Photo by Joby Joseph (Creative Commons)
Do animals other than humans have the capacity to appreciate beauty? I’d be surprised if they didn’t. There are, after all, elephants who have learned to paint, which seems to be simply an extension of a natural impulse to draw: “Unprompted, an Asian elephant in captivity will often pick up a pebble or stick with the tip of her trunk and casually doodle on the floor of her enclosure.” It’s hard to imagine how improvisational singers such as mockingbirds or brown thrashers could produce compelling sequences without a strong instinct for what sounds good with what. But I’ve always considered mourning doves to be kind of brainless, for some reason, so I was a little surprised this morning to observe two pairs of them apparently watching the sunrise. One pair was already perched in the top of a tall locust tree at the edge of the woods when I came out onto the porch, and another flew up to a lower branch shortly afterwards. Neither pair stirred for the next twenty minutes, as the rising sun bathed the western ridge in red and orange light below the setting moon.
You have to understand that it was cold this morning — 10 degrees Fahrenheit, or -12C — and there were plenty of other places they could have perched which would’ve provided much more shelter. And they were facing into the wind.
Of course, that’s only four doves out of a flock of several dozen; most of the others were, I presume, already pigging out on cracked corn below the bird feeders up at the main house. Lord knows, they probably needed the calories. But maybe, as with humans, it’s only a small percentage of the flock who prioritize aesthetic experience over more basic urges.
Then again, the doves watching the sunrise were doing so as couples, so really, it might all be part of extended courtship or pair-bonding behavior. And who’s to say which urges are the most basic, really? Aesthetic response is, after all, pretty integral to the whole mate-selection process. If females didn’t use aesthetic cues when choosing a mate, sexual dimorphism wouldn’t be nearly as widespread as it is in the animal kingdom (though competition for mates apparently isn’t the whole reason why one sex — usually the male — is more colorful or larger than the other, and mourning doves themselves are not highly dimorphic). The hunger for beauty registers in the body as well as the mind, and is so much a part of the way we experience being in the world that it hardly seems possible to isolate an aesthetic impulse from among the whole range of animal instincts.
Incidentally, if you’ve been enjoying The Morning Porch, here are a few other blogs where brevity is key to the aesthetic effect:
- a small stone, by British poet Fiona Robyn
- Once around the park, Clare Grant’s 30-word descriptions of her daily walks in Tunbridge Wells, UK
- Three Beautiful Things, by the same author
box elder Out with Mol, where Lucy Kempton has also recently begun writing 30-word posts [updated 2/3/08 to link to Lucy’s new blog, spun off from box elder]
- Now’s the time, Joe Hyam’s daily “three things” blog
- tinywords, “the world’s smallest magazine, publishing one new haiku nearly every weekday since late 2000”
- The Natural History of Selborne — not the text of the first-ever synoptic nature book, but the raw material from which it was made: Gilbert White’s journals. The entries are rarely longer than thirty words.
Tom Montag’s “Lines” series of poems from The Middlewesterner are also almost always very brief. I’ve been collecting my favorite posts from other Twitter-users here. And finally, qarrtsiluni‘s Short Shorts issue from July-August 2006, which featured prose and poetry of 100 words or less, is fun to revisit now and then.