This letter is about the ability of animals to ‘think’ in a distinctly human fashion.
Dear Marthe Kiley-Worthington,
I read your book "Eco-Agriculture" with great interest, particularly the question of whether, or rather how, animals think. I have long considered the only real difference between us and other animals is our ability to consider in the abstract; and that this ability, which probably began accidentally and has become something of a curse, is all that enabled us to get and stay "on top". However, when I kept animals some years ago I had two very strange experiences which seemed to suggest an intelligence that was almost human.
The first instance was when our geese, which were on a river, were shot at by our neighbour who thought they were wild. Only one pellet hit the target, and it apparently severed something vital in the neck of our gander because from that day on he couldn’t see. Or, at any rate, he gave that appearance. I had to wade into the river to get him back, and he was unaware of me until I touched him. Anyway, he managed to graze and even mate and he lived on uneventfully until one day when the river was in spate he fell in and got swept away. I saw all this happen as I was doing some fencing work at the time. The river was dangerous and I ran along beside him but certainly didn’t intend jumping in myself. One of our geese, however, ran along with me, did jump in, and during the course of the next hour, I followed along beside them as the gander swam around in helpless circles while she patiently tried to get him to go to the side.
In its way it was as involved a piece of rescue work as a dangling man at the end of a rope hanging from a helicopter trying to get a drowning man to do what he wanted. Patience prevailed and the gander was saved, without any intervention from me. How the goose did it, I don’t know. I don’t even know if it was silent, and just involved the endless little indications with her neck and beak that I could see. What baffles me still is how a goose, whose attention span seems so limited in some respects – though not, I suppose, when it comes to remaining sitting on her eggs – should have succeeded in maintaining an "idea" that was clearly not instinctive, and must have involved the relatively complicated abstract process of picturing a desired end result – the gander in safety on the bank – followed by the decision to get into the river herself to help bring this about. The decision must have been made on the basis of "seeing" the gander in the river, "recognising" he was helpless and in danger, "wanting" to help him, "knowing" what to do and "persisting" for nearly an hour with this before "succeeding" in carrying it out!
The second occasion involved our house cow and her calf. The calf had the habit of crossing the river, attracted by our neighbour’s herd of cows on the other side. Often I would go and get her, while the mother stood on our bank bellowing. One time, dusk was falling, I was busy, the mother was bellowing and I could see that her calf was almost a mile away, with the herd of cows, and showing no inclination of coming back on her own. I got my binoculars to check this out and was surpassed to see one cow from the herd repeatedly going up to our calf and nuzzling it in our direction. Several times the calf would begin to walk towards the river, with this cow following behind, just as if she was pushing it along, as I might have done; then the calf would change its mind, and run back to the herd, just as it had done with me on previous occasions; and the cow did what I had had to do, beginning again, in her case nuzzling the calf, edging it away from the other animals, heading it towards the river. This went on for a good half hour, during which time our house cow waited, occasionally bellowing, on our side of the river. Finally, the calf, followed by the cow from the herd, crossed the mile or so between us, until they stood together opposite our house cow. The calf remained hesitant, and it wasn’t until it had been repeatedly but gently "pushed" down the bank – again, exactly what I had had to do on other occasions – that it plucked up the courage to cross the river and be reunited with its mum. It wasn’t until she could see the calf suckling that the cow on the other side of the river – whose own calf had presumably been taken away from her at birth – turned and went back to her herd. Again, I was astonished that this cow should have "known" what was wrong, should have "decided" what to do, and should have persisted in doing it for half an hour or more.
You mention in your book about setting up an Eco-farm in a developing country. I have a potential opportunity for you! About twenty years ago my family bought some land in the Seychelles. It was always used as grazing by a neighbour until the mid 1980’s. Two years ago I got permission to develop it as a fruit/livestock farm. My ideas were based on Permaculture principles: lots of trees, producing fruit, for both humans and animals. We went out there last year, but due to a mix up over land ownership, we weren’t able to do anything so returned to England. Although it may take some time, it now seems we are going to have the land vested back in our name, and that this is going to be made conditional on using it for agriculture.
Agriculture in Seychelles began with settlers from France cutting down most of what was left of the endemic forest and creating plantations of coconut trees. The high land suffers from erosion and the low land from what I would call "percolation" – i.e., all the organic matter simply drains through the sand, once the root webs and leaf fall of the original trees is gone. The last twenty years have seen a quasi Marxist government with lots of State farms trying to emulate modern European agricultural practices with fertiliser applications and large scale vegetable growing and battery houses for chickens and pigs, etc. Meanwhile, more and more fruit and vegetables have to be imported from Kenya and South Africa, and on the island of Praslin, where our land is, agriculture is in a parlous state.
Walking around our land shows the decline in soil fertility. The section near the beach, which hasn’t lost any trees, has soil that is dark brown in colour and remains full of humus right up to the edge of the white sand. Standing there on a hot day one is wonderfully shaded; it is a small forest environment. Further back, there is a large area where all the trees have been cut down – mostly old coconut and casuerina – some of which has been planted to a fodder crop rather like sugarcane, which is cut and used for feeding cattle. Each successive crop of this grass gets yellower and yellower and the land itself, while supporting a matted form of rough grass which is grazed directly by cattle where this special grass is not cultivated, is a greyish/white sand. Next to this block is an area of untouched casuerina plantation which, again, is like a forest; and the soil is dark brown and crumbly to a good depth.
Growing vegetables is a problem since it is difficult to do that beneath trees and as soon as an area is cleared the soil starts to lose fertility. Some Seychellois create "raised beds" – literally – by building platforms out of wood which look rather like trestle tables. Most Seychellois, however, just do without vegetables! Fruit is a different matter, since it is almost always tree fruit and trees seem to grow easily; however, the time lapse between planting and harvesting – although paw-paw, banana, passion fruit etc. only take a year – means few people bother. It is so much easier – or if it isn’t actually easier, it is certainly more acceptable, especially for a people who I suspect find tilling the ground unpleasantly reminiscent of their slave ancestry – to earn the money elsewhere and buy imported fruit, usually apples and oranges from South Africa. Almost all local fruit comes from trees planted many years ago the majority of which are too far from the ground to be harvested.
My feelings have changed a little since living in Seychelles while waiting to get started on this project only to run into apparently insurmountable problems on the land ownership issue; I no longer want to do this on my own. Our family are uninterested, at least in the short term, in any thought of selling their land, but they would be quite happy to consider a form of lease, or partial lease, or any other arrangement, if you were interested in any way in setting up an Eco-farm in what are, I can assure you, very beautiful surroundings, and amongst people who, if not African in nature, are certainly not likely to be as negative minded as those you encountered on Mull!
Please treat this letter and its contents as lightly as you like. It simply represents my passing thoughts after reading your book. Incidentally, during our last month on Praslin – April 1993 – we met an Austrian who had imported his horses onto the island, a mare, a stallion and a foal, I think – very fine looking animals – with the idea of setting up some sort of tourist related enterprise. Unfortunately, he had omitted to obtain a work permit first! So there we were, with our work permit to farm, but no land, and there he was, with his horses, having to rent the land he was using for grazing – very similar plateau land to ours – but no permission to "use" the horse. (On La Digue and Mahe, the other two inhabited island, there are also horses, mostly used for tourist trekking, I think.)
I could go into more detail if you wanted. I would, by the way, be keen to know how your student training scheme works; and whether it is possible to visit your farm.