Down By The Riverside

Gonna lay down my burden…

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

Gonna lay down my sword and shield…

Took a walk by the Mukwonago River yesterday.  Heard lots of geese honking raucously, actually ridiculously.  “Sounds like a barnyard!”  I said, imagining donkeys braying and cows lowing.  Actually, there was a barnyard of sorts across the river.  On the slope leading to the water there were about a dozen white domestic geese.  All along the waters edge, there were wild Canada geese splashing about, enjoying the sunshine.   I wonder how they size each other up?  I wonder what their honking was all about?

We watched a video from the “Life” series, narrated by David Attenborough (our hero!) that featured footage of killer whales and leopard seals hunting.  I had seen a clip on the internet somewhere of killer whales tossing a seal around and many people commented about how cruel it was that they were playing with their unfortunate victim.  David Attenborough, narrating the scene of a leopard seal eating a penguin, described how it has to fling the body away from the piece its teeth are holding in order to rip off a manageable chunk of meat.   That made a lot of sense to me, and it dawned on me that the killer whales were probably doing the same thing.  Are non-human animals ever cruel, I wonder?   I’ve seen a real game of cat-and-mouse, but I’m not sure that’s about cruelty.  Then again, we have bred animals to demonstrate cruelty.  Fighting animals and hunting animals who attack other animals for reasons other than their own survival can be said to be cruel, I suppose.   Is it a human notion to cultivate violence for other ends, like status, power, sport and such?  Or do animals have that trait as well?

As I am typing this, a hawk has come to perch in the maple tree outside my bedroom window.  He is probably waiting for the sparrows and squirrels and cottontail rabbits that come to my garden chair looking for bread crumbs and popcorn kernels.   Here’s a shot I just took through my dingy window:

He’s still there, swiveling his head about, looking with his sharp eyes for his next meal.   It isn’t about war, it’s about food.  He takes no more than he needs.  What about us?  When we take more than we need, are we at war?  And what do we really need?

A sheltered place to bed down for the night


Fresh water, clean air, plants and sunshine

I don’t want to be burdened with war, status, power, ego or contention today.  I want to live like they live “down by the riverside”.  It seems peaceful and natural.  I could just watch this hawk all day….

12 thoughts on “Down By The Riverside

  1. I think cruelty must be deliberate and sadistic. IMO, animals simply respond to their natures. They don’t really have the same concept of life and death that we do.

  2. According to some dictionaries, “cruel” means both inflicting pain or suffering and inflicting pain without regard for the victim’s suffering. “Sadistic” refers to deriving pleasure from another’s suffering. Nature is cruel. Life is cruel. Animals can be cruel. Some behavior is sadistic.

    If you want to determine the sadistic pleasure of an act of cruelty, you have to rule out all species but mammals, since it requires a limbic system to understand that another creature is suffering. Sharks are cruel, but not sadistic. Killer whales certainly are cruel, and may be sadistic. I don’t know what rocks their socks. Their behavior is not simply instinctive, since they have a highly developed cerebral cortex. We have very little understanding of the inner lives of other species. Is there a glorious satisfaction of blood lust when a hunter brings down its prey? Chimpanzees wage aggressive battles against other chimpanzees and have been known to commit murder. Is that enjoyable? Is killing enjoyable to most human soldiers or murderers?

    In herd animals, it is common for only one stud to mate with an entire harem. The contests for power, status, and opportunity to mate can be ferociously violent. Juvenile males play violently to hone their skills and become ready to compete. Cruelty is an essential survival skill for them, and it could also be a pleasurable way to vent sexual frustration.

    Peace is fleeting, which is what makes it so precious. It comes in the moment of accepting what you cannot change. It is the sweet relief of catharsis. It is non-doing. There will always be war, status, power, ego and contention. What is human (maybe not uniquely) is the capacity to choose to sit by the river and be peaceful, despite all that. Thank you for sharing your river and your peace.

    • How would you, as a scientist, test for mammalian pleasure? Brain waves, hormone rushes? Any studies done on hunter mammals…even humans? Curious. Actually, I think I’ve heard of a violence research center at Harvard…well, there’s a Violence Research Foundation in California. “Behavioral endocrinologists” are working on understanding the inner lives of research rodents, anyway.

      • you can test potential pleasures for their motivating effects — and you can test neurotransmitter concentrations (dopamine, serotonin) in the brain — I’m not surprised that people are already looking into that kind of stuff.

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