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Reflections on King Solomon's Ring
 while Riding an Aged Lawnmower

Bill Meredith

There was never a king like Solomon,
Not since the world began.
Yet Solomon talked to a butterfly
As a man would talk to a man
                        Rudyard Kipling

Several years ago I came into possession of a riding mower that had been built the mid-1970s. I would not have been able to afford it when it was new, but some of its previous owners had not maintained it very well, and it became affordable when it would no longer run in reverse. Upon studying the owner's manual I discovered that it had separate clutches for forward and reverse, and a cursory inspection revealed that the reverse one was worn out. With the help of painstaking explanations from an unusually patient dealer, I was able to install the new clutch myself. It only involved removing four bolts and inserting the new parts in the same pattern as the old ones, but for someone of my mechanical ability it was a triumph. In one operation I gained an excellent mower and a topic to brag about.

Since then, each year has seen a series of minor breakdowns which resulted in some inconvenience and added to my ego's list of triumphs. But finally the inevitable happened; when I went to start the mower this spring I found a pool of oil on the garage floor under it. This called for major surgery. The dealer diagnosed a worn-out bearing somewhere inside the machine, and provided an estimate of the cost. He explained that it was only a few hours' work, but finding the parts would be a problem. Shaking his head, he said, "These things were built like tanks, and they practically never wore out, so after 30 years no one keeps parts on hand. It may take several weeks to find them." I looked at the estimate, glanced over at the price tags on the new mowers in the showroom, gulped, and told him to do the best he could.

The grass grew with enthusiasm this spring, but walking behind the backup mower proved stressful to an arthritic knee; so mowing the lawn was put off each week until the grass began to resemble the rough in the British Open. One day late in May, trudging behind the mower in the front yard, I was startled by an explosion of fur as it went through a thick patch of grass. I knew instantly what it was: I had hit a rabbit's nest. I stopped immediately and scanned the area for fragmented body parts, but found none. Evidently the female rabbit had dug a shallow depression in the ground and filled it with fur before delivering her brood, and it was low enough to allow the mower to pass over it without hitting the actual nest chamber. I could see movement in the nest, but decided not to investigate; I knew what was in there. Baby rabbits are born blind, covered with short, black hair, and for the first week of life their movements are too uncoordinated to find their way back to the nest if removed from it. If they were injured, there was nothing I could do to fix them; if they were unharmed, the mother would return and tend to them if the nest was not contaminated by the scent of my sweaty hands.

This judgment proved correct. The old mower was back in action by the following week, and when I drove past the nest a tiny rabbit hopped out. Less than three weeks old, it was about four inches long; it had attained its coat of brown fur, its eyes were alert, and its hind legs were of kangaroo-like proportions. Following the ancient instructions pre-wired into its brain, it "froze" about a foot from the nest. It remained there while I finished mowing, ignoring the noise of the 30-year-old engine, apparently presuming itself to be invisible as long as it didn't move.

The seat of a lawnmower is a wonderful site from which to ponder the great questions of the world, and as I clattered about the yard for the next hour the rabbit occupied my mind. Had it possessed human logic, it would have realized it would be more invisible if it stayed in the nest instead of hopping out and freezing. It is probably impossible to know what goes on in a rabbit's brain, but one thing we do know is that human logic is not present there. I was well into my formal education before I learned this, and my mind naturally wandered back to the beginning of the process.

When I was 3 years old I could recite the stories of Uncle Wiggly and Peter Rabbit verbatim. I did not doubt that animals thought and felt as I did, and spoke to each other in a language that had a vocabulary and syntax just like English; in fact, one of my ambitions was to figure it out. We had an assortment of dogs that could do tricks and obey commands to bring in the cows, pigs that grunted with delight when their backs were scratched, and a pony that could open gates and turn doorknobs with its mouth; obviously they all engaged in reasoning, emotions and intelligent thought. I had a toy farm with a cardboard barn and rubber animals that talked with each other when I played with them, just like Black Beauty in Anna Sewell's book. One day I caught a baby rabbit that had "frozen" just out of its nest; I fed it milk from an eyedropper and plantain from the yard, and it seemed to understand that its new home was the toy barn. It died after a few days and was buried in a solemn ceremony while the various other animals, rubber or real, stood by in mourning.

When I took a course in Animal Behavior in graduate school, I learned that attributing human qualities of thought and feeling to animals is called anthropomorphism, and is tantamount to cardinal sin. Soon after that I read a book entitled King Solomon's Ring. The title of the book was taken from the legend that King Solomon had a magical ring which enabled him to speak to animals and command them to do his bidding; the author, Konrad Lorenz, was one of the greatest students of animal behavior. He devoted his career to understanding how animals communicate. His most famous discovery was the process of imprinting, by which newly hatched birds recognize whatever they see in the hours after hatching as their mother; by hatching goose eggs in his lab (in an incubator… he didn't sit on them himself), he found the goslings followed him around and ignored adult geese. This discovery led to many others, like those featured in TV specials about teaching endangered birds like Whooping Cranes to migrate by following a small airplane. He found that while communication does exist, most animal actions arise from inherited brain patterns, and they have nothing comparable to human logic.

Lorenz's book and my graduate course dated from the 1950's. Since then, people like Jane Goodall have found that chimpanzees and other apes have some learning and problem-solving abilities, and modern electronic recording equipment has revealed surprisingly complex forms of communication in birds. We know these forms of behavior are mainly inherited and modified only slightly by learning in all but the most advanced mammals, and it is still a fundamental rule in science that anthropomorphism is a mistake. But it is still hard to talk about animals, especially pets, without being anthropomorphic.

I think we knew this back on the farm. All of the sheep, pigs and chickens had names, and talking to them as if they understood encouraged us children to treat them kindly, even though we knew we would have many of them for dinner. So I have concluded that while anthropomorphism is bad science, it may be useful in raising children. My grandchildren have grown up on a steady diet of Peter Rabbit, Uncle Wiggly, Old Possum's Book of Plain and Fancy Cats, and Charlotte's Web, and they're all turning out pretty well.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith