When we greet each other, engage in conversation, welcome one another, and even when we part, human beings face each other. We present our front sides, open and forward. Whether because it is the side of us we cannot see, or because we associate it with low and necessary activities, we reserve our rearward aspect for anger and insult. When we dismiss someone, we “turn our backs” on them. To be even more derisive, we might even present our buttocks. What could speak of disrespect more acutely?
The hind-end of an ass might.
Sometimes we have a bad mule on our farm. William is, for the most part, intelligent and agreeable. If he feels the need to kick, he takes it a good distance away, and then kicks like mule almighty. Sometimes he decides to stand still, and when he does you might as well try to move Highland Butte itself. But most generally, he is affectionate and conversational. He mutters a lot. He greets me by putting his brow against my chest between my (ahem) prominences. His nose is soft and his breath is grassy, and he can be vigilant and protective. But sometimes, he is bad.
The other day when I went out to feed chickens, I found the chicken feeder all overturned and empty on the ground. Well, I wondered, how did that happen? I put it back where it belongs, filled it up, and went on my way. The next morning, lo, there was the chicken feeder, overturned and empty. Hmm, I thought. Something is not right here. On the third morning (this is the way it goes in tales: understanding comes on the third morning), I noticed how the wire along the front of the enclosure was all messed up, pushed down and out of line. This is not something a chicken, even a determined one, can accomplish.
William was standing right there, just waiting for me to feed the, by now, quite hungry hens.
“William!” I said. “Do you know what happens to mules who eat chicken feed? Leave it alone. You’ll start laying eggs.” Which might, now that I think of it, be his best chance of reproduction.
He stood there, innocent, wise, lying his long face off.
I know the determination of my mule, and I know that telling him to leave something alone will not impress him. Strong words won’t. Hand-waving won’t.
But a physical barrier, if it is sufficient, will.
Explaining the situation to him, I set about arranging a shield of mesh fencing across the front of the enclosure from center post to wall. And my handsome half-ass understood what was up right away. He watched for a minute or two while I wrestled with the fencing.
And then, slowly, he turned.
With no sign he measured my existence at all, no twitch of the eyelash or turn of the ear, he stood, behind forward, and addressed me.
Now, you and I all know what this means. We reserve rude words for such expressions. But the mule has no words (though plenty of rudeness if he needs it). What amuses me in this is not that he wants to communicate his feeling, but that he chooses a gesture we humans understand implicitly. It suggests we have much more in common with the rest of the Animal Kingdom than we like to think.