Above my bed hangs a portrait of a buffalo. I also have a small buffalo on my desk, pushing resolutely ahead as I work.
Why do I have these items? Because they remind me of the larger world of nature I come from.
Being isolated from the natural world is one of the worst things for men. There is a reason that men who work with animals — ranchers, farmers, cowboys, fishing guides — are usually considered more masculine and generally seem more healthy, both mentally and physically.
Relationships to animals restore us to our natural relationships to ourselves. The remind us that we are animals too, natural parts of Creation, and we have responsibilities to our fellow living beings.
The behavior of animals can also give us clues as to how we should behave. They display characteristic strengths and virtues that we would do well to emulate. This is a big part of why most aboriginal cultures choose an animal “totem” or animal and include them in rituals — this helps them connect to and align with the strength and power that flows through the natural world.
What animal(s) are you naturally drawn to? Consider it — and consider what virtues they embody. If it feels appropriate, place small totems or photos of this animal around your house and workspace to remind you of the cardinal virtues you want to live.
The mighty American buffalo (or bison) once numbered millions on the plans of North America until it was hunted almost to extinction by white settlers, crashing from 30 million to just 1,091 by 1889. Due to restoration work, about 500,000 buffalo now exist, but most are cross-bred with cows and held in commercial livestock pens. The number of unfenced and disease free buffalo are only around 5,000.
Bison are extremely well-suited for the wild swings of temperature on the great plains. In the winter, their powerful necks allow them to dig through multiple feet of dense snowdrifts to reach grass below. The herd leaders also use their massive neck muscles and low-slung heads as plows to break a path through the snow so the calves and elderly can follow.
I follow the bison because they do not give up. Although ecologically extinct — as some would say the “gentleman” is — they still exist, persist, and live out their lives, placing one hoofed foot in front of the other, no matter the weather.
Anyone who’s spent time around goats knows they are nothing if not tenacious, rambunctious, and deeply irreverent.
Mountain goats (which actually belong to the antelope family) are another example of an animal that makes more from less, often seen perching on impossible-to-see footholds and virtually defying gravity by leaping from crevice to crevice above soaring chasms.
When I watch these magnificent creatures, I remind myself: find a toehold. A tiny one will do. Then find the next one. And the next.
Fun Fact: you can tell the age of a goat by counting the rings on it’s horns (just like a tree!)
Corvidae (Crows, Ravens)
The crow or raven is an underappreciated bird. Unique among birds in its jet-black color — which is biologically difficult to produce — the crow is an intensely social bird. Not only do they live in “murders” (groups) of up to thousands of animals, they have been observed gathering around a single dead crow in patterns that are eerily similar to human wakes. They are extremely talkative, with over 250 different “calls”, and extremely smart, forming tight-knit families and mating for life.
Crows are also known to remember individual humans faces, follow, stalk and repeatedly harass individual humans who have caused trouble for crows in the past — and they seem to have some way of passing this information on, as other crows will gradually join in the mocking of a single human.
Crows evidently also have a sense of humor. For example: they have been known to steal lunch from a group of golfers, and then bomb them with the empty sandwich bag three holes later on. (For more of these outrageously true stories, pick up Unseen City by Nathanael Johnson).
A smart, social, large-group collective of sarcastic birds offers a useful reflection on human life: we must never take ourselves too seriously, and we must never let ourselves be isolated.
Fun Fact: most people know the term “murder of crows” but fewer people have heard of an “unkindness of ravens”. (Groups of ravens are also called a “congress”.)
Although the male lion is usually associated with strength, pride, courage and known as “king of the savannah”, lions are actually a matriarchal society. Females live together in groups for life, and hunt together in packs while the males stay home.
The lifelong sisterhood forms the basis of the “pride”, the basic unit of the lion’s social structure, usually numbering between 15 and 40 members.
Basically, in a lion family, the women go out and get food, while the men lie around napping all day, protecting the kids. Sounds like a good deal to me.
Although a mysterious and often ill-omened bird, the owl is one of my favorites, for the simple reason that it is a model of nature’s efficiency: a silent, ruthless killer.
Equipped with magnificent night-penetrating binocular vision and serrated wing feathers, it glides noiselessly through the night, as penetrating as a stealth bomber, killing silently and without remorse.
It is also one of the oldest vertebrates, with fossils dating back 60 million years, largely unchanged, demonstrating the perfection of the form.
This cute and cuddly assassin is often associated with wisdom, as in the case of the Greek goddess Athena, who choose the owl as her symbol because of the “inner light” that allowed it to see at night.
One of the Chinese word for owls is “xiao“, which is also synonymous with ferocity and bravery in battle.
If I were a military operator — or a pilot — I would take the owl as my “totem” animal, for all these reasons. The owl reminds us of the power of equipping oneself perfectly for one’s chosen task, seeing deeply into a problem, and then — when the timing is perfect — striking ruthlessly and without mercy.
Fun Fact: A group of owls is called a “parliament.”
Although constantly vaunted for their memory and intelligence, I actually think elephants show us the deeper cardinal virtue of love.
Much has been written about how elephants mourn their dead, care for each other, and even introduce new members of their family to the human families they live near — but you cannot really grasp this until you’re exposed to the real stories of a real family of African elephants.
For this, I cannot recommend highly enough the book Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, founder of the Thula Thula game reserve in Zululand, South Africa.
Elephants have the largest brain of any land animal. Despite being sentient, social and empathetic, elephants are constantly being slaughtered by humans. Elephant numbers have dropped by 62% over the last decade, and they could be mostly extinct by the end of the next decade. An estimated 100 African elephants are killed each day by poachers seeking ivory, meat and body parts.
P.S. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am a monthly supporter of Chengata Wildlife, which provides training and support for anti-poaching efforts in the Mali-Sahel region of North Africa.
It’s tough being a tiger mom. The family unit consists of a mother and a litter of 3-4 cubs, of which half will not survive past two years. Dad doesn’t stick around, so tiger moms do what they have to do.
Tiger hunts are only successful about 10% of the time, and the species has been hunted to near extinction, with numbers crashing 96% over the last decade — from over 100,000 in the wild to just 3,800 or so today. Every part of the tiger — from whiskers to tail — is traded in the illegal black markets.
Three subspecies of tigers have been hunted to extinct already (Caspian, Javan, and Balinese) and the rest are endangered. There are currently more tigers kept as pets today than exist in the wild.
To help, donate to Save Tigers Now, a World Wildlife Foundation project aimed at doubling the number of tigers in the wild by 2022.
If we can’t bring ourselves to care about our brothers and sisters on the savannah and jungle, then we are truly lost as men.
If we allow these magnificent animals to be poached and starved into extinction, we will have lost the moral standing we owned as stewards of the earth, as guardians of the ecological commonwealth.
I hope you’ll join me in caring for these, our brothers and sisters on the Earth. It is the calling of Fierce Gentlemen and Ladies everywhere.
Also published on Medium.