"Bern"ing To Remember

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders gestures while speaking at a campaign rally, March 23, 2016 at the Wiltern T
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders gestures while speaking at a campaign rally, March 23, 2016 at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, California. / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Full Disclosure: I am feeling the Bern!

So when the audience rose to its feet during the Bernie Sanders rally in Portland last week, I was thrilled; nothing like seeing your man or your woman moving the masses. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gi7AaO1v0QU

Did they rise in response to one of Bernie's incisive comments about the appalling state of income inequality? No.

Was it because Bernie had just excoriated the excesses of Wall Street and the rampant deregulation that has abetted them? Nope.

What got those Portlanders out of their seats was a bird; an itty, bitty bird -- a finch, apparently.

I studied political science at Stanford University. I follow the various analyses of the "Trumpf Tide," the "Hillary Conundrum" and the "Sanders Phenomenon." From the New York Times to cable news to innumerable blogs, every nuance of every development is broken down.

If I may be so bold, I now throw my hat in the ring and offer my take on the Bernie-Birdie saga.

First, a quick recap: Mr. Sanders is in mid-speech, something about "If he or she does her schoolwork seriously..." At this point, a finch lands on the arena floor a few feet to his side. Noticing the audience's murmured reaction, Bernie pauses, zeroes in on the finch and, a seasoned politician, instantly edits it into his speech: "This bird may not know it..."

But the finch isn't done, not by a long shot. Next, in full view of the cameras, it lands directly on the lectern, less than two feet from the geriatric upstart from Vermont. Bernie goggles. The audience roars; for a full thirty seconds, in joyful pandemonium, it comes to its feet and roars.

So...what exactly happened there? How did an unassuming, commonplace bird electrify an arena full of politically enthusiastic, 21st century Homo Sapiens?

Here is the analysis of this politically motivated, political-science-degree having citizen. It is an analysis that few, if any, of my professors would have endorsed. In fact, I'm almost sure it would have earned me somewhere south of a "D minus" on a final exam. Nonetheless...

I believe that the unscripted burst of delighted mayhem occurred because, for a brief moment, the audience, and by extension, the millions of us who watched on social media, were released from the lifetime sentences of solitary confinement we are collectively serving.

Yep - one of the cruelest forms of punishment - solitary confinement. Yep - you and me and almost everyone we know. For we humans long ago cut ourselves off from the pervasive "wealth" that comes with everyday, "lived" relationships with the vast array of animal species with whom we share planet Earth.

Until very recently in history, human beings shared their daily lives with all sorts of other-than-human animals (oh yeah, we're animals too!). In my particular region - western Oregon - there were bears and wolves and cougars and foxes and owls and otters and beavers and eagles and salmon...to name a few. Now, my region happens to be more environmentally protective than many, and some of these animals are still around; but very, very much fewer than before.

And what do I mean by a "lived" relationship? Well - full disclosure once again - I don't really know what I mean, since I have lived my life in a culture that has displaced and forgotten such relationship. But there have been many cultures that practiced such relationship and, through their writings and oral traditions, it is possible to get a sense. Also, our "souls and bones" still retain memories of what such relationship feels like. It is never too late to remember if one is intent on doing so.

So, here is my guess: A lived relationship is one where humans consider other-than-human animals to be every bit the "being" that a human being is: If humans have souls, then animals have souls. If humans have emotions, then animals have emotions. If humans think, then animals think. Above all, if a human life is something to be treasured and valued and respected, then so is every life of every animal.

And guess who misses out, guess who suffers when we cut ourselves off from such lived relationship? Well, the easy answer is that the animals suffer. This is the easy answer because it is so obviously true. Extinctions, destroyed habitats, poaching, factory- farming , laboratory testing, pollution of every description. If we've been able to attain even a few cells of empathy, we understand this.

But...what about us? What about human animals? How are we impoverished by our forgetting? Again, not an easy question to answer ; our poverty is so longstanding - how can we even begin to remember what we miss if we do not even remember that we miss?

If you have loved pets, you can garner some clues. Our domesticated companions - dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs - are indeed alive to us as beings; often, quite literally, considered members of the family. How do they "feed" you? No doubt with love and loyalty and companionship, and, if you are lucky, despite their domesticated status, they retain a trace of "wildness"; manners of moving and sensing and "thinking" that emanate an "aliveness" that has been broadly suffocated in our cauterized modern culture.

But - and I live with cats and dogs and ducks and chickens as deeply felt companions - domesticated animals cannot possibly substitute for the breadth and depth of a culture in which lived relationship is a foundational assumption, encompassing animals in their natural and wild habitats.

Modern culture relegates notions of the different qualities and gifts that animals carry to the quaint or primitive realms. This is where our self-imposed "solitary confinement" comes in. Let's put it this way: Imagine that you are in a world where everybody else has lost the ability to see different wavelengths of color. All they see is, let's say, the color red. One day a gorgeous rainbow appears. You point and marvel but the others look and...see only red.

Every animal (we could include plants and elements and so on, but let's stick to animals for now), every single one, possesses different "colors", different properties and powers and gifts. And - here is the most "forgotten" part of all - when they are regarded and respected as full beings, when humans "feed" them by taking them into full account as we go about meeting our own particular human needs, then they "feed" us with their own particular gifts, powers and properties. How many different "kinds" of gifts exist in a culture of lived relationship? Well, how many wavelengths of color are there?

A very short story: Eagle has long been associated with qualities of strength and vision for many different peoples. Recently I began to explore beyond the rational lens of modern culture and an association with eagle emerged. As life and luck would have it, a pair of eagles began to frequent the river behind my property. One day I was taking a walk, deep in thought about a dilemma. Feeling quite stifled and frustrated with the situation, a sudden insight occurred that presented a solution. At that very instant, an eagle flew directly across my path, about 10 feet above my head.

So...yes, our rational minds can think of many ways to dismiss such a story as random coincidence, New Age ooey-gooeyness or "indigenous romanticism". Fair enough. There is really not a rational way to "argue" against this. But, at that moment, this Stanford educated mind was as sure as it could be that eagle had visited as a powerful confirmation. Can this be explained "rationally"? Nope, sorry, doesn't work that way. Believe me, I know how this grates on our rational-objective minds. Again...sorry!

Many, many cultures throughout history have felt as strongly about the mutual regard of other-than-human animals and the gifts and guidance that come with it, as we do about "objective analysis", economic growth and individual liberty. By placing ourselves in solitary confinement, by cutting ourselves off from the kinship web of lived relationships, we have impoverished ourselves in manners that all the material wealth in the world cannot mend.

For a single moment in Portland, in the extraordinarily jaded arena of politics, the veil of our confinement parted. The crowd rose to its feet. For a full thirty seconds it voiced its joy and wonderment.

For whatever it may be worth, a search for "finch totem" returns these qualities: Joyful, Enthusiastic, Optimistic.

Was that finch "feeling the Bern"? Who knows? But I believe that we were feeling something; something that we misplaced long ago; something that our souls and our bones will never cease wanting to relocate.