There’s a line in Nora Ephron’s 1983 novel Heartburn: “Show me a woman who cries when the trees lose their leaves in autumn and I’ll show you a real asshole.” I reread it recently and thought, wait a second—I cry sometimes when the leaves fall. Although I’ve always wished I’d had a chance to meet the late Ephron, maybe it’s better that I never had to admit to her my sentimentality, which apparently was as uncool then as it is now.
I’ve also been known to get a little teary when I find a craggy pebble that looks like a frowning face. I sniffle when I see a skunk in my yard who looks lonely, like it’s dawning on him that all his skunk friends went on an adventure without him. I laugh, too, when I see a twig that looks like it’s giving me the finger. I chuckle when I see an ant trying to carry a half a Froot Loop. As a cartoonist, I draw talking birds, smiling flowers, and chickens wearing socks, and very often these creatures feel as real to me—and as filled with inner narratives—as people.
The other day, I watched a video of a helicopter rescuing a cow in Italy. The cow had gotten stuck in a ravine and she—he? I can’t call animals “it”—couldn’t scale the walls to get out. Did that cow panic? I wondered. A veterinarian friend of mine says animals don’t think about the past and future. They live in the moment. This is why it’s so kind and responsible to put a dog to sleep when it’s in pain from a terminal illness. The dog doesn’t think, “I want to stay alive long enough to see the snow fall.” The dog just feels that his legs hurt, that he cannot get up onto his favorite chair, that he is vomiting again. That cow wasn’t thinking ahead to her demise and worrying about whether her family would miss her, nor did memories from her calfhood flash before her eyes. She just knew she was stuck.
After the rescuers hitched her into the harness and took off in the helicopter, what went through her mind? A cow has no instinctive concept of a helicopter. “What the hell is this?” she had to have thought, as the propeller chopped through the air. I can only imagine what the cow made of flight, as her feet left the ground and her view of the familiar meadow tilted and widened.
We all know animals have emotions and personalities. There’s plenty of science to back that up, not to mention anecdotal evidence all around us. There’s a squirrel in my yard who shoves all the other squirrels out of the way at the bird feeder. He’s a bully. Dogs and cats and other animals can have anxiety, depression, even OCD. Just ask my mutt, Woodstock, who can’t sit down until he turns around forty-five times and who often licks his own paws until I place a hand on his head and say, “Enough.”
I have seen animals as characters since childhood. The way some people stop at every stroller to coo over a baby, I stopped to pet dogs. I imagined backstories for every dog I met. Seeing a dead dog on the side of the road undid me for days (and still does). I couldn’t turn it off, the imagining, so I’d envision everything that led up to the dog’s tragic quest. What compelled him to go into the street? What was he seeking? Maybe he wandered off in search of a snack. Maybe he was tired of his neglectful family and his concrete kennel. Maybe he just wanted some exercise. Maybe he saw a bird.
In his new book, The Inner Lives of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion, the German forest ranger Peter Wohlleben proves himself to be a kindred spirit. He believes animals have souls. Not just the animals with cute furry faces, like deer and goats, but the less cuddly ones, too: ravens, caterpillars, and ticks. I found it a compelling read, but if it sounds a bit twee to you, you might really raise your eyebrows at his prior book, the best-selling The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. In that one, Wohlleben envisions trees in a forest as “friends” and “families” who share root systems and adjust their branches to make sure their neighbors are getting plenty of sunlight. He posits that trees can get scared and have memories and that they talk to one another through electric signals sent via the “Wood Wide Web.”
It’s an anthropomorphized view, certainly, but everything he describes has at least some basis in scientific fact. Acacia trees, for example, warn other nearby trees when grazing giraffes come around. They give off a gas that other trees can sense, prompting those trees to produce a substance in their leaves that makes them less desirable to snacking wildlife. Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to say that this is proof that trees feel fear. But Wohlleben writes that when he speaks of trees in this way, people’s eyes light up. He has translated the nonhuman parts of our environment into terms humans relate to, by making those things seem more like humans themselves.
Talking about animals and plants this way makes us feel less alone. It’s soothing to think of wildcats, bugs, even trees loving their parents, caring for their neighbors, and raising their babies. We all want the same things: to survive, to grow, not to be left behind.
I know I’m not the only one who thinks like this. If I were, animal videos wouldn’t go viral. At the time of this writing, Batzilla the Bat, a bat sanctuary in Australia—where I have never been but whose online presence I follow religiously—has more than 270,000 followers on Facebook. When I watch a video of a baby bat being swaddled in a washcloth or having his face wiped with a Q-tip, it is not because I want to be wrapped in a washcloth and have my face swabbed down (holy claustrophobia, bat baby), but because I feel for that bat. He is not alone, and I am not alone. There’s comfort in that.
When I get lost in the imagined thoughts of a cow flying over a ravine, I am taking that comfort: look, we all get scared. We all look around at the world these days and wonder, What the hell? And just as there are many things about humans that cows cannot understand, such as helicopters and artificial flight, I suspect there’s a lot about their lives that escapes our comprehension as well. Perhaps we’re all a little confused about each other most of the time.
And yes, ghost of Nora Ephron, when fall comes and the world turns cold and inhospitable, I shed the occasional tear. Withering leaves remind me that everything in nature decays. And if I see the humanity in nature, I see the nature in humanity as well. If everything dies, then everyone dies, and that means my family and my friends and me, and guess who else? Nora Ephron, that’s who. You’re not even here to call me an asshole, Nora. We didn’t even know each other, and now you’re gone. Just like the leaves in November.
Mary Laura Philpott is the author and illustrator of Penguins with People Problems; the editor of Musing, for Parnassus Books; and an Emmy-winning cohost of A Word on Words, for Nashville Public Television. She also draws a cartoon called WildLifeCoach.