Growing up, a lot of the stories I heard were about animals. Some of the most beloved characters in literature are nonhuman animals who act a lot like human animals. I remember one in particular: The Fox and the Hound.
One of the moments in the story that is indelible for me was when the two characters Tod, the fox, and Copper, the hound dog meet. Tod sort of plainly states, “I’m a fox.” And sort of out of nowhere, Copper, responds very boisterously, “I’m a hound dog.” It was memorable, clearly.
But following each character’s self-revelation, the action of the story unfolds. The juvenile animals become fast friends. And not long after that, we get one of those “move the plot along” montages while a song entitled “Best of Friends” plays in the background. We see the horseplay and fun, and we see the tenderness and care that develops between the young friends. It’s sweet.
But then, forces in their lives convince them that rather than friends, they are supposed to be mortal enemies. Even the wise old owl, Tod’s adoptive mother, explains that this is just the way of the world. And there the sweetness turns to tragedy. Fate or circumstance, maybe even genetics, maybe even misdirected or unreturned affection, if we really want to play cultural critic, tear their friendship apart. The dramatic device at the heart of the drama is this: the common perception by a society that the fates of these two animals are sealed by their very nature.
As a matter of scientific fact, hound dogs and foxes aren’t that far away from each other on the tree of life. One primary difference is the domestication of dogs and the lack of domestication of foxes. In fact, foxes tend to be recluse and solitary, avoiding humans as much as they can. Of course domestication on its own is not a genetic trait. It’s a way of describing a set of behaviors and outcomes, a set of expressions of the animal’s genetics. And the fate of these animals seems sealed by these outcomes.
But there is a special group of foxes that has become more and more distinct from their fellow foxes over time. I don’t mean over millions of years. I mean over the past few decades. See, in the 1960s, when a Soviet geneticist Dmitry Belyayev refused to believe some of the theories of more respected, higher-ranking scientists, he got, shall we say, reassigned to a very cold place. Far away from many of his superiors, he began experiments in breeding based on some of his observations of the wildlife around him. And what drew his fascination were domestic traits he’d noticed in some foxes.
His question was whether by selecting the foxes exhibiting these traits for breeding, generation over generation over generation, could he bring about a fox that is domesticated, that likes to be around humans? Like a hound dog. Well the answer is yes.
And after decades he created a species of fox that comes when its called, that retrieves toys, that likes to snuggle up with their humans. But that wasn’t all that happened. By performing this generations-long experiment, Belyayev was surprised to discover that subtle physical traits began to be expressed alongside the traits that seemed to control temperament. After more and more generations of the less wild, more dependent foxes were bred, the foxes began to get slightly more floppy years, not the kind of alert ears we are used to seeing on foxes. They began to get curly tails, the kind we like so much on our puppies. More and more, these foxes started to act like and to look like some of the more common breeds of dogs we all know and love. Some in the scientific community call this experiment the greatest experiment in selective breeding ever. Others remarked that Belyayev made the single greatest contribution to solving the mystery of how dogs were domesticated into companion animals for humans. And still others are just jazzed that they can have a fox as a pet now. Of course, at $9,000 each, they are not for everyone.
But if the wise old owl, who told the fox and the hound that they could not be together because of their very genetic make-up, was just a little more up on her Cold-War era Soviet research, maybe Tod and Copper could have lived happily ever after instead of trying to kill each other, as nature thought was intended.
Today while we bless so many of the lives that make our lives better, we have a chance to behold something of the wild in our midst. Isn’t some of the fun of having a non-human animal around watching what on earth they are doing, how they are responding to the world they inhabit now, and wondering what could have formed the impulse or the reason for what it is they do? Many assume that these habits come from a time and a place where they made sense, but on this island, in the constant vigilant protection of a human animal, they don’t any more.
Yet there they are, the wild things that remind us of something, perhaps, in ourselves once upon a time, before we had become so well-mannered, so well-adjusted to this life we have built for ourselves and for each other, before the wild things in ourselves slumbered upon mattresses and pillows, journeyed long distances…in cars and airplanes, gathered food…at Foodland, before human animals were civilized, domesticated, brought to heel, not by a few decades of selective breeding, but by millennia of it.
And in the last few millennia, one of the forces that seemed most concerned with the remaking of the human…has been religion.
Indeed, loud voices proclaim that religion itself was a product of a time when humans were facing a wild world they could hardly understand. So it was religion that sought to explain, comfort, make sense of the wild world we inhabited together. Many, if not all, of the world’s deepest, oldest faiths, attach meaning to geologic, astrophysical, or weather based phenomena because these were the kinds of wild, untamable things that threatened them. And often the bridge between the human and the divine, the way to appease or cleanse the relationship between the human and the divine, lay squarely, where? With nonhuman animals.
Through writings, through excavation, through legend and story, the relationship through time of humans to their companions on this earth is filled with sacred and powerful relationships. Long before the ancient god of the Hebrew people was said to grant dominion or responsibility to humans, ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and other communities were exhibiting both the importance of domesticated animals in their daily lives and the importance of those same animals in their sacred lives. Some animals were worshiped as gods or as worldly vessels of the divine. Others simply played a role in allowing humans to stay in one place for a longer time, rather than roving nomadically. Some were sacrificed in rituals meant to appease the divine, to smooth things over between humans and what was out of their control.
But through the generations, through the conquering, the taking, the dominance of culture after culture, something began to happen in all this worship. In many of the most dominant cultures on the planet a relatively new idea of a god emerged—the idea of a single, great, all powerful, all knowing, unknowable God took hold in the religions of the Abrahamic faiths held by those who wielded the most power in the world. And it was when the idea of such a powerful god took hold that the questions started for some. Some humans who were thinking critically, if not philosophically, wondered, “What on earth could we possibly do to impact or affect such a powerful being?” “Why would a god so powerful care that this one goat was made a sacrifice in its name?”
In a polytheistic faith, gods can be jealous and jockey for supremacy. They can act out in surprising ways to gain more power over other gods. But not when there is just the one, all-powerful idea of God. The competition was over.
For many it was the generations and generations of an idea of a god that grew larger and larger and more powerful that led some humans to come to the conclusion that human actions could not meaningfully influence such a god to view us differently or not. For some, this idea of a god became so distant and unknowable, that it made as much sense to them to conclude that there is no god. And that is what many did.
Today, among the sources of this, our Living Tradition, are the teachings of those who viewed the world’s organized, ritualized faiths, and found them wanting: the humanist, the non theist, the atheist. They found faiths wanting not only of reason, but wanting of real compassion for the full breadth of the lives that are interconnected in the universe. They found them wanting not only of proof, but wanting of the reverence for what we doknow of the natural universe, and awe for what we do notknow. They found those faiths wanting not only of sincerity, but wanting of the wonder contained in facing honestly and sometimes painfully, questions of evil, justice, and responsibility. It is from the teachings of many of these brave souls that many humans stopped searching for the best ways to mediate between the wildness of the world and some divine force causing it, and to experience it firsthand, themselves. And perhaps more importantly, they began the work of breaking down the all-too-prevalent myths of superiority of one kind of life over another that are rampant in the stories forming the foundation of many faiths that are used so often as a reason or apology for why humans oppress other lives, as an explanation for why they are given over to some kind of wild, untamable passion, or how they received some kind of divine privilege to do so. So central to the teachings of our atheist and non-theist siblings is the work of taking the responsibility ascribed to a supreme all powerful god in the stories written millennia ago, and placing responsibility for human action, for the care-taking of where the wild things are in our own animal make up, squarely where the responsibility should be: in the palm of our hands.
In the 1960s the experiment began. The banished, hopeful adventurers wondered together what it would mean to set in motion generations of decisions that would help to bring about the most pronounced, effective traits in the subjects of the experiment. The ideas of Unitarians and Universalists, wild in many ways to those watching this experiment, likely wondered what would happen when all the wild things are in one place together, when humanists and atheists sit beside Christians and Jews, and seek together what might be shared, what could be common, what will be, in a word, blessed.
And what will the world say, hen over time, through generations of new beginnings, when this place, where selfless love of others, where dedication to the cause of justice for all, where devotion to the sacredness of creation reigns supreme, becomes the outward expression of our belief or non-belief in something greater than ourselves? For truly, where would anyone rather be after this week, than in a place where we know truly that you do not have to think alike, you do not have to believe alike, you do not have to walk alike, or bark alike, to love alike.
You may be a fox. You may be a hound dog. But you are home, in this place, where the personal things you believe or don’t believe are valued, where the public things you do in the world matter as much as what you believe about the world, where the private things, what might have kept you apart, separate from others, can be healed by a community of understanding, of acceptance, of care.
You are home here, where the wild things are. And may it always be so.