As much as we know of animals, like humans, they retain significant mystery. In an article in The New Atlantis, Stephen Talbott challenges the idea that there is no purpose or meaning behind what animals do, that they are just acting instinctively, reflexively or, even, mechanically. Rather, he says that animals’ behavior is both intelligent and end-directed, even if we cannot conclude that their actions are the result of conscious deliberation. In some way, they know what to do, and they do it.
In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben makes the same point about trees. For example, scientists have discovered that when giraffes started feeding on umbrella thorn acacias in the African Savannah, it took the trees only minutes to begin pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the the large herbivores. They moved on. Not only that, but a tree "attacked" in this way gave off a warning gas, ethylene, that signaled neighboring trees who then began pumping toxics into their leaves to ward off the giraffes. The behavior is both purposeful and adaptive.
And yet significant mysteries remain. We know, for example, that water moves up the trunk of a tree, into branches, and then to leaves, and yet our traditional explanations, capillary action (the way water can defy gravity because of constricted vessels in the trees) and transpiration (the suction effect created when leaves and needles breathe out water into the air, drawing more water up the trunk) explains only some of the movement. The conclusion: We don't know. Wohlleben concludes that "[s]o many questions remain unanswered. Perhaps we are poorer for having lost a possible explanation or richer for having gained a mystery."
We have little warrant from Scripture for concluding that animals (or trees, for that matter) know their Creator in the sense that we might know Him, or that they are conscious of His Providence. The Psalms give us rich poetic language that animates Creation in God’s praise, as when the Psalmist says
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
(Ps. 7-9a). We rightly read these verses not literally but figuratively, and yet as Scripture often is multi-layered in meaning, these verses are open to an even richer meaning, one where Nature purposely, intelligently, and consciously (as befits their kind) praises its Creator. Indeed, in Psalm 104 we read that animals look to God for their food and that when he withdraws his spirit, they return to the dust. Or Jesus reminds us that God marks the dropping of every sparrow. Our fate and that of animals and other non-human life is intertwined.
Wohlleben errs in attributing human qualities to the non-human creation. There is no warrant for that, even if we cannot preclude some type of non-human consciousness or reflection. And yet Jesus died for all Creation. John 3:16 remind us that His love is cosmic in scope, that it is for the love of the cosmos that Jesus came. The Great Reversal wrought by his death and resurrection has meaning not just for humankind but also for the oak and fir, the sparrow and bluebird. The Cross is the place where the curse is undone, where Creation is set free from bondage to decay, where Jesus begins making all things new. The salvation animals know may not be of the kind we experience, where our moral guilt is cleansed by Jesus’ death, yet not only man but lion and lamb will make it into the new Creation.
When next you see some non-human life - whether your cat, dog, or the tree you rest against - know this: It's not a machine but a living thing with purpose. Let your gratefulness and kindness to it mix with wonder and awe. It too is being saved.