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The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures

Pepperberg and I walked to the back of the room, where Alex sat on top of his cage, preening his pearl gray feathers. He stopped at her approach and opened his beak.

“Want grape,” Alex said.

“He hasn’t had his breakfast yet,” Pepperberg explained, “so he’s a little put out.”

Alex closed his eyelids halfway, hunched his shoulders, and looked at her. His narrowed eyelids and hunch made him look crabby.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Pepperberg said to him. “See, I can do it, too.” She narrowed her eyes and gave him a stony look, imitating his expression. Alex responded by bending his head and pulling at the feathers on his breast.

To me, she said, “He’s in a bad mood because he’s molting, and sometimes when he’s like that he won’t work.” She spoke to Alex again, “You’ll get your breakfast in a moment.”

“Want wheat,” Alex said.

Arlene Levin-Rowe, the lab manager, handed Pepperberg a bowl of grapes, green beans, apple and banana slices, shredded wheat, and corn on the cob. Pepperberg held up the sliced fruits and vegetables for Alex, who seized them with his beak. Sometimes he held them with a claw and tore them into smaller bits. If he didn’t want something, like the green beans, he said, “Nuh,” meaning “No.” It was an emphatic “Nuh”—short, and decisive. His voice had a slightly nasal and digitized quality, but it was also tinny and sweet, like the voice of a cartoon character. It made you smile.

Under Pepperberg’s patient tutelage, Alex had learned how to use his vocal tract to imitate about 100 English words, including the sounds for all of the foods she offered him, although he called an apple a “ban-erry.”

“Apples may taste a little bit like bananas to him, and they look a little bit like cherries, so Alex made up that word for them,” Pepperberg said.

Alex could also count to six and was learning the sounds for seven and eight.

“I’m sure he already knows both numbers,” Pepperberg said. “He’ll probably be able to count to 10, but he’s still learning to say the words. It takes far more time to teach him certain sounds than I ever imagined.”

Alex was also learning to say “brown.” As a kind of learning aid for “brown,” Pepperberg placed a small wooden block painted chocolate brown next to Alex.

After breakfast, Alex preened again, keeping an eye on the flock. Every so often, he used his claw to pick up the toy block and held it aloft as if showing it to everyone in the room. Then he opened his beak: “Tell me what co-lor?”

“Brown, Alex. The color is brown,” Pepperberg, Levin, and the other assistant replied in a kind of singsong unison. They stretched out brown into almost full two syllables, emphasizing the “br” and “own.”

Alex listened silently. Sometimes he tried part of the word: “rrr ... own.” Other times, he again held up his block and repeated his question: “What co-lor?” And the trio of humans replied together: “Brown, Alex. The color is brown.”

Then Alex switched to the number seven: “Ssse ... none.”

“That’s good, Alex,” Pepperberg said. “Seven. The number is seven.”

“Sse ... none! Se ... none!”

“He’s practicing,” she explained, when I asked what Alex was doing. “That’s how he learns. He’s thinking about how to say that word, how to use his vocal tract to make the correct sound.”

It sounded a bit mad, the idea of a bird willingly engaging in lessons and learning. But after listening to and watching Alex, I found it difficult to argue with Pepperberg’s explanation for his behaviors. She wasn’t handing him treats for the repetitious work or rapping him on the claws to make him say the sounds.

“He has to hear the words over and over before he can correctly imitate them,” Pepperberg said, after she and her assistants had pronounced “seven” for Alex a good dozen times in a row. “I’m not trying to see if Alex can learn a human language,” she added. “That’s not really the point. My plan always was to use his imitative skills to get a better understanding of avian cognition.”

In other words, because Alex was able to produce a close approximation of the sounds of some English words, Pepperberg could ask him questions about a bird’s basic understanding of the world. She couldn’t ask him what he was thinking about, because that was beyond his vocabulary, but she could ask him about his understanding of numbers, shapes, and colors. To demonstrate, Pepperberg carried Alex on her arm to a tall wooden perch in the middle of the room. She then retrieved a green key and a small green cup from a basket on a shelf. She held up the two items to Alex’s eye.

“What’s same?” she asked. She looked at Alex nose-to-beak.

Without hesitation, Alex’s beak opened: “Co-lor.”

“What’s different?” Pepperberg asked.

“Shape,” Alex said. Since he lacked lips and only slightly opened his beak to reply, the words seemed to come from the air around him, as if a ventriloquist were speaking. But the words—and what can only be called the thoughts—were entirely his.

Prior to Pepperberg’s study, scientists believed that birds could not learn to label objects. Assigning labels to items was something that only humans could do, linguists such as Noam Chomsky had argued in the 1960s. Scientists were also certain that birds could not understand concepts such as “same” and “different,” or “bigger” and “smaller.” Yet for the next 20 minutes, Alex ran through his tests, uttering the labels for a range of items (key, cup, paper) and distinguishing colors, shapes, sizes, and materials (wool versus wood versus metal) of various objects. The concept of “same/different” is considered cognitively demanding. It required Alex to pay attention to the attributes of the two objects and to understand exactly what Pepperberg was asking him to compare—their color, shape, or material. He had to make a mental judgment and then vocally give her the answer, using the correct label.

Next, she and Alex moved on to some simple arithmetic, such as counting the yellow toy blocks among a pile of mixed hues. Animals’ ability to count is a much debated subject, but Alex seemed able to do this (and Pepperberg had published several papers attesting to his skill). He even understood the concept of zero, or none, as he called it—again, the only animal, other than two chimpanzees, so far known with this ability.

And, then, as if to offer final proof of the mind inside his bird brain, Alex spoke up. “Talk clearly!” he commanded, when one of the younger birds Pepperberg was teaching mispronounced the word green. “Talk clearly!”

“Don’t be a smart aleck,” Pepperberg said, shaking her head at him. “He knows all this, and he gets bored, so he interrupts the others, or he gives the wrong answer just to be obstinate. At this stage, he’s like a teenage son; he’s moody, and I’m never sure what he’ll do.”

“Wanna go tree,” Alex said in a tiny voice.

Alex had lived his entire life in captivity, but he knew that beyond the lab’s door there was a hallway and a tall window framing a leafy elm tree. He liked to see the tree, so Pepperberg put her hand out for him to climb aboard. She walked him down the hall into the tree’s green light.

“Good boy! Good birdie,” Alex said, bobbing on her hand.

“Yes, you’re a good boy. You’re a good birdie.” And she kissed his feathered head.

Reprinted with permission from Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures by Virginia Morell. Published by The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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Must Read: 'The River Swimmer'

In The River Swimmer (Grove Press, $25), Jim Harrison once again demonstrates why he is perhaps the best American writer working in the largely ignored novella form. In “The Land of Unlikeness,” the first of the two long stories that comprise the book, we meet Clive, a failed artist and divorcé in his mid-sixties who travels back to his Michigan home to drive his bird-crazed mother around the countryside, seduce boyhood flames, and rediscover his love for painting.

The superior title story centers on Thad, a Michigan farmboy with a deep love of rivers and girls, in that order. He has a somewhat supernatural talent for navigating waterways, once swimming from the farm, which is on an island in an unnamed river, to Chicago, his clothes in tow in a fanny pack. Growing up, Thad is befriended by “water babies”—infant water spirits who live in a pond on the island. Eventually, in France, he’s injured when a powerboat hits him, and while convalescing back home, he manages to slip into the water-baby pond, from which the little sea-monkey creatures egg him onward, to the mouth of the river and, eventually, Lake Michigan.

The River Swimmer probably won’t earn Harrison a new audience—loyal readers will find the well-worn characters and settings and the themes of wild love and regret as comfortable as a wine-stained flannel shirt. But you get the sense that the author doesn’t really care, and that’s exactly why you should.

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Annie Leibovitz’s Bucket List

When photographer Annie Leibovitz took her three young daughters to Niagara Falls in 2009, she wasn’t looking for inspiration. What she needed was a close-to-home family vacation that wouldn’t break the bank, and a time-out from her well-publicized financial woes. Yet what she witnessed on the brink of the 168-foot cascade would launch a two-year cross-country journey to photograph some of the most iconic landscapes and landmarks in America, from Walden Pond to Spiral Jetty, Yosemite to Yellowstone.

The photo she took that day is a moody, startling close and personal portrait of Niagara Falls. “It was not the best time in my life,” Leibovitz explained in Santa Fe last week. "I was sitting off to one side on a bench. Then I noticed the kids. They were mesmerized. They were just staring for a long time. So I got up and stood behind them to see what they were looking at. And then I took this picture. A lot of times I have to work for my photographs. They’re not always just there. But this was unusual because my children saw the picture first, and it was right in front of me on the walkway. Anyone could have taken it.”

The Niagara trip came on the heels of another fluky discovery. Leibovitz was in England for a family bar mitzvah when she decided to visit Virginia Woolf’s house. She snapped pictures of Woolf’s ink-stained writing desk, the willowy trees outside, and the lapping blue waves on the River Orse, where the writer drowned herself. “I was seduced,” she said. “I came home and made a crazy list of what I wanted to photograph.”

The result is Pilgrimage, a photography book and traveling exhibition that’s making the rounds at museums around the country, shadowing the artist’s own photo odyssey to a dozen places on her bucket list. Like Niagara Falls, many of the images were shot casually, with a digital Canon G10, during family trips. Some required more effort, like trying to elbow aside 40 tourists with cameras at the Yosemite Valley viewpoint that Ansel Adams made famous. All were the product of a single, clarifying mission: to photograph only those places and subjects that moved her personally. For an iconic photographer who has built her reputation on making high-profile celebrity portraits and shooting more than 140 magazine covers on assignment, this marked a major departure.

“After 40 years working for magazines, I didn’t know what I had left in me,” Leibovitz explained at the preview of Pilgrimage, which opened at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe on February 15. “To think I could go out and take a picture with no agenda except that I was moved to take it. There was a deep well in me, and I dug it up.”

Some of Pilgrimage’s unexpected treasures: a TV with a bullet hole in it at Graceland, the bucolic gardens at Jefferson’s Monticello, and, of course, Georgia O’Keefe’s painting studio and summer home at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. It’s an ambitious span of time and distance, but in person Leibovitz is anything but self-congratulatory. “What gumption did I have to think that I could photograph this?” she said, gesturing to a saturated picture of an adobe wall and doorway at O’Keefe’s place at Ghost Ranch, the same doorway that inspired the artist to settle in Abiquiu, and the one she painted repeatedly during the 37 years she lived there.

“These photographs form a kind of notebook,” Leibovitz continued. “They’re peripheral vision, things you see on the side of the road, and think you know, but you don’t.” Like the chalky outline of Spiral Jetty rising once again out of the Great Salt Lake and the rusty springs of Thoreau’s creaky old bed. “I always thought that Thoreau must have slept outside, on the ground, or on a bed of nails. But the thing you find out about Walden Pond is that it’s an idea, not a place. It’s about being in nature.”

The same could be said of Pilgrimage: This is a record of being awake in the world, of seeing things with your eyes and your heart, as her own children did at Niagara Falls. “You have to do what you feel moved to,” instructed Leibovitz. “You should all make a list. It’s endless.”

For a schedule of upcoming Pilgrimage exhibitions, visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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Lessons From the Dragon Mother

For the past month, I’ve been thick of old anxiety. It starts in my ear, with that shrill, now-familiar ringing and seeps into every cell: brain, fingers, toes, feet, elbows. Being in it feels like swimming against a riptide or wrestling a boa constrictor. If I stop fighting, I’ll be swallowed whole, but struggling—like swimming against the riptide—only carries me farther out to sea. So I tread water, looking for an opening. What will save me this time? Acupuncture, camping, running, meditation, sitting on a plane out of Phoenix with my four-year-old’s head on my lap and the blackest of deserts far below?

Life is so beautiful, it’s terrifying.

Early this morning, here in Santa Fe, Emily Rapp’s son, Ronan, died of Tay-Sachs disease. Emily has been writing about Ronan’s journey with this rare and fatal degenerative disorder since he was diagnosed two years ago: on her blog, on Facebook, and in “Notes From a Dragon Mom,” an eloquent, devastating essay in The New York Times. Her memoir about mothering Ronan, The Still Point of the Turning World, will be published next month.

I first started following Emily’s story in late 2010, after our mutual writer friend, Rob, introduced us on Facebook. She taught creative writing and had a new baby and loved to hike, he told me. We should get together with our kids, he said. We should be friends.

But my father was dying, and I was preoccupied with grieving and traveling—specifically, grieving and traveling with my five-month-old daughter in tow. By the time I got around to following up on Rob’s introduction, it was January. My father had died, and Emily’s Facebook page had a worrisome tone. I scanned back a few days, weeks and then forward, trying to make sense of what I was reading. There were mentions of doctor appointments and missed milestones, encouraging comments from concerned friends. Then, in plain black type, came the diagnosis: Tay-Sachs. Shocking that something so shattering could be laid bare on the screen, seemingly innocuous and unadorned.

I sat at my computer on that Saturday morning, as the world outside frosted over, feeling stunned. I didn’t know Emily. I didn’t know her son, Ronan, but I knew this terrible, final, irrevocable thing about her. I felt as though I ought to know her better, now that I held this terrible news, even while I knew with unequivocal certainty that we would not go hiking or go out for tea afterwards and talk about our favorite writers or new books we loved. Our friendship was over before it began. But what I didn’t know is that I would think of Emily nearly every single day since then, and marvel at her strength and bravery as a mother and weep for her dark-haired one-year-old son who might not live to be three.

But many days when I thought of her, it was with despair and fear for my own children, for their fragility and mine. How is it possible to keep them safe, to keep us all safe? Last fall when my father was dying, I saw for the first time how life hangs in a delicate balance, a spider web of hope, good health, and possibility strung from the ceiling, tenuous and easily swept away. Every irrational fear that could worm its way into my brain did, lodged there like an unwelcome, intractable houseguest. I spent many months in a deep state of anxiety. I had known, of course, that everyone eventually dies. But I hadn’t really known it. And now that I did, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, worrying about it, dreading it. Emily’s story haunted me, a devastating reminder that it happens to anyone, everyone, all the time: to fathers who are not so very old and children who are far too young and to mothers who love them madly.

All winter and spring, I read her essays and blog posts, and watched as she grappled with Ronan’s illness and her own unscripted role as a mother of, as she wrote, “a child with no future.” Her writing was full of love, unflinching. Reading her stories, I could tell that the act of writing was essential to her, a way to save her own life even if she couldn’t save Ronan’s. There was nothing extraneous—every deliberate word seemed to propel her forward into a new uncertain world, her world, like hands fumbling for a light switch in a darkened room. One step, and then another—words on the page a lifeline from this moment to the next. I felt this, viscerally, absolutely, and was filled with awe.

And guilt. How could I write about running or eating peaches or teaching my four-year-old to ski or my one-year-old to sit still in a raft like a seasoned river baby, when another mother, whose baby will never grow to ride a bike, was wrestling with the biggest question of all: How do I help my child live and die with grace and dignity? If I really thought about it, it seemed possible, and perhaps preferable, to stop writing altogether.

But I didn’t. Emily inspired me. I kept muddling through, even when the hollowness of my own stories, the seeming irrelevance of them, felt like a deliberate slap in the face to this mother whom I didn’t know but who had been generous and open enough to let me feel as though I did.

Like most writers, I write to make sense of the world, and my own life. Sometimes when I’m very lucky, the world and my little slice of it overlap in serendipitous ways, and I remember again how important it is to always keep my heart and eyes open, that inspiration comes from remarkable places, and that everything leads us to a new place. When this happens, it feels as though we are pieces in a larger puzzle that is slowly forming, fitting itself together, revealing itself gradually, in increments, until we can see a new picture in its entirety. This is how it has felt reading Emily: heart-wrenching, tragic, humbling, inspiring.

On this day, I see my fear and anxiety in a new light, with more patience, acceptance, and compassion. “Parenting, I’ve come to understand, is about loving my child today,” Emily wrote in The New York Times. “Now. In fact, for any parent, anywhere, that’s all there is.” These words are a gift, and consolation, to us all, but at such an unbearable cost.

Ronan died at 3:30 this morning, surrounded by family and friends. It was the blackest of nights, but there was light all around—Ronan’s and Emily’s and everyone who knew him and loved him or didn’t know him and loved him still. Death is life, I realized today, as I ran up a mountain trail and stood at the top, facing south, to where Ronan and Emily were. Even at the end, there is so much fullness, so much light. It’s unending.

So I will keep skiing with Pippa. I will teach Maisy to swim. I will take them camping and stroke their blonde hair when they fall asleep in my arms on an airplane after an eternity of whining for a new Dora coloring book. And I will keep writing, about raising my daughters to be fiercely alive, outdoors, in the wind and the sun, crashing their bikes and getting back on again. This is OK. This is more than OK. This is my way out. This is what I do today. This is how I live now. This is all there is.

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