14 September 2011

How They Know

During a long-ago sabbatical I began to bake bread at home. For several years prior, I had used the ubiquitous bread machines to produce my loaves, but the luxury of the sabbatical and my re-reading of Thoreau’s Walden inspired me to learn how to bake bread from scratch and by hand. Well, almost: I do have a Kitchen-Aid appliance, and though originally I hand-kneaded the dough, I soon discovered that the machine did it better than I ever could. I justified the decision by acknowledging that if Golde, Tevye’s wife, had a Kitchen-Aid appliance, she would certainly have appreciated the ease with which it mixed and kneaded her dough and relieved her from the back-breaking work of preparing the bread. She would have used the Kitchen-Aid without question!

So for almost twelve years now I have baked most of the bread for the household, and for the most part, my output is much more than passable and considerably less than bakery-quality.

And there are left over quite often the heels of the loaves, and sometimes we do not eat enough bread during the week and the bread goes stale. Occasionally I employ another labor-saving device that Golde might have appreciated—the food processor—and I make bread crumbs, but usually I give the left over bread to the birds. I serve them meals in the mornings and the evenings, when I am active in the kitchen. Mostly crows are my biggest customers. I step out of my backdoor at dawn or at dusk, my arms filled with bread to feed the birds. The backyard is always empty and where we live, the day is always quiet. But suddenly, from somewhere, a crow caws vigorously, and the call is followed soon by a like response, and in no time there is a great deal of squawking amongst the trees, and these big, dark birds start flying into the trees immediately in the backyard continuing their call and response. I return to the house and the birds descend onto the lawn where the crumbs have been scattered and they partake of the feast. I think they do not discriminate between my various breads; they seem to enjoy them all. The crows don’t even seem to mind the bread than has gone a bit moldy, and they seem quite fond of pizza crusts, because yes, I also make my own pizzas.

But what puzzles me is how they know I am even there. The first caw does not occur in the immediate vicinity of my backyard; often the bird seems dozens of yards distant. And if I have stepped out of the back door and the birds are sitting in a tree towards the front yard, then how do they know I have left the house at all. They do not respond if anyone else exits the door—only at my appearance does the conversation begin. And if the birds rest atop the trees dozens of yards away, how do they know it is I who have arrived with my armful of bread. And what exactly are they calling out to their fellow diners?

Animals know something even if we don’t recognize their knowledge. And if they have consciousness beyond my ken, then to what else out there am I not privy? How much goes outside my understanding? The possibilities give me hope.


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