Hello, I’m Bill Crain, co-founder of Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary. Each month I’ve told you a story about the animals on our farm. This month I would like to tell you something a bit out of the ordinary.
Over the years, I have become increasingly aware of the possibility that animals and children have a particularly strong capacity to feel at one with nature and feel nature’s deep peacefulness. This feeling of unity with nature appears to be more common in children and animals than in human adults. Several scholars have referred to such a feeling as “mystical” or “spiritual.”
One of the most eloquent accounts of such a childhood experience comes from the African American minister Howard Thurman. Thurman, who isn’t as widely known as he should be, introduced Gandhi’s ideas to the civil rights movement in the United States. In his autobiography, Thurman described a lonely childhood in Daytona, Florida. He said, “I found more companionship in nature than I did among people.” Thurman’s most intense childhood experiences came at the seashore, especially at night when the ocean was very still. Feeling the calmness of the ocean, Thurman said that, “I had the sense that all things, the sand, the sea, the stars, the night, and I were one lung through which all life breathed. Not only was I aware of a vast rhythm enveloping all, but I was part of it and it was part of me.”
Animals can have similar experiences. One of the first writers to mention this possibility was J. Allen Boone in his book Kinship with All Life. In the 1920s, Boone took care of a large German shepherd dog named Strongheart, who starred in many movies of that era. Boone soon came to believe that Strongheart had inexplicable gifts. For example, Strongheart sometimes seemed to read Boone’s mind. But the event that most affected Boone occurred one afternoon when Strongheart led Boone up a high hill. When they reached the top, the dog sat down, faced outward, and stared. Boone was puzzled. Why would Strongheart just want to sit there so quietly when there were so many interesting places all around to explore? Was he watching things down below, fancying himself on guard duty? What was so intensely holding his attention? Then Boone moved closer to Strongheart and discovered that the dog wasn’t looking down below at all. His gaze was focused on a point above the horizon line. Whatever he sensed there, it “gave him great satisfaction, great contentment, great peace of mind. That fact was not only written all over him; it was permeating the atmosphere like perfume.”
Boone said he previously had seen the same meditative pose in Asia, where pilgrims gazed at a sacred mountain.
The nature writer Rachel Carson reported similar, deeply peaceful gazing at the horizon among sea gulls. I have also seen the goats on our farm look at the horizon in the same way.
And it’s not just the horizon that instills tranquility in our farm animals. Our goats, sheep, mini-horse, and other animals frequently seem very serene when they are just grazing or foraging in the pastures. What’s more, when I am around them, I often have the feeling that they bring the deep peace of nature to me as well.
Now, I realize that my statements will raise eyebrows, especially when I refer to animals’ feelings as spiritual. Many people believe that spiritual feelings are restricted to human beings. However, let me tell you about an event that strongly affected me, and confirmed my view that animals do, indeed, feel emotions we call spiritual.
The Turkeys and the Girl Scouts
One day a troop of girl scouts visited our farm. The girls — nine in all — presented us with gifts for the farm and then held a ceremony in the barn. They gathered in a circle and stood quietly while the girls took turns reading pledges to respect all animals. They vowed to always cherish the love and beauty animals bestow upon us. They pledged to protect animals’ right to a natural death and, as the animals did approach death, they said they would console the animals and “ask the angels gather them in their arms.” The girls’ statements were very solemn and moving.
What happened next was something none of us who worked at the farm would have ever expected. Soon after the scouts began reading their pledges, our four female turkeys, who until that point in their young lives had spent every waking moment noisily milling about, joined the circle. Each turkey moved to a separate section of the circle. Each sat in perfect stillness, with her eyes on the reader. It was as if the turkeys were listening to the pledges and were moved by them. All the humans present were astonished.
The turkeys could not have understood the scouts’ words, of course, but they must have felt the scouts’ inward quietness. I suspect there was a spiritual element — an attitude of quiet reverence— in the scouts’ ceremony that the turkeys responded to.
You can read more about animals’ spiritual experiences in my new book, The Emotional Lives of Animals and Children: Insights from a Farm Sanctuary.