The Bible relates that King Solomon was known as the wisest of men. One verse suggests that he was able to converse about–the more-than-human world:
יְדַבֵּר֮ עַל־הָֽעֵצִים֒ מִן־הָאֶ֙רֶז֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּלְּבָנ֔וֹן וְעַד֙ הָאֵז֔וֹב אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֹצֵ֖א בַּקִּ֑יר וַיְדַבֵּר֙ עַל־הַבְּהֵמָ֣ה וְעַל־הָע֔וֹף וְעַל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ וְעַל־הַדָּגִֽים׃
He [King Solomon] discoursed about trees, from the cedar in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall; and he discoursed about the beasts, the birds, the creeping things, and the fishes.
Although most commentators insisted that King Solomon’s communications were about nature, the Aggadah, Jewish legendary tradition, took it more literally: the King Solomon, in his great wisdom, could actually speak to the animals and plants in their own languages.
Solomon was able to draw moral instruction from the vegetable and animal kingdoms (Midrash Yalkut), or, according to Rashi, he knew their characteristics and medicinal properties. Jewish tradition credits him with the ability to converse in the language of every beast, fowl, fish, plant, and demons.
–I Kings, Soncino Edition
(This tradition led to some delightful folktales, including a children’s favorite about a young bee who helps the king pass a test by showing him the real flowers among scores of well-crafted artificial bouquets.)
We may not have the wisdom of a Solomon, but it seems imperative in our current ecological crisis for human beings to establish better communication with other species, not so much by talking about them, or even to them, but by listening to them. And if we lack the expertise to truly listen, then we can listen to the listeners. Here are a few:
I love the book, Listening to a Continent Sing, by ornithologist Prof. Donald Kroodsma. He describes a cross-country (USA) bicycling trip with his adult son, during which they observed and recorded bird songs from coast to coast. As you read the book, you can listen to and learn from recordings of the birds on a free website: listeningtoacontinentsing.com.
Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, spent time with elephants, wolves, and killer whales, revealing the similarities “between human and nonhuman consciousness, self-awareness, and empathy.”
I’ve also been absorbed in the writing and teachings of Native American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, about the intelligence and communications among plants, and even between moss and rocks. As a scientist and as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Prof. Kimmerer looks at plants and animals as our oldest teachers:
I can’t think of a single scientific study in the last few decades that has demonstrated that plants or animals are dumber than we think. It’s always the opposite, right? What we’re revealing is the fact that they have extraordinary capacities, which are so unlike our own, but we dismiss them because, well, if they don’t do it like animals do it, then they must not be doing anything, when, in fact, they’re sensing their environment, responding to their environment in incredibly sophisticated ways. The science which is showing that plants have capacity to learn, to have memory, we’re at the edge of a wonderful revolution in really understanding the sentience of other beings.
– Prof. Robin Wall Kimmerer
Artists as well as scientists find ways to communicate with animals. Musician, philosopher, and naturalist David Rothenberg has made music with birds, reindeer, whales, and insects. You can learn more about him and watch his videos on his website.
One modern day Christian pastor writes about King Solomon’s wisdom as being a keen observer of the environment. In order to preserve our environment, it’s time for people of all faiths and traditions to unite in our common care and concern for this precious planet we were given “to serve and to guard” (a literal translation of Genesis 2:15). We are understandably focused today on climate change. But another aspect of the Anthropocene–the period of significant human impact on the planet’s ecosystems–is the destruction of species, habitats and the loss of biodiversity. We are surrounded by other species, all part of the web of life on our planet, a web to which we all belong. But too often, we ignore or exploit the non-human species. By stopping to listen, to look, and to value the animals and plants that surround us, we will all have a better chance at preserving this Garden of Eden that we were given. We will be a little more like King Solomon.
Featured image: Deer wading and feeding among the lily pads at Rockefeller State Park Preserve, Rabbi Julie H. Danan
Return to the Gateway of Holy Land.