A Javelina Manifesto
A Javelina Manifesto
It’s night. I see bats jitter across the moon. I listen to tender hoofbeats in the creosote bushes. Looking up, stars and planets spin, and the Milky Way like pale smoke seethes worlds forever. I see the Big Dipper’s seven suns boiling above me, including Alioth, 81 light years away. It’s July 2018, but Alioth’s light is just reaching my eyes now. I’m looking at the year Emilia Earhart disappeared, the Hindenburg exploded, 1937. The depths of history are lost in the blackness of the west Texas sky. I wonder about alien creatures from other planets. Do they know we are here? And who are “we”—humanity, to assert ourselves as Earth’s dominant, representative organism, our superiority over the rich variety of animals and intelligences on this tiny blue speck we walk upon? I know of a nonhuman creature, living in this place I’m camping, Big Bend National Park, which I feel is equally worthy of admiration. The javelina.
The Big Bend is a section of the Chihuahuan Desert in far west Texas where the Rio Grande curves through canyons and mountains. It’s brimming with life, despite the dryness, summer heat, and stabbing thorns of succulents like the ocotillo, the agave, century plants, rainbow cactus, prickly pear. The animals who live in this desert include Mojave and diamondback rattlesnakes, whiptail lizards who are only female and can fertilize themselves without males or sperm, jackrabbits and cottontails, endangered peregrine falcons nesting in the immense rock face of Casa Grande. In my trips to Big Bend, I’ve seen black-tailed rattlesnakes, white-tailed and mule deer, Mexican jays, vermillion flycatchers, kangaroo rats perking their Micky Mouse ears for danger and hopping on gravel. I saw a mother black bear and three cubs while driving on one of the Chisos basin’s high winding roads. I’ve seen giant desert millipedes longer than my hand. One animal captured my admiration more than any other, drenching my heart with pure joy, like the heavy, sweet creosote smell after rain, like first love. The javelina.
A javelina, (Pecari tajacu) is a piglike mammal with bristly salt and pepper fur. Adults are much smaller than wild boars and weigh up the 60 pounds. In Big Bend, they wander in herds of six to twelve. They are also called collared peccaries, their family is not suidae, the pig family of even toed ungulates, but tayassuidae, the peccary family. They are distinguished by a collar of white fur that rings around their necks to their backs. In the first few weeks of a baby javelina’s life, their fur is reddish brown, and gains salt and pepper coloration past infancy. Their habitat ranges from arid scrublands and deserts to tropical rainforests. They live as far south as Argentina, and north to the Caribbean, and Arizona, New Mexico and southern Texas in the United States. There are three living peccary species, the javelina, the white-lipped peccary which lives in the tropics of Central and South America, and the critically endangered Chacoan Peccary, which only lives in the Gran Chaco region South America. Peccary comes from a Carib word for the animal, pakira or paquira.
Even toed ungulates are cloven-hooved creatures. The Order artiodactyla evolved during the Eocene 53 million years ago, a vast swathe of history before atomic bombs and planes, before hominids in East Africa picked up a stone and chipped away its bluntness. Peccaries share a common ancestor with alpacas, deer, giraffes, pigs and surprisingly, cetaceans, who derived from a hooved carnivorous animal named Pakicetus, small as a greyhound, wandering wetlands to enter the deep ocean, to become dolphins and the great whales.
Peccaries branched from pigs in the late Eocene, and though they are now only native to the Americas, and pigs are only native to the Old World, the earliest fossils of peccary ancestors were found in Europe, Asia and Africa. There are several peccaries that went extinct during early human habitation of the western hemisphere during the Pleistocene, such as Platygonus, the flat-headed peccary, and Mylohyus, the long-nosed peccary, which lived as far north as Canada, and weighed around 110 pounds, much larger than a modern javelina.
The Mayas hunted white-lipped and collared peccaries. They had some association with Mayan culture in addition to being food. Researcher Diane Friedberg states, “In modern ethnographic accounts, it is said that the sun is borne across the sky by a deer during short winter days and by two slower-moving peccaries during the longer days of summer (Milbrath 1999:268)”
The first non-native travelers to javelina territory were Spanish, but the conquistadors made infrequent references to their appearance. There are more accounts among early English-speaking explorers and settlers. In Texas, javelinas roamed farther north and east than their present range, with early accounts of sightings near the Red River, the Oklahoma border. In geographer Jane Manaster’s book, Javelinas: Collared Peccaries of the Southwest,
“...Thomas Nuttall, whose travels are included in Thwaites’ Early Western Travels, claimed to have seen them on the north side of the Red River north of Paris, Texas. Early Texas settler, William DeWees was furious when ‘havalenas’ killed his dogs near Hearne in Robertson County, Texas, and A.J. Pickett also saw them in Wharton County, east of their present range.”
In current times, javelinas are mostly known as a game animal. However, it is impossible to deny that for many people, especially myself, javelinas are cute, and possess an endearing musky quality. One south Texas university, Texas A&M-Kingsville, chose the javelina as their mascot. In the 1920s, the institution kept three javelinas on the premises named Joe, Bob and Baby, until one of the peccaries (whose identity was protected) attacked the first college president of the university, sending him to the hospital.
Javelinas make a variety of calls including grunts and huffing, and have poor eyesight, being unable to see beyond ten feet. Their strength however, is their sense of smell. They can identify their own herd by scent alone, and each javelina has a scent gland on their rump. Javelina calls have been classified as aggressive, submissive and alert. Due to their musky odor, a soft humidity in the air, a person will usually smell a javelina before seeing one. They love to eat prickly pear, and other succulents, and this provides javelinas with a source of hydration if they are not near water. They eat prickly pear fruit and the spines do not hurt them. They are even capable of devouring the arms of a cholla cactus! Javelinas do not ordinarily bite people, unless startled or cornered. Attacking humans is a last resort defense, and they are far more likely to run away from those bipedal apes who wander campgrounds, although they are known to attack dogs. I heard a horror story about a woman who went hiking in the Chisos mountains and left her small dog tethered back at her campsite. Returning to the campgrounds, she found that javelinas had eaten her dog. But the land of the Big Bend was not made for dogs, or homesteads. It was not made at all. It is.
I have asked myself, “Do javelinas have any meaning?” I would have to ask a javelina what meaning their existence might have, but I suspect they have no use for such questions. They simply breathe, sleep, mate, birth, suckle and chew, caught in the web of life, on the Earth’s dust mote rolling through the black plains of the universe, a nexus of galaxies forever and ever.
The German mystic and poet Angelus Silesius, once wrote, “Die Rose ist ohne warum; sie blühet weil sie blühet.” (The rose has no why; it blooms because it blooms.) Why questions lead to an infinity of other why questions, as parents of small children know. However, there only needs to be one Yes to affirm this vast and incomprehensible universe, to love the reality in it, including javelinas. As for meaning, neither the Big Bend nor the universe needs inherent meaning to have value. Meaning is a construct in the mind, whatever values a human’s or a javelina’s mind contains subjectively.
Whatever a javelina loves, contains its meaning. We suppose they love earthly things familiar to sentient beings like sex and food. Ultimately, these meanings are not otherworldly; they are carnal. They are life. All we love and care for is here on Earth. This consciousness. This sensory experience of touch, sight, taste, sound and smell. To me, humanity has much to learn from the javelina. Like the javelina, we ought to pay attention to the physical exuberance of the world around us, in birds, beasts and flowers, in every square inch needling with bacteria; we should not look for other lands to conquer, for a new world to find fame and fortune. The conquistadors came to this continent to pillage its resources, and hardly noticed peccaries.
If paradise will come, it will come on the Earth. If paradise will never come at all; we will recognize it is already here, like the rose, like the javelina, who says Yes.
When I tell people from the Southwest, that my favorite animal is a javelina, they often ask with surprise, Why? Why would a javelina, a pest who uproots garden plants in Tucson, with a skunk-like odor, poor eyesight, and eats prickly pear cacti, be my favorite animal? And how could I answer such a question? I don’t have a rational explanation for why I love the things I love. I didn’t choose to love javelinas. Rather, javelinas happened to me.
My parents brought my brothers and I to Big Bend about every other summer when I was a child, and I feared mountain lions. I remember camping one morning when I heard the wind rustling the sotols whose serrated edges like slender handsaws nuzzled the stones. I unzipped my tent, hearing the dawn chorus of birds. Casa Grande’s rock face blushed red from the rising sun. I caught a whiff of musk in the wind, distinct from the rich creosote smell released after rain. I heard them. They grunted, but remained mostly silent, hoofing the dust for prickly pear to chew, foraging for its fruit like magenta eggs. Their babies huddled under their mothers’ teats for milk, watching me watching them, assuring themselves I was no threat. They walked on, striking tiny flamenco percussions into the dirt, the duende of javelinas.
They had come from the deep river of prehistory to walk the world with humankind, and they did not know or seem to care what humanity thinks of them, and do not know the names people have given them, collared peccary, musk hog, javelina. They love what they need, and need no more than what they love.
The Big Bend contains what the philosopher and literary critic, Edmund Burke, called the sublime, an immensity beyond human conception and categorization. At the Texas and Chihuahua border of the US and Mexico, Santa Elena Canyon rises 1,500 feet from the desert floor, the brown will of the Rio Grande cutting through. A person seeing this country will think of cowboys, banditos, immensity and eternity. This country stirs the imagination’s stew.
Romanticism uses the imagination for exploring, and I consider myself, sometimes to the unhappiness of my rationalist friends, a romantic. Philosophically and artistically, I am in the lineage of Emerson, Thoreau and Walt Whitman, the American transcendentalists. Science and rationality are useful tools, but a positivist worldview—a belief that the only truths available to us are empirical facts and deductive reasoning, do not account for individual subjective experience, and therefore, cannot justify values. Logicians cannot answer with an infallible truth why being alive is better than being dead. And the whole world, not merely Big Bend, is sublime. Everything is throbbing with vitality, expressing its ontic affirmation against the nihilism of despair. Every microbe is sublime. A dust mote is a world. I find this simple, pure joy, the joy of mere being, in javelinas.
Like people, animals experience the mystery of consciousness. Each javelina is an individual. They are somebodies, not somethings. Western philosophy has borne an anthropocentric strain since Plato, despite the occasional insight of writers like Michel de Montaigne, who stated in his work, Apology to Raymond Seybond, that nonhumans possessed not only minds, but had the ability to speak. I agree with Montaigne that animal noises, and more broadly, their communication, is a language. The three known javelina calls, aggressive, submissive and alert, are not mere sound—the reaction of inanimate forces, like tides crashing with noise on a beach—rather, javelina calls contain intentional meaning. They are words. A javelina has a brain and central nervous system. He or she wants and feels things. A majority of sentient animal communication also fits this relevant linguistic criterion: they use abstract signifiers (sounds, songs, or in the case of some cephalopods, changing colors on their bodies) to refer to signified objects or realities about their environment or state of mind.
Rene Descartes, who I’d deem a rational extremist, on the other hand, disagreed with Montaigne’s belief that animals can talk. He also disagreed that they can think and makes the extreme claim animals are not even conscious. He believed nonhumans were free moving automata. In Descartes’ 1646 Letter to the Marquess of New Castle, he wrote, “Doubtless when swallows come in spring, they operate like clocks.” This extremism does have a method to it. Descartes believed the mind and body were separate substances. The body is carnal, and the mind is spiritual, immaterial, and the body and mind are connected by the brain’s pineal gland. Descartes’ methodology includes radical skepticism, relying only on the irrefutability of deductive reasoning, that the number five is inherently and always equal to five. He also assumed that the immaterial realm of rational thoughts precedes the physical realm of passion and the body, and because thoughts are the foundations of the physical world, Descartes believed he could determine the truth through deductive logical syllogisms, such as 1. All men are mortal. 2. Plato is a man. Conclusion: Plato will die. Descartes concluded the only assuredness he existed were his thoughts, hence his famous phrase, Cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am.
Despite this compelling appeal to logic, numbers are not real. The number five may represent five snails on a log, but a geologist cannot crack open a rock and discover fives inside of it. Numbers, like words, are abstract signifiers. In this sense, math is more metaphorical than logicians contend, as all references are metaphors for “ding an sich”—Immanuel Kant’s phrase for the thing in itself. Adding numbers to the universe may include inherently true statements, such as “triangles have three sides,” but the word “triangle” is a metaphor for three-sided objects physically found in the universe. The word “javelina” is also a metaphor for the animal encountered in Big Bend and elsewhere. Our experience of javelinas may be enhanced by their signification, but in saying three javelinas walk through the park, neither the number three, nor the word javelina, truly exist outside of their linguistic construction. No declaration of let there be light, makes light appear. No words can create the power and mystery of a javelina.
It’s intuitively obvious to anyone who has had a dog, cat, hamster or any sentient pet, that nonhuman beings have desires, and act to fulfill those desires, which are products of a physical mind, a brain. Today’s scientists recognize that both animals and humans contain central nervous systems, which are fleshy, organic, and the feelings that stem from them, are thoughts. A dog chasing his tail in unrestrained ecstasy, is experiencing a joy that stems from his mind. Furthermore, the idea that people are a category, and animals are separate, is silly. Animal is an impossibly pluralist term, encompassing radically different beings, from starfish to a rhinoceros; their only unifying feature is that they are nonhuman. It is this demarcation, this narcissistic hierarchy made by human beings to preference human beings, that allows our species to pillage the natural world, abuse other lifeforms, and infantilize and degrade other groups of people historically deemed more “animal” than human.
Am I superior to a javelina? I would not know. It is impossible to ask a peccary who is better. Our languages are different. All criteria in comparing humans to javelinas are tainted by anthropocentric bias. Poetry, art, religion, philosophy have no use to collared peccaries. I can infer, as ethologists can—scientists who study animal behavior, what a javelina thinks and feels.
Wandering in herds, peccaries spend their days foraging, so we know they value food, family and companionship. They suffer predation from mountain lions, coyotes, humans, and in their more southerly locations, jaguars. Their young, often birthed in pairs of two, have a 50% mortality rate, so it’s reasonable to assume javelinas experience fear. But the babies also sprint gleefully in circles while their tired parents watch—a behavior called “frisky hopping” by zoologists and this suggests javelinas can feel joy.
In ruminating on the limits of my consciousness, to exit the prison of my sensory experience, I can enlarge myself by imagining what it’s like to be a javelina. We humans are smart. We know so much more than other animals. Yet, with such intelligence, we suffer existential crises that alienate our sense of meaning and belonging as individuals, cling to prejudices against other skin tones and sexualities, isolate masses to poverty while enriching a wealthy elite. We make war and build nuclear weapons capable of annihilating our species. In short, we have outsmarted ourselves.
Imagining what it’s like to be a nonhuman causes me to question what human values are, and what they should be. I do not ask whether humanity is inferior to javelinas. I ask, are some human values, working a nine to five job, getting married and buying a house for a family to live among respectable people, arbitrary? And we must ask the next question. What are our core human values, values we cannot do without? Javelinas seem to know, because they never asked these questions. Nourishment, love, family and being alive are more significant than all the diamonds of the earth. Any person who covets power more than life and vitality is foolish.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous piece of phenomenology entitled, What Is it Like to Be a Bat? Nagel considers a bat’s subjective consciousness, including using echolocation while hunting for insects, in a reaction against reductive theories of mind such as functionalism and behaviorism. I agree with Nagel and phenomenologists that minds cannot simply be defined as chemical and neurological processes; rather they are defined by their first-person experiences. I ask what it’s like to be a javelina for an unusual reason. I want a revolution.
I don’t mean an explicitly social movement. To acquire justice, we must become just people, not merely adopt the proper political system. A moral revolution done by immoral people is doomed to failure. I want us to change our state of mind, or if you are repulsed by the word spiritual, a psychological metamorphosis. I want us to consider the Animal Kingdom, to which we belong, and live by our essential human values, which are not so different than a javelina’s values in the scheme of the universe. I don’t want people to forage through nature in nomadic tribes like javelinas; I want our species to understand who we are. By articulating our essential values, we can stop being cruel to one another and be humble in the face of this universe more powerful than any army, deeper than any idea.
And why should we change our values? Because the whole world is at the mercy of our species. Scientists estimate by the end of the 21st century, a majority of species on Earth may become extinct. Our single human race is obsessed with divisive categories like nation, religion, skin tone, sexual orientation, gender. We have an immense technological capacity, but in the United States, the richest country in the world, 43 million Americans live in poverty while military expenditures exceed 600 billion dollars. We exert more effort to make peace through war than peace through compassion. Children begin their live curious, their eyes gleaming with wonder at this complex and sublime universe, and then feel pressured to be physically attractive, wealthy and popular above everyone else, even while we dwell on a bluish speck spinning around on an average star in a galaxy of 400 billion suns, in universe of over 100 billion galaxies. What good is being famous amidst the vastness of interstellar space, and the beauty of the Earth?
Ultimately, as the ecological foundations of the earth are pillaged by corporations and threatened by climate change, perhaps the greatest human value is love. Love, when done properly, is not confined to one group of people, one species, and has no limits to its affirmative power. I would include other values humans need for a successful revolution, grace—the humility before nature and death, not to shake our fist at fate, but to accept and be gracious for the richness of this miraculous world. Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, “A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.” Also, mercy; as Clarence Darrow said in the 1920s Leopold and Loeb murder trial, “Mercy is the highest attribute of man.” We ought not to practice revenge, and we should allow javelinas to live out their lives in the wilderness, not to shoot them, even if they uproot flower gardens. After all, our species is merely passing from nature to eternity, and we have no right to possess and control the ground on which we walk. We belong to the world. The world does not belong to us.
It is easy to be cynical about humanity, given our history, our deep pathologies. It’s harder, perhaps more courageous to be hopeful. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”
Homo sapiens have dwelled on this planet for about 200,000 years, a fraction of the dinosaur era, a spark in eternity. Yet, humanity consumes Earth so ravenously, we will soon be reaped by death if we do not learn to live in a more altruistic, kinder way. We could burn all our resources, begin a nuclear holocaust, condemning everyone at the mercy of our willful ignorance. It is not a matter of whether we can change human nature, rather we must change human nature. Javelinas hoof and bark in the wilderness and do not bother with patriotism or ethnic pride. They use only what they want and want only what they need.
50,000 years ago, human beings walked out of Africa, and 13,000 years ago, they reached the Americas, and javelinas. Those first ancient footsteps still resound from golden savannas, and javelinas complete the journey. As I watch the Big Dipper bubble in the heavens, I think of how far our species has come, and how far we must travel until at last, we find our way home.
When I came back to Big Bend in 2018 I camped by the Rio Grande, where javelina sightings were most common. It was midsummer, and at the lowest elevation in the park, the heat was stifling, so I knew the javelinas would not come out until late evening or early morning. That night after seeing the stars, I waited for javelinas to walk the campgrounds. I did not see them, so after sunrise I drove off to trails in the Chisos Mountains. I came back to the campground in the afternoon and waited until dusk, hopefully to photograph one. There were no javelinas. I felt that because I saw javelinas in my childhood, I had an almost mystical bond with them. My belief it seems, was not based on fact. The sun set westward and gilded the Sierra del Carmen’s mesas across the Rio Grande like honeyed castles, and I looked across the campgrounds, seeing only fat turkey vultures. I knew I’d be overjoyed to see just one, to photograph a javelina, despite seeing a variety of animals I hadn’t witnessed before. Nature and her animals did not conform to my desires. The javelinas did not appear just because I wanted them to, no matter how mystical I deemed my connection with nonhuman life—that too was a projection of my nature on the rest of nature. At night the stars came out again like gnats lost in flowers of nebulae. Asleep in my tent, I heard rustling. Hurriedly, I opened my tent. The campgrounds were black as the moment of creation, without form and void, before the heavens and the earth came to be, before the Big Bang. I thought if I took picture with a flash, it would capture a javelina in the darkness. I took a picture. I looked at the image captured by my camera, zooming in and out. There was nothing. I went back to sleep and found that the rustling had been the wind blowing the unsecured rainfly of my tent.
Next morning, it was time for me to leave Big Bend. I smiled, knowing that it didn’t matter that I didn’t see a javelina, as I had so many other animal encounters, including muskrats in the Rio Grande, which were not listed on the park’s mammal list, and I believe these weren’t nutria or beavers. I turned the ignition and was about to put in my directions to GPS device when I turned off my ignition. I got my camera out. There he was. A javelina.
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