Love is the word for the week. Ignoring the commercialism, Valentine’s Day offers a time to pause and think about love. I’ve always enjoyed this holiday, coming when winter’s bleakness is wearing, just before spring, when our souls are hungry for something to brighten our lives and distract us a bit, if only for a day. Love is famously distracting!
For me Valentine’s Day has never been just about couples and romantic love, perhaps because we celebrated it as a family growing up, or perhaps because the first decades of my adult life were spent mostly ‘single’…..yet I enthusiastically celebrated Valentine’s Day as a time for hearts and flowers, a time to send Valentines to friends and family we often fall short on expressing our love to.
Thinking about my post two years ago on finding heart shapes in Nature, I wondered….what else does Nature have to offer us for Valentine’s Day? Do animals express and feel love? The hotly debated discussion as to whether animals express and feel emotions I leave to others. Animals clearly exhibit loyalty and nurturing, are these not characteristics of love?
My favorite love story from the animal kingdom comes from James Michener in the book Creatures of the Kingdom. Many stories in this book tell of the lives and complexities of animal relationships, but the most romantic, the most touching to me, is a story simply titled “The Beaver”, originally from his novel Centennial. There is no way I can tell you what it is about that would come close to the beautiful way Michener (who after all, is Michener!) tells the story of two beavers. The main character, a young female, at two years of age, finally has to leave her parent’s home. After losing her first potential mate to another female, she finds an older, wiser, though slower with age, male with whom to build her home, her life, and raise a family. Beavers mate for life. They live in extended family groups. Their children stay with them for several years, older siblings help raise young kits. When a mate dies, the remaining mate does not look for another mate, but stays within the extended family and helps raise new generations. Michener tells the story of this female, her mate and their extended family, in a tender, touching way……..how they work together, play together, care for one another, resolve disagreements, mutually nurture their young……how she cares for her elderly mate when he can no longer help, and grieves his death. Michener wrote novels, but he was known for his careful research into his subject matter. No doubt his description of this beaver couple is based on beaver life observations. And it is as moving a love saga as any human romance. (I highly recommend the book based on this beaver love story alone, yet the rest of the book is full of equally good animal stories.)
Some would argue these behaviors are instinctual and based only on survival needs, certainly instinct and survival play a major part of animal (and human!) interactions. Yet the internet and bookstores are flooded with stories, both famous and ordinary, of animals, often of different species, befriending, caring for, and exhibiting nurturing behavior toward one another, often counter to the understood “instincts” of their species. A popular book on this matter is Unlikely Friendships. Author Jennifer Holland “documents one heartwarming tale after another of animals who, with nothing else in common, bond in the most unexpected ways. A cat and a bird. A mare and a fawn. An elephant and a sheep. A snake and a hamster…….predators befriending prey.” (from Amazon’s book description) What would we call these attachments if not a form of love?
Poets and philosophers, song writers and academics have offered for millennium definitions of love. Maternal love, brotherly love, true love, Divine love, all phrases to differentiate different forms of love. Love is universal, yet how it is expressed can be culturally and personally unique. Most agree, we humans do not fully understand what love is about……perhaps the complex, but uncomplicated behaviors of animals caring for, nurturing, snuggling, playing, and even grieving for one another, is closer to the elusive definition of love, unconditional love, than we imagine. Perhaps there are lessons to learn this Valentine’s Day from animal love.