Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Kristi Benedict is talking with Tamarack Song, author of Becoming Nature: Learning the Language of Wild Animals and Plants
FQ: With all of the types of birds you have studied, how did you decide which to include in this book?
SONG: This was a tough one for me. I wanted to include the birds I knew best; and at the same time, I needed species that were easy to recognize and widespread, so that my readers could find and study them. Compounding the issue was the fact that I have a large readership in Europe, so I needed species found there as well.
The best way to learn something is in varied circumstances, and this definitely holds true for birdsong. I decided to choose a bird common to cities, one easy to observe in rural areas, and a conspicuous water bird. In addition, they had to have easy-to-recognize songs that were distinct from each other’s.
Once I got these criteria down, three species materialized out of my mental fog. What water bird is better known—and has a more distinctive call—than the Loon? And Europe has a parallel species. The urban bird had to be the Rock Dove, which is easily found in urban areas worldwide and has a call everybody knows. The rural species had to be the Red-Winged Blackbird, which is found in fields and wetlands across the North American continent and has a European equivalent in the Reed Bunting.
FQ: The pencil drawings were beautiful - were they done specifically for this book?
SONG: All of the artwork is original, and it took as long to complete as the book itself. Jennine Elberth (chapter-opening pieces), Kristine Scheiner (instructional illustrations), and I worked closely together, to achieve a high degree of word-image complementarity.
If I’d my druthers, Kristine and Jennine, along with the editors and publisher, would be listed on the front cover right along with me. We functioned as a family, and without the contribution of any one of us, Becoming Nature would not—and could not—be the book it is.
FQ: Storytelling was mentioned as a vital tool to develop you animal mind, was storytelling a major research tool for you for this book?
SONG: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” says poet Muriel Rukeyser. Whether it be the entire forest or a tiny bug within it, stories hold their blueprint for existence, stories give them purpose, and stories are the web that binds them together. Becoming Nature is one grand adventure story into that world. And into our animal mind, which brings us into oneness with the world.
Much of what I share in the book comes through storytelling. It was the prime tool the elders used for teaching me what I share today. The pack of Wolves I lived with taught me through story as well, and I learned from the stories I read in animal trails.
As a learning tool, stories work hand-in-hand with knowledge and experience. Reading is not enough, as it speaks mainly to our rational mind. And experience is not enough, as it is limited by what we can perceive. Stories pull it all together, then take us out onto our frontier, where we can be the full-fledged human animal we are. There, talking with animals comes naturally, and they are no longer afraid of us.
FQ: What step do you find people have the most trouble with?
SONG: It’s usually Step 4, which is escaping the time-media trap. This is perfectly understandable as we have intrinsic needs that need to be met, and we learned how to meet them through keeping track of time and using media as a stand-in we lost when we stepped out of nature.
Another issue is that we are creatures of habit and pattern. Around 98% of what we do is not conscious or by choice, but rather because we have done it before. This is a great survival strategy, as we would go crazy in short order if we had to consciously control every move we made.
The trick for escaping the trap is to first believe that nature can meet our needs, then establish new nature-based patterns that we will automatically revert to when the needs arise. For starters, this can be as simple as repositioning my desk to be near a window, so that when I need a distraction, I can look out and see what the birds and squirrels are doing in my backyard.
I have a friend in Brooklyn who lives in a sixth-floor apartment, yet she does the same. She has potted wildflowers on her balcony, which are visited by bees and butterflies. They in turn attract various birds. Pigeons nest on the nearby ledges, and a falcon occasionally swoops down to grab one for feeding her young.
FQ: When a person does start these steps, when is the usual time they begin to see success?
SONG: It’s beautiful to watch people light up when on Step 2 (Learning Silent Language of Birds) they realize that a bird is not just singing, but sharing a load of information. Through body language, where he chooses to perch, and choice and tone of his song, the bird is saying whether or not he has a mate, whether they have eggs or young, if there is a predator in the area, if there are competing males, and more.
People tell me they’ll never listen to birdsong again in the same way. This is their doorway to realizing the potential they have to develop a new relationship with nature. They start listening and seeing with more sensitivity, as they now realize that there is more—much more—going on than first meets the eye.
This is very rewarding for me. At that moment, I feel as though all the effort I put into writing and publishing Becoming Nature was worth it. Not only is someone’s quality of life much improved, but here is one more person who has crashed the man-nature barrier; one more person who will be nature’s lover and advocate.
FQ: Which one of your stories from this book have you found resonates with the most people?
SONG: Whenever I talk about how I came to live with a pack of wolves and the adventures we had together, people are fascinated. Wolves are an iconic symbol of the distant wilds, and nearly everybody who loves nature seems to recognize them as the warm, caring social creatures they are.
Instead of having to defend wolves and plead their case, I can share what it was like to be an intimate member of their pack. Very few people are surprised to hear that I could run and frolic with them in complete abandon. Many readers tell me that what the wolves taught me about moving silently as a shadow, listening deeply, and living as an integral part of nature, touches them deeply and inspires them to do the same. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
FQ: Is there a step you consistently have to work on?
SONG: There is one—Step 6: Enter the Silence, and it’s more that I am fascinated with the seemingly endless potential that this step holds for me. Zen masters call it entering the Void. It’s the place where we leave our egos and all of our attachments and expectations behind, and we become fully present, open, and sensitized beings. Along with Zen stories and koans, I use shamanic journeying tools (such as trance dance, fire, and drumming) to help me enter the silence.
If anyone would like to explore these options and learn how to use them, I have written two books on the topics: Zen Rising and Trance-Trauma Release.
FQ: What is the best aspect of teaching these steps to other people for you?
SONG: It is the sense of community that I feel when others join with the animals and me in nature. For me, it’s a spiritual experience to walk silently through the woods with a group of people who for the first time are seeing the animals they used to walk by and miss. The awe and sense of reverence that these newcomers to becoming nature portray gives the feeling that we are partaking in a sacred ceremony.