“Mountain Tambourine”

“Mountain Tambourine,” Peter van Toorn (Canada), This Same Sky p. 102 (see Resource List)

A crew took part of the big tree awaypoplar tree
on my street. A poplar, it was throwing
its ashes, its dirty pillow stuffing,
around too much. So they said. Anyway,
people were tired of it. It was too grey.
It might drop a tired branch and hit something,
a power or phone line. What’s still standing
they’ll come for tomorrow and chop away.
It doesn’t make much poplar talk now. The big
clatter’s gone out of it. On the older
side of the street, the last tree stands, tall, big,
full, leafy—a fine shade and rain holder.
It leans to one side at a warm angle,
like Annie, whose door it covered last fall.

Background on Philosophical Issues

Environmental Ethics

“Mountain Tambourine” makes us wonder what our roles are as people in relation to the earth and its inhabitants. The people in the poem cut a tree down, presumably because it has been inconveniencing humans. Is it okay to destroy non-human nature in order to make ourselves more comfortable? Our instincts might be to say no, but we must realize that our day-to-day lives depend on doing just this every day. Every time I write on a sheet of paper or print out an essay for school, I depend on the systematic destruction of forests. Every time I get in a car or even ride a bus or train, I support the creation of more exhaust fumes that pollute the air and make it difficult for all species of animal and plant life to live. Every time I open a plastic package, I know the material will ultimately end up leaching chemicals into the earth and/or being picked up and choked on by a bird or fish who mistakes it for food. My waste and its consequences will be around long after I am gone. Does this mean we should reject all forms of industrial living? Some people say yes, and choose to live entirely “off the grid” and/or as fruitarians – individuals who do not consume anything that caused another living entity, animal or plant, to die. Others believe that we can find a morally-acceptable balance between considering the interests of present-day humans, the interests of other species of animal and plant life, and the interests of future generations. Either way, it is difficult to imagine living in today’s society without in some way relying on paper made from trees that have been killed. How do we reconcile our wishes to treat the earth with “respect” and “kindness” and our urge to maintain the habits and conveniences we have grown up accustomed to?

Philosophy of Language

The tree almost becomes a character in this poem. The speaker refers to the tree’s “poplar talk,” and the tree has a “tired branch.” This personification compels us to consider what it really means to communicate. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) revolutionized how we think about language and communication. For Wittgenstein, effective communication depends on a “language game,” in which all the participants in a conversation agree on the same “rules.” Under this understanding, words mean something only within the context of a culture. The meanings of words, of course, depend on how individuals interpret them.

What is the relationship between language and communication? Wittgenstein hypothesized a “private language” (though he didn’t refer to it with this name). Wittgenstein believed that a private language – a language that only one person understands – would be meaningless. The reasoning behind this is that each word has meaning only in relation to other words. If someone makes up a word but has nothing to relate it to, then even the originator would not be able to explain her own language. This seems to imply that any language must be communicated between multiple people. If this is true, it could imply that the formation of language and even concepts depends on set, agreed-upon rules of behaviour.

However, others have put forth a wider definition of language, which can include a language spoken only to the self. If even trees can have language, would this mean they have thoughts and consciousnesses? Or would it mean that language doesn’t require consciousness? On the other end of the spectrum, is it possible for someone to have thoughts without having access to language, or do we need language in order to formulate thoughts?

languages

References:

Candlish, Stewart; Wrisley, George. “Private Language.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Richter, Duncan. “Ludwig Wittgenstein.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Sample Questions for Discussion

“…people were tired of it. It was too grey.
It might drop a tired branch and hit something…”

  • What are some reasons that people cut down trees? Are these good reasons or bad reasons? Why?
  • What should we do if one living entity’s existence is hurting another living entity?
  • Should the people cut the poplar tree down? Why or why not?
    • Does it matter/would your answer change if the tree were endangering buildings, plants, or animals? Why or why not?
    • What if it were only inconveniencing humans but not in danger of actually hurting anyone?
    • If the tree were endangering animals, would it matter/would your answer change if it were endangering human or nonhuman animals? Why or why not?

“…On the older
side of the street, the last tree stands, tall, big,
full, leafy—a fine shade and rain holder.”

  • Do trees have a purpose? If so, what is it and why do you think so?
    • If so, do all trees have more or less the same purpose?
  • Do people have a purpose?
    • If so, do all people have the same purpose?
  • If there were no people on earth, would the purpose of the tree be the same?
  • Who gets to decide what something or someone’s purpose is?
  • What should happen when someone or something cannot fulfil its purpose any longer?
  • Is a purpose the same thing as a goal? Why or why not/if not, what is the difference?

“It doesn’t make much poplar talk now.”

  • What does it mean to “talk” or to “make talk?”
  • Do you think the “poplar talk” means the tree was making sounds, the tree was communicating, or something else?
  • Can the sound(s) trees make be classified?
  • Do trees talk/do trees communicate? How so/can you think of some examples?
  • Can we talk to trees? Why or why not?
  • Is “talking” always the same as “speaking?” Why or why not?
  • Does “talking” always involve sounds?
  • When people use their hands to communicate using one of the hundreds of codified signed languages around the world, is that talking? Why or why not?
  • When humans or other animals use gestures or facial expressions to communicate, is that talking? Why or why not?
  • If I say something that only I understand, is that a language? Why or why not? If I interpret the sounds of nature to mean something but no one else understands them the same way, is that language? Why or why not?
Koko understands spoken English and ASL, and she uses over 1000 signs to communicate with other gorillas and with humans.

*Note: Many of the questions above were inspired by a discussion with the Spring 2015 Smith College Poetry Concentration Senior Capstone course. I am indebted to Professor Ellen Doré Watson and all my amazing peers for opening up these ideas. Thank you!

Environmental Ethics Activities

Related Resources

  • The Giving Tree book module by Professor Tom Wartenberg
    • Includes summary of the beloved illustrated poem by Shel Silverstein, guidelines for philosophical discussion with philosophical background, and example discussion questions.
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“Clouds on the Sea”

“Clouds on the Sea,” Ruth Dallas (New Zealand), This Same Sky, p. 177 (see Resource List)

I walk among men with tall bones,this same sky
With shoes of leather, and pink faces,
I meet no man holding a begging bowl,
All have their dwelling places.

In my country
Every child is taught to read or write,
Every child has shoes and a warm coat,
Every child must eat his dinner,
No one must grow any thinner,
It is considered remarkable and not nice
To meet bed bugs and lice.
Oh we live like the rich
With music at the touch of a switch,
Light in the middle of the night,
Water in the house as from a spring,
Hot, if you wish, or cold, anything
For the comfort of the flesh,
In my country. Fragment
Of new skin at the edge of the world’s ulcer.

For the question
That troubled you as you watched the reapers
And a poor woman following,
Gleaning ears on the ground,
Why should I have grain and this woman none?
No satisfactory answer has ever been found.

Background on Philosophical Issues

Dallas gives us a striking tongue-in-cheek account, in somewhat sarcastic rhyming verse, of a speaker realizing the significance of her living in a culture in which abject poverty is very rare. All of the privilege that she notes, which is most often taken for granted, gives us a chilling reminder of the majority of the world, in which circumstances are otherwise. Living in a place in which affluence is the norm, it is easy for many of us to forget that the majority of humans cannot just assume their basic needs will be met each day. At the end of the final stanza, the “you” is confronted with a women who has very little, and demands of the world why she should have plenty and this other woman has nothing.

We know that there is enough food on earth to feed the world’s human population many times over. So why are there still so many people starving? If we have access to more than we need, are we obligated to give some of our own food and resources to help other people? If so, how much? For those of us living in affluent nations, these are questions we often shy away from confronting. They can seem to big for one person to solve.

On Giving

Continue reading

“Beso the Donkey”

Beso the Donkey,” Richard Jarrette, printed in the book of the same name (see Resource List)

Beso the Donkeybeso-the-donkey
lives out his days in a small pasture.
He appears stoic in the rain
and stands still
beneath the merciless sun.
You could almost believe that a rock
to eat, dust to drink,
are all that he needs.
You would be more wrong
than the one who named him Beso
thinking that the kiss he gave
for a sliver of apple
was love.

Copyright 2010 Richard Jarrette. Reprinted with the permission of the poet. 

Background on Philosophical Issues

Animal Ethics (click to read more)

This brilliant collection of poems is written from the point of view of a speaker who observes a donkey named Beso living penned into a pasture over a long (unspecified) period of time, apparently ending with Beso’s passing away. The speaker gets to know Beso well as an individual and comes to care for and respect him deeply.

In this poem, the speaker notes that Beso, like any animal who is in captivity, is confined without any autonomy over his own life. Is this an acceptable way to treat another sentient being? Why or why not?

It seems Beso’s basic necessities of life (see “Rights“) are taken care of: He has “rock to eat, dust to drink,” and at some point is graced with “a sliver of apple.” However, he also endures “the merciless sun.” If you believe he is being wronged, is it only because of the questionable nature of his treatment? If we assume that he does have enough food, water, and shelter to be healthy, then is his human captors’ behaviour justified? Or is there something inherently wrong about keeping Beso locked up? As a nonhuman, self-aware being, is he entitled to a set of inalienable rights, a certain level of welfare, or neither? Why or why not?

Epistemology (click to read more)

This particular poem also deals with the issues of how we can know anything about “other minds,” trying to understand what others are thinking and feeling, and anthropomorphising – ascribing “human qualities” to nonhuman beings. There are some basic ways that we generally assume, by observation, that other humans have similar feelings, thoughts, and experiences to our own. When I hurt myself, I flinch or cry out. Therefore, when I observe the same behaviour in those around me, I assume they are experiencing similar pain. Can we make this same assumption when we see nonhuman beings exhibit the same behaviours that we do? Descartes thought that the screams a cat or dog makes when physically harmed were just automatic responses, and justified gruesome “experiments” like nailing cats to wooden boards. Throughout the history of the United States (and continuing today), animals raised for food and scientific experimentation have not been covered under standard animal protection laws; the law allows us to grind up chicks alive and toss living birds in boiling water without any repercussions. (This is considered “standard practice” in the egg and chicken meat industries.) The Cartesian idea of nonhuman animals as automata is often used to justify these practices.

Today, contemporary scientists have proven that all vertebrates have very similar nervous systems, which suggests that nonhumans feel physical pain in much the same way as humans do. Data and empirical evidence also shows us that most nonhuman animals likely dream and form memories and friendships in similar ways. But from a philosophical perspective, we always come back to the same question: How we can really tell what another being is experiencing if we cannot experience the same thing ourselves?

Sample Questions for Discussion on “Beso the Donkey”

Animal Ethics

“Beso the Donkey
lives out his days in a small pasture.”

  • [questions for preliminary discussion] Why is Beso in the pasture? How long do you think he’s been there? Do you think he can get out if he wants to?
  • Why would someone want to keep Beso in one place?
  • Is there anything wrong with keeping someone in one place?
    • Would it make a difference if the pasture was bigger?
    • Would it make a difference if there was another donkey living with Beso?
  • Have you ever had a timeout? Is this similar or different to what has happened to Beso? In what ways?

“You could almost believe that a rock
to eat, dust to drink,
are all that he needs.”

  • If Beso has enough food and water to be healthy, is there anything wrong with keeping him locked up?
  • [preliminary question] How many people here live with companion animals (a.k.a. “pets”)? OR Has anyone here been to a zoo?
  • Do companion animals live with us because they want to or because we want them to?
  • Is there anything wrong with keeping a companion animal in your house and not letting him or her leave? Why or why not?tiger in a zoo
  • Do you think that animals in zoos seem happy? Why or why not? How about the animals who live with us? Why or why not?
  • Do nonhuman animals need us? Do we need them? Why or why not and in what ways?

Epistemology

“He appears stoic in the rain …”

  • [preliminary question] What does “stoic” mean?
  • Do nonhuman animals have the same feelings people do? How can we tell?
  • Can we ever know for sure what someone else is thinking? Why or why not?
  • Can we ever know for sure what someone else is feeling? Why or why not?

Animal Ethics Extension Activities

Epistemology Extension Activities