In the Kingdom of the Cats


Hamster Ball

the war of the birds

I’m a pensive sort of person; often I seem to be “lost in my own little world.” We all have that problem. We think we exist in a little transparent bubble that extends about three feet around our bodies, rather like a hamster in one of those plastic balls. Our lack of awareness of our millions of interactions and interconnections with everything else around us causes a lot of personal conundrums, but the situation becomes much worse when the myopia reaches the scale of entire communities or nations. What happens “out there” has nothing to do with us. We are not part of it, and it is not part of us. Witnesses to disasters, wars, and crimes will predictably protest “I didn’t want to get involved” or “Someone else is handling it.”

I once had a moment of lucidity when walking across a parking lot. My mind was reeling with ruminations about work at my office and all the annoyances there. Suddenly I heard a racket in the trees lining the lot. I noticed blackbirds harassing some other birds who had invaded their neighborhood. The more I paid attention to them, the more I saw that a terrible battle was going on. It was emotionally tense and violently dramatic. For just a minute, I wondered if birds had countries, and if I was witnessing a defining moment in bird history. We humans will never know; it will never be covered on CNN. The local news of the day would cover traffic accidents, house burglaries, and so on. A major event in the world of the birds, happening right in front of us, will never be deemed significant. But then, the birds probably have no interest in human affairs and have never taken notice of human wars, either.

Then I thought about the ant world in that parking lot, and the world of the weeds poking through the pavement, and world of the worms underneath. I became dizzy in contemplating how many universes were superimposed, co-existing, in that one parking lot.

It reminded me of one of the Star Trek movies where the planet Earth was about to be destroyed by an alien probe that was trying to communicate with whales, which the probe thought to be the only intelligent beings on our planet, and the only organisms worth communicating with.  Which worlds would aliens perceive and respond to in my parking lot? Would they notice my world, my hamster ball,  at all?

King of the Cats

The King of the Cats

Someone, well probably many someones, but one particular someone had an experience like I did in the parking lot observing the war of the birds. That person ‘s experience has been told in the British Isles for hundreds of years in a folktale called “The King of the Cats”. Here’s a version from Edwin Sidney Hartland’s book English Fairy and Folk Tales:

Many years ago, long before shooting in Scotland was a fashion as it is now, two young men spent the autumn in the very far north, living in a lodge far from other houses, with an old woman to cook for them. Her cat and their own dogs formed all the rest of the household.

One afternoon the elder of the two young men said he would not go out, and the younger one went alone, to follow the path of the previous day’s sport looking for missing birds, and intending to return home before the early sunset. However, he did not do so, and the elder man became very uneasy as he watched and waited in vain till long after their usual supper-time. At last the young man returned, wet and exhausted, nor did he explain his unusual lateness until, after supper, they were seated by the fire with their pipes, the dogs lying at their feet, and the old woman’s black cat sitting gravely with half-shut eyes on the hearth between them. Then the young man began as follows:–

“You must be wondering what made me so late. I have had a curious adventure to-day. I hardly know what to say about it. I went, as I told you I should, along our yesterday’s route. A mountain fog came on just as I was about to turn homewards, and I completely lost my way. I wandered about for a long time, not knowing where I was, till at last I saw a light, and made for it, hoping to get help. As I came near it, it disappeared, and I found myself close to a large old oak tree. I climbed into the branches the better to look for the light, and, behold it was beneath me, inside the hollow trunk of the tree. I seemed to be looking down into a church, where a funeral was in the act of taking place. I heard singing, and saw a coffin, surrounded by torches, all carried by–But I know you won’t believe me if I tell you!”

His friend eagerly begged him to go on, and laid down his pipe to listen. The dogs were sleeping quietly, but the cat was sitting up apparently listening as attentively as the man, and both young men involuntarily turned their eyes towards him. “Yes,” proceeded the absentee, “it is perfectly true. The coffin and the torches were both borne by cats, and upon the coffin were marked a crown and sceptre!” He got no further; the cat started up shrieking:

“By Jove! old Peter’s dead! and I’m the King o’ the Cats!” rushed up the chimney and was seen no more.

 The Myth of Myself

This story is marketed today as a children’s tale for Halloween. Actually, the message is not for children, the story is not supernatural, and it has nothing to do with the themes of Halloween. The shock of the punchline gives you a moment of lucidity. That is the point.

The philosopher Alan Watts lectured extensively on the problem of being stuck in our own limited ego-states, and showed that the teaching stories and methods of Zen buddhism were designed to free people from the agony and ineffectiveness of thinking we are trapped in this world and are not connected to everything else in the universe. Perhaps a hamster in a ball is just another metaphor for a goose in a bottle.

Alan Watts – The Real You


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