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September 19, 2007
In my in box -- a photograph of a Fisher's Lovebird, who is bright green with a brilliant orange head and lives in Africa. My correspondent has returned from a trip to Africa, and is sharing out her pictures sparingly, which makes them even more wonderful. She asks us to imagine a tree full of these birds -- I'm not sure my heart could take it. I might die of my own delight. The other day she sent one of a giraffe's head against a blue sky, his lowered eyes and comical mouth making him look like he's just received a lovely compliment and is too modest to meet our gaze. And yesterday, several of a group of hippos taking a communal bath. And a baby elephant, knee high to the adults among whom he stands.

Wherever we live, the animals we know well are miracles -- all animals are, even we human ones. But it is wonderful to see those native to other places, animals I will never encounter here, in the wilds of New Jersey. So many things we'd never see, if it weren't for the technology of the photograph and the other technologies it has spawned. Say what we will about television, it has shown us things in nature we would never behold: great cats stalking their prey by night, the great apes in their colonies; Kimodo dragons, the dinosaurs of our age; transparent fish who live so deep in the sea they have no need of eyes because there is nothing to see.

We are better humans if we pay attention to other species. It keeps us humble, helps us remember that our own aggressive cognition isn't the only kind of intelligence there is, that other animals have ways of knowing completely beyond us. Other animals remind us of our own ephemeral nature; none of us are here forever, and all of us have a cycle of life that includes both a beginning and an end. Our departure from the scene is not an outrage. It's normal.

What is true of me as an individual is also true of my race. Of all the species on earth, our own is probably the most dispensable. We'd have a hard time, very soon, if all one-celled animals and plants were suddenly to disappear, but they'd be perfectly fine without us.

"Life on earth," we say, when we worry about the future. "Life as we know it," we say then, correcting ourselves slightly. Life on earth will survive our depredations. It's life "as we know it" that will not: life as we have known it, the life we have made, the world we have fashioned, a world capable of extinguishing its makers.

We don't have to go down that road. We can make "life as we know it" different from what it is now. More than other animals, we have the capacity for choice about what we will "know." The wide spectrum of our choices is unique to humans. We could use much more of it than we do.

Available now on the Farm: Mary and Her Miracle, the newest book by Barbara Crafton. A fictionalized nativity narrative, it is appropriate for both children and adults to embrace the Christmas story with their imaginations firmly in gear. The book is beautifully illustrated by New York artist Dianne Robbins. Visit the bookstore at
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