Garrett (garote) wrote,


Our little cat hasn't been alive for a year, but she's practically an adult. Today we wrapped sticky gauze around each of her legs and bathed her. She got away from us a few times as we applied the tape, and La and I couldn't help but laugh as she tried to run. She wiggled each foot in turn, and it looked like she was trying to gallop and do kung-fu at the same time.

But the tape stayed on, and we got her covered in two kinds of soap. One kind to remove poison-oak oil, and another kind to kill fleas and clean her off. The only place she would sit still enough for us to rinse her was on my shoulders, behind my neck, so I stood in the shower and held the sprayer back over my head. The sound of the hair dryer drove her crazy, so we did our best with towels and then just let her go. Last time we did this she was smaller and thinner, and we were afraid she would go into shock. That time she crept under my sweater, between my arms, and shivered as I sat in the rolly chair.

This time she did half the drying herself, by grooming. I sat on the bed and watched her. For the first time I realized that her routine was more sophisticated than just licking. She would lick her fur to straighten it, but only until she found a tangle. Then she would bite down behind the tangle and pull up, using her teeth like a comb to break it. I always figured that the biting was prompted by fleas.

This realization led to another, more interesting one. She couldn't have learned how to do that by herself. She just doesn't have the brains to figure that out. It must come from the same instinctive place that all the other grooming habits come from. That makes sense and it shouldn't be surprising to me, but this procedure for breaking tangles looks so much like a product of reasoning. Mira is using her teeth as a tool here. Isn't that pretty sophisticated behavior?

But after a while of watching this, I realized that I was trying to oversimplify things. I wanted to believe that her grooming arose from genetic memory alone, because that's all she had to start with. But like any living creature, her genes and her needs and her environment interplay over time. The results of this process can make some very smart looking behavior.

She may have started just with a simple urge to lick herself when she's feeling well. Her mother licked her when she was tiny, and perhaps that feeling of safety helped to establish that urge. Her mother also had a distinctive smell, which she got on Mira when she groomed her. Mira herself probably smells like her mom, and perhaps when she licks herself she is looking for that smell. Perhaps that feedback established its own pattern: Now she licks herself until she finds that smell again, which means she licks herself until there's no more dirt or water or foreign oil obscuring the smell. An urge to find a particular smell is a pretty small and meaningless urge by itself, but if it combines in sequence with an established habit of licking, it can suddenly turn licking into grooming.

If this is the kind of process at work inside Mira, then I find it pretty amazing. I probably don't have the details right, but I bet I can get ahold of a biology textbook that does. Even more amazing to me is that this process repeats itself, in cat after cat after cat, for as long as cats are around. It repeats in all of us, really. We all respond to environmental cues that are billions of years old, and the ways we respond are prompted by our genetic memory of that environment.

At this point I'm talking about things that are obvious to everyone. I think I'm just dwelling on it tonight because I've been spending a lot of the last few days thinking about my future. Sometimes I imagine an infinite progression of selves, stretching into the past. Each one of them has lived inside the interplay of environment with instincts. Each one of them has had a cat like Mira, prowling around nearby, repeating a similar interplay in the role of all cats, providing a living demonstration and a reminder of how many times this process has repeated. When I think too much about this I feel myself slip out of time, almost out of my own existence, as though I have only the lightest grasp on the individual that is me, among the crowd of selves that I never was. Letting go is like falling back into a place of complete and infinite silence. It's not just a place where nothing happens; it's a place where there can be nothing TO happen.

The future has some changes in it. Perhaps it will help me distinguish the self that I am from the selves I remember, or only imagine. Perhaps it is time to make some noise.
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