But when a beast lives on land the conditions are all altered, and then the ear blossoms out into an infinite variety of forms and sizes, from each of which the true naturalist may divine the manner of life of its wearer as surely as the palmist tells your past, present and future from the lines on your hand. First, he will divide all beasts into those that pursue and those that flee, oppressors and oppressed. The former point their ears forwards, but the latter backwards. There may be a good deal of free play in both cases, but I am thinking of the habitual position. When a cat is making its felonious way along the garden wall, wrapped in thoughts of blackbirds and thrushes, its ears look straight forwards, and this is the way in which a cat's portrait is always taken, because it is characteristic, It cannot turn them round to catch sounds from behind, and would scorn to do so; when accosted from behind, it turns its head and looks danger in the face. It can fold them down backwards when the danger is a terrier and the decks are cleared for action, but that is another story. Contrast Brer Rabbit as he comes "lopin' up de big road," His ears are turning every way scouting for danger, not always in unison, but independently; but when he is at rest they are set to alarm from the flank and rear.
But when he "tear out the house like the dogs wuz atter him," then they point straight back. He was made to be eaten, and he knows it. So it is with the whole tribe of deer, and even with the horse, pampered and cared for and unacquainted with danger; his ears are a weathercock registering the drift of all his petty hopes and fears. I see the left ear go forward and prepare for a desperate shy at that wheelbarrow. He knows a wheelbarrow familiarly—there is one in his stall all day—but I am taking him a road he does not want to go, and so the hypocrite is going to pretend that barrow is of a dangerous sort. I prepare to apply a counter-irritant: he sees it with the corner of his eye, and both ears turn back like a tuning-fork.
The size and quality of the ear serve to show how far the owner depends on it. You will never begin to understand Nature until you see clearly that every life is dominated by two supreme anxieties which push aside all other concerns—viz., to eat, and not to be eaten. The one is uppermost in those that pursue, and the other in those that flee. Now if the pursuer fails he loses a dinner, but if the fugitive fails he loses his life, from which it follows that the very best sort of ears will be found among those beasts that do not ravage but run.
But there is another matter to be taken into account. The ears are not the whole of the beast's outfit. It has eyes, and it has a nose. Which of the three it most relies on depends upon the manner of its life. A bird lives in trees or the air, looking down at the prowling cat or up at the hawk hovering in the clear sky; so it does not keep ears, and its nose is of no account. But what four-footed thing can see like a bird? The squirrel also lives in the trees, and its ears are frivolously decorated with tufts of hair. You will not find many beasts that can afford to prostitute their ears to ornamental purposes. The only other beast that I can think of at this moment which has tufted ears is the lynx. Now the lynx is a tree cat, and there is proverbial wisdom in the saying "Eyes like a lynx."
But go to the timid beasts that spend their lives on the ground among grass and brushwood and woods and coppices, where murderous foes are prowling unseen, and you will see ears indeed—expansive, tremulous, turning lightly on well-oiled pivots, and catching, like large sea-shells, the mingled murmur of rustling leaves and snapping twigs and chirping insects and falling seeds, and the slight, occasional, abrupt, fateful sound which is none of these. It is impossible, no doubt, for us ever to think ourselves into the life which these beasts live—moving, thinking and sleeping in a circumambient atmosphere of never-ceasing sound; sitting, as it were, at the receiving station of a system of wireless telegraphy, and catching cross-currents of floating intelligence from all quarters, mostly undiscernible by us if we listened for it, but which they, by long practice, instantly locate and interpret without conscious effort.
The zoologist classifies them under many heads. The field mouse and rabbits are rodentia, the deer ungulata, the kangaroos marsupialia. In my museum they are all one family, and their labels are their ears. In these days of international conferences, parliaments of religion, pan-everything-in-turn councils, might we not arrange for a great catholic congress of distinguished ears? What a glow of new life it would shed upon our straitened, traditional ways of thinking about the social problems of our humble fellow-creatures! I would exclude the eared owls, whose ears are a mere sport of fashion, like the hideous imitations of birds' wings which ladies stick on their hats.
But just when this peep into the rare show of Nature is lifting my soul into sublimity, I am brought down to the base earth again by an exception. This is the plague of all high science. You design a stately theory, collect from many quarters a wealth of facts to establish it with, and have arranged them with cumulative and irresistible force, when some disgusting, uninvited case thrusts itself in on your notice and refuses to fit into your argument at all. In this instance it is "my lord the elephant." That he has no need to concern himself about any bloodthirsty beast that may be lurking in the jungle is not more obvious than that his ears are the biggest in the world. Now there are two ways of getting rid of an obstruction of this kind. One is to betake yourself to your thinking chair and pipe and to rake up the possibilities of the Pleiocene and Meiocene ages, and prove that when the immense ear of the elephant was evolved there must have been some carnivorous monster, some sabre-toothed tiger or cave bear, which preyed on elephants.
The other way is to get acquainted with the elephant, cultivate an intimacy with him, and find out what his ears are to him. I prefer the second way. I would patiently watch him as he stands drowsily under an umbrageous banian tree on a sultry day before the monsoon has burst and refreshed earth and air. So might I note that his ears are incessantly moving, but not turning this way and that to catch sounds—just flapping, flapping, as if to cool his great temples. So have I seen the gigantic fruit bats, called flying foxes in India, hanging in hundreds in the upper branches of a tall peepul tree at noon, feeling too hot to sleep, and all fanning themselves in unison with one wing—a comic spectacle. And at each flap of the elephant's ears I would observe that a cloud of flies (for the elephant is not too great to be pestered by the despicable hordes of beggars for blood) were dislodged from their feeding grounds about his head and neck, and, trying to settle about his rear parts, were driven back again by the swinging of his tail. Then I should say that ear is just a fan. How significant it is that among the emblems of royalty in the East the three chiefest are an umbrella-bearer, two men who stand behind and swing great punkahs modelled on the elephant's ear, and two others carrying yak's tails wherewith to scare the flies from the royal person! The elephant is a rajah!