.
For all you nature lovers, the Kindle version of Strange Company, my collection of nature essays is on sale at Amazon. This is a light-hearted look at some of our most curious beasts, a cozy read for these cold winter months. Here is an excerpt from “Consider the Sloth.”
“The two main emotions in life are love and fear, and certainly there is ample evidence that animals feel both. I imagine that when the shadow of a raptor passes overhead, a sloth cringes in fear. What about the lesser emotions, the ones that don’t serve us—like worry? Does a sloth, with all that time he has, worry about eagles and jaguars? Or does he have more productive thoughts, which part of the tree he’ll dine on that night? Or is he, in some deep animal way, simply enjoying himself, his mind a movie screen of pleasant images: leaves, sky, dappled light. When thoughts are not needed, maybe animals are not burdened with them.
It is estimated that people have sixty thousand thoughts a day, a figure not as impressive as it sounds. These sixty thousand thoughts are the same ones we had yesterday and the same ones we’ll have tomorrow. In our day-to-day lives, we are not much good at thinking out of the box. A sloth hangs in one tree all its life and has no company other than the mate it couples with every fourteen months or so. With this scant stimulation, I wonder how many separate daily thoughts a sloth has. One hundred? Twenty? Three? I would trade my sixty thousand for a glimpse of them.”
Occasionally, always in the evening, my cat will turn her head and stare at something I can’t see. She will follow this invisible entity with her eyes as it moves, apparently, along the wall just below the ceiling. She does not seem alarmed by what she perceives, just keenly interested. After a moment or two, she will blink and look away, settle back into my lap. Whether the object of her attention disappears or she simply grows bored with it, I will never know.
Two of my previous cats displayed this same behavior, and several people have told me that every now and then their cats are likewise enthralled. “It’s their eyes,” a friend says, “those elliptical pupils. Their eyes absorb light and then reflect it—like headlights on a road sign. Cats see a whole world we don’t.” I have no idea what my cat sees in the dark; I only know that sometimes, in my living room at night, we are not alone.
A couple years ago I met a woman at a party, a grief counselor named Anne. I liked her calm, her attentiveness; I thought she was probably very good at what she did. We fell into an easy friendship, and one day over lunch I mentioned my cat and her odd way of peering at the ceiling. Anne picked up her sandwich. “They’re out there, alright.”
“Ghosts,” she said, “spirits. Whatever you want to call them.”
I took a swallow of my drink, studied her a moment. “You seem pretty definite about that.”
“It was the kids,” she said, looking up at me. “When I started counseling kids, I learned a lot. You wouldn’t believe how many children see ghosts.”
I stopped chewing. “You mean like the movie? Like ‘I see dead people’?”
“Something like that,” said Anne, nodding. “They see their relatives—grandmothers, brothers, fathers. People who have died recently.”
“Wow,” I murmured. “They must be terrified.”
“That’s the thing. Most of them aren’t afraid. They’re not really haunted, these kids. It’s more like they’re…visited.” She paused, considered. “It sounds like their parents, grandparents, whatever, just sort of appear and hang out for a while.” Her eyes widened. “It’s like the kids don’t know that this isn’t supposed to happen, so it does. They allow it.”
“How old are these kids?”
“Six, seven, eight. I’ve talked with four-year-olds who’ve seen ghosts.”
I paused, reflecting on this possibility, and then my mind snapped shut. “Lots of kids have imaginary friends. Don’t you think they might be imagining their relatives, willing them to be?”
Anne nodded. “Some of them, maybe. But Jean, the consistency is amazing. I’ve asked these kids the same questions on different days and they’ve answered exactly the same way. Their recall blows me away.”
“What about your adult clients? Do they ever see spirits?”
“Rarely. In eight years I’ve spoken with just three.”
“I wonder why it’s so common with children.”
“I’ve wondered about that too,” Anne said. “I think it’s because they’re closer to their time of birth. Closer to creation.” She paused, considered. “They really do live in a whole different world. They don’t understand how things work so everything amazes them.”
“Or terrifies them,” I add, thinking of my own childhood.
Anne shrugged. “Well that’s true, but trust me, they’re a lot more afraid of real people than they are of ghosts.”
I have heard—I suppose we all have—a few stories about unexplained encounters: sounds or feelings or visions beyond the margins of daily life. I remember an especially convincing account told to me by a math professor. We were sitting at her kitchen table while our spouses chatted outside. The house we were in had once been inhabited by my partner’s grandparents, and the property held many happy memories for her. This teacher—her name was Elizabeth—told me that she and her husband loved the house and were delighted we had come for a visit. I asked if she any children, and she said no, conceding that it was a big house for just the two of them, especially since her father had died. “He lived with us for several years—he died four months ago.” I expressed my sympathy and she smiled. “Well, we had a nice goodbye.”
I looked at her quizzically and she folded her arms on the table and told me something that made me stop breathing. For three nights after his death, she said, her father had visited her. They had sat at this table—he in the chair I was in—and talked about life, about things they had not shared or explained or apologized for before his death. She said it was the sweetest time, the easiest time, they had ever spent together. After three nights, she went on, everything they needed to say had been said; they both knew it. “He didn’t come back after that,” she finished, looking up from the table.
I couldn’t understand. “You talked? Like we’re talking?”
“No. Not like that. We talked without speaking.”
“Where was your husband?”
“He’s a dispatcher,” Elizabeth said. “He works nights.”
I must have looked dubious because she gave a shrug and said, “You’re not the first person who thinks I’m crazy.” She paused, regarded me straight on. “What can I tell you? It happened. You can believe it or not.”
That’s the thing with ghost stories, isn’t it? The listener knows they are not true, the speaker knows they are.
The last story I will tell you concerns an artist friend of mine, a first-rate photographer. Before she began taking pictures, she worked as a forensic psychic for a police department in Chicago. I didn’t know what a forensic psychic was until she explained it to me. At first I thought she saw the future and could predict crimes, but she said no, she could not do that and she doubted anyone could. She told me that she had gone to crime scenes—always homicide—where, in her mind’s eye, she sometimes saw the violence that had taken place. “It had to be a recent crime,” she added.
I was impressed. “Did you actually solve cases?”
“Oh yes. Several. Not so much the crimes that had taken place outdoors—I was better at seeing things that had happened in a house or apartment. I saw the people that had been involved and the police used my descriptions to find them.”
“Wow,” I said. “What a talent.”
She frowned. “Well, I don’t know how much talent is involved. See, after something violent happens there is residual energy in the space. Like images left on the retina when you close your eyes. After a time, that energy goes away and the room is just a room—at least that’s how it was for me. That’s why I couldn’t do anything with cold cases.”
“Have you seen this kind of stuff all your life?”
“No, thank god. It started in my twenties. I’d see a broken window, or a smashed-up car, and I’d get this glimpse of the people who had been there, the victims and the bad guys. I started working with the police when I was thirty-four. I quit after three years.”
She gave me an incredulous look. “Are you kidding? It was awful, seeing those things. It was wrecking my life. That’s why I left Chicago and moved to the country. It’s a whole lot nicer here.”
There is a photo circulating on the internet, beach sand viewed through a 250x microscope. It’s a stunning surprise, all those bits of beauty beneath our feet—honeycombs of coral, tiny crosses of glass, sea shells almost too small to be. Who knew?
As I writer, I am always trying to get to the bottom of things, the hidden, ever-retreating truth. There’s so much going on that we can’t see. In their possibility, the stories I’ve been told haunt me. I’m not saying I believe them, I’m not saying I don’t. I’m just saying.
There are ants that tend to their injured
by licking their wounds,
slowly transferring their own health
into fallen soldiers,
sealing fresh lesions against lethal bacteria.
Who can say why a creature as small as an ant
with so many hardy brethren,
would bother to stop—an hour if need be—
and help a troop.
In that tiny helmet of a head
are there neurons of compassion, of pity,
or are these ministrations automatic, instinct,
like the urge to tunnel or serve a queen
(what is instinct anyway
but a word for what we can’t explain?).
Some ants will even evac a battered brother,
not the terminal—those who have lost too many limbs
to the brutal jaws of termites—
but the ones who, with proper attention,
may fight another day.
The medics sense the difference
and do what they can
before moving farther afield,
gifted with the knowing
there is not a moment to spare.