Mary Rose O’Reilley
A Hermeneutics of Silence
In my various roles as child, agriculture student, farmhand, wildlife rehabilitator, environmental writer and so forth, I’ve paid attention to animals. But never enough. It’s hard to bring back information from that realm because it has to be conveyed in one or another dialect of silence. I stammer between words, worlds.
But ask the animals and they will teach you, or the birds of the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you (Job 12, 6-8.)
How seriously might we take this injunction? And why?
It seemed to me, some years ago, that the way to find out was to go to the woods and find some animals, some birds. It seemed like a good idea to speak to the earth. In my Quaker community, people were trying to envision a spirituality grounded in the natural world. Eating local, in the religious sense.
But elsewhere in my life, I was studying comparative religion at a Catholic university where this conversation could quickly be dismissed as pantheism.
One day in Hermeneutics, my theology professor set us an interpretive task. We had to examine and compare two creation stories. One was the Genesis account. Another was a Native American story that featured a fox, speaking his mind to an audience of humans. The professor asked me what I thought of the fox. I was caught off-guard. He’d lost me at “cosmogonic myth.”
I ventured that it seemed comforting to have a god right there in the landscape, instead of so far away in the sky.
My response did not please the professor. Did I privilege a fox over the God of Genesis? Our God is in the sky and he is the best God.
“But . . .” My stammering began.
I’m thinking about Francis Bernadone, that scampy son of the local cloth merchant: he grew up to be St. Francis of Assisi. You may know him as a garden statue, birds settling on his stone fingers. Francis had a deep connection to animal creation. When men and women wandered away from his sermons, for example, he’d preach to the birds.
After Francis died, the friars of his order collected many stories of his relations with the animal world in a book that came to be called the Fioretti.
An archetypal story from the Fioretti begins this way: “In the days when St. Francis abode in the city of Gubbio, a huge wolf, terrible and fierce, appeared in the neighborhood, and not only devoured animals but men also; in such wise that the citizens went in great fear of their lives.”
This opening sentence introduces a recurring problem in our human conversation with wildlife. We’re in a neighborhood. The human actors are citizens. My old copy of the Fioretti is illustrated with woodcuts, featuring a walled medieval city. Francis stands outside on a stretch of prairie, intermediary in a collision between urban and rural values.
For Francis, in compassion for the townsfolk, has “issued forth” and gone alone into the wilderness. The wolf predictably jumps him, but Francis makes the sign of the cross and commands him in the name of Christ to back off. Immediately the animal snaps his jaws shut and lies down at the saint’s feet.
Francis’s subsequent address to the wolf is worth quoting at length:
“Friar Wolf, thou workest much evil in these parts, and hast wrought
grievous ill, destroying and slaying God’s creatures without His
leave; and not only hast thou slain and devoured the beasts of the
field, but thou hast dared to destroy and slay men made in the image
of God; wherefore thou art worthy of the gallows as a most wicked
thief and murderer: all folk cry out and murmur against thee, and
all this city is at enmity with thee. But, friar wolf, fain would I make
peace with them and with thee, so that thou injure them no more; and
they shall forgive thee all thy past offences, and neither man nor dog
shall pursue thee more.” Now, when St. Francis had spoken these
words, the wolf, moving his body and tail and his ears, and bowing
his head, made signs that he accepted what had been said, and would
So much to think about here, beyond the casual assumption of Christian stewardship: the curious fact that wolves and other animals—miscreant cows, even—used to be tried in court and punished along with human convicts. The psychological resonance: how the wolf functions (and always has in folklore) as a shadow figure behind human enterprise. Ethology: I admire the closely observed details of canid submission. There is a kind of socio-economic reading we could attempt in which the animal undercuts hegemonic stability.
Francis Bernadone was a rebellious son of the rising bourgeoisie, which makes this latter reading especially piquant. In defiance of his father’s values, the wealthy young saint-to-be had, at the beginning of the mission, thrown off his velvet clothing in the marketplace of Assisi and run naked. The story draws a dichotomy between the walled city and encroaching nature that would have pleased Cotton Mather in his day.
Francis is, in the human psyche—mine, anyway—a medial figure. He represents the best of something I think we are called to transcend. I smile at Francis’s kumbaya moment of holding paws with the wolf, but my training forbids me to honor it.
I studied wildlife rehabilitation with a fierce veterinarian whose ethic was “Save everything. Tame nothing.” We even saved mice and cockroaches, although the more predatory animals usually got to them first. But there would be no paw-holding. Apprentices were fired summarily for the infraction we referred to in the break room as “caught petting.”
My veterinarian mentor would have seen domestication as a bad outcome for Friar Wolf. Here’s how the story ends:
And the said wolf lived two years in Gubbio, and was wont to enter
like a tame creature into the houses from door to door, doing hurt to
no one and none doing hurt to him. And he was kindly fed by the
people; and as he went about the city never a dog barked at him. At
last, after two years friar wolf died of old age; whereat the citizens
The Fioretti models benign dominance. It makes me sad: the wolf going from door to door with its head hanging, dependent. Part of me wants him to take out a few burghers.
I used to work at an environmental learning center in northern Minnesota. The naturalists there wanted to get a radio collar on every wolf in Dodge. These were the terms of our collaboration. These had to be the terms. The collars extended a level of protection to the wolves in our contested space.
But many of us felt a nagging doubt about the collars. When you work with animals and live reflectively in a place with poor TV reception, it’s possible to slip unconsciously over to their “side.”
My friend David, who farms up there, lost the family dog, Banjo, to the wolves. He consoled his children: “Now Banjo’s part of the Ridge. When you hear that howl in the night, think about Banjo running with the pack.”
I felt pretty much the same about an experienced outdoorsman who was eaten by scavengers up near Ely, after he died of hypothermia. The coroner deduced hypothermia from the fact that the man had removed his clothing and gone for what seemed an ecstatic dance in the wilderness. We all chose to interpret the data this way. Hypothermia makes you irrational, hot and full of energy. You make bad decisions but they seem mystically correct.
My friends and I thought this was not a bad way to go, though others disagree.
“Ask the animals …” These days I live in the woods on a rural island in Puget Sound and answer to a solitary vocation not exactly of my choosing.
When first I found myself in this unfamiliar ecosystem, I tried to learn as much as I could about the locals—orca, harbor seal—and eventually I qualified as a beach naturalist. Now I have a badge and a khaki vest with many pockets and I wander among visitors at our historic lighthouse, teaching them about anemones and sea stars, moon jellies and species of crab.
One hot beach festival day I came upon a boy of five or six poking a stick into the delicate mouth-part of Epiactis ritteri, who is a cool Cnidarian. I had been drawn to this anemone—about whom I’d recently given a class presentation—by its beauty and the Byronic charm of its common name: Internal Brooding Anemone.
“Hey, that’s its mouth,” I told the boy.
It’s also his anus and he’s a hermaphrodite, but save that for later.
My eyes rolled around looking for parents. The mom stormed up and punched the child hard in the stomach. “How do you like it?” she said.
I was overwhelmed by nausea, as if I had taken the hit myself, and I didn’t look forward to throwing up in the porta-potty. Some days I feel so implicated in a cycle of violence and incomprehension that I can’t function, think straight, or pray.
The boy had already gone back to hurting things.
Noam Chomsky called ours “a lethal mutation.”
Ivan Illich was another of my teachers, a saturnine, dramatic Jesuit. In 1963, he was preparing a bunch of us to do missionary work in Latin America. Liberation theology was just getting a hold.
He strode into our classroom in a flapping black cape.
“You can’t be decontaminated,” was his opening. “It’s impossible to decontaminate a North American. The best I hope for you is that if you think you are helping somebody you’ll fall at their feet and ask them to teach you.”
I wonder, could we live with animals this way? I have no particular agenda in asking this question—not animal rights, not Pheasants Forever—beyond abiding, paying attention.
I came here to the island on a four-month retreat that got out of hand. In retrospect, what was nagging at me was the remark a friend had made when I came home from another sabbatical in a different woods ten years or so before. I told him I’d left when I started to think I could understand the language of the animals.
“You missed your big chance,” he told me.
OK. I’m back, hoping that fox from my theology class will come out of the woods.
What prayer does the wilderness teach us? Living deeply in nature “reminds us that what we long for and what we fear are already within us, ” Belden Lane wrote in The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. Or, in Henry David Thoreau’s words, we need to have our limits transgressed.
A forest, with its implacability, opposes the ego and human drama. At first I looked at cedar and fir day after day wanting to shout, “How can you just stand there while I am in this quandary?” And then, after awhile, the trees lend the human observer their stability. I can’t just now recapture what quandary I was in.
Living in the woods is like being a child in a community of steady, long-lived elders. Day after day the forest ignores me and by its stable indifference calls me to deepen my silence.
It’s easy for me to see experientially why Francis called the animals “brother” and “sister.” It wasn’t an affectation. I live now amidst a family of young deer whose inexperienced and often dangerous behaviors mirror my own. We ponder the available mushrooms. Prudence checks my hand, but the fawns often die of their curiosity. We graze together on blackberries so abundant that in August the whole island exudes the smell of their fermentation. I wouldn’t be surprised to meet the fawns in Thriftway. I did once find a young donkey there, befuddled in the feminine products aisle. Some kind of festival was going on in the parking lot, from whence he had strayed.
But mostly here we meet animals on their terms.
My city friends want to know what the hell is going on and I say “I’m abiding.” They don’t understand. I don’t understand.
What do I mean? That I haven’t figured out my vocation yet—the vocation of this particular time of life—and I need more quiet, and more again. That my relationship with wilderness in general and the animals in particular is up for grabs. I feel the need for a philosophical framework in which to ask the questions. I sat around this morning reading Paul Ricoeur, if that gives you some sense of how ill-equipped I am to face the darkness of the forest.
Paul Ricoeur is perhaps an alternative to grief. We humans instinctively take mourning to the woods. Thoreau’s losses were archetypal: a hound, a bay horse, a brother. Our houses are poor containers for suffering. Our bodies are poor containers. We have to query a larger space: call that prayer.
I don’t comfortably identify as a Christian, or as a Buddhist (or as a vegetarian or a Liberal)—identities slow me down—though my longest abiding has been in Thich Nhat Hanh’s community in Southern France. Yet I am trying to draw a parallel between the way prayer takes us out of ourselves and the way it’s possible and prudent to surrender to the natural world.
The Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan summed up the object of our quest as being-in-love, and he said that what we are in love with is something we have to find out. I have sensed this eros, running through the grass.
For some of us, solitude is archetypal necessity. It takes us into the crux of our longing. Loneliness permits paradoxical feelings to arise, notably, connection, compassion and protection. I know people on this island, some homeless by chance and some by intent, who will never again willingly sleep inside. They feel safe in their sleeping bags in the deer hollows. They don’t live in a neighborhood; they are not citizens.
The anthropologist David Abrams recalls that humans once lived in a field of connection to all creation: the very act of breathing communicated with other beings the quality of the day. Anyone who lives a long time in the woods begins to turn inside out, loosening the psyche from its confinement in a strictly human sphere.
I think that if Francis of Assisi lived today he’d be sleeping in the forest. The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin believed that creation continues to evolve (animal behaviorists like Frans de Waal argue that animals are doing very well at evolution, learning the tasks assigned—their intelligence not deficient, but other). The Vedanta teaches that the path you’re called to is one you follow through many incarnations. Most jobs are too big for one lifetime.
We are a lethal mutation, we can’t be decontaminated—perhaps—but I stand in the tide in my green boots and watch strategies of renewal and regeneration evolve, as it seems, under my gaze. Epiactis ritteri has figured out how to live some 500 years, morphing and shape-shifting among gender identities, slickly defeating small boys. Beauty that lives forever. An anemone was documented in a Scottish laboratory from the eighteenth century through the 1960’s, when a janitor accidentally desalinized its water.
We don’t know from what direction our help will come. As Loren Eiseley wrote, “There are things down there still coming ashore.”
That keeps me here, wading in the Sound. I think that if I learn anything important, I will not be able to speak about it.
Mary Rose O’Reilley’s first book of poetry, Half Wild (Louisiana State University Press, 2006) won the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, judged by Mary Oliver. Her second, Earth, Mercy, came out from LSU in 2013. She is the author of two books of nonfiction: The Love of Impermanent Things: A Threshold Ecology and The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd, both published by Milkweed Editions. Retired from university teaching, she lives on an island in Puget Sound and works as a potter, musician, and urban homesteader.