Nature Notes - March 2021
- Story by James Inabinet
The author attempts to connect to his identity as an organism in the universe by viewing the world through the eyes of other creatures.
- Story by James Inabinet
Three days fasting in the woods helps the author reckon with a difficult year and find his authentic self.
- Story by James Inabinet
Our own Hancock County philosopher and naturalist looks back on a youthful epiphany that changed the course of his life.
- Story by James Inabinet, PhD
Exploring unmanaged natural areas rather than the groomed trails of "nature centers" requires the explorer to pay attention to his surroundings.
-story and photos by James Inabinet
By establishing an emotional connection, the land and the home can – and perhaps should – become not just a location, but a member of the family.
- Story by James Inabinet
Like the wind, passion can be soothing and persuasive - or relentless and destructive.
- Story by James Inabinet
Is time linear, the way most of us in the modern world experience it, or is it cyclical, the way our ancestors existed in it?
- Story by James Inabinet, Ph.D.
Before linear time, for nearly the entire expanse of human experience, there was cyclical time too, rhythmic time. Cyclical time was the lived experience of the masses even up to now. For the all-too-many living on the margins of poverty, no clock rules their existence. They are the “shiftless.” There are no shifts to work, no shifts that follow the hands of a clock.
Outside of the world of money and work and clocks, the natural sense of time on Earth as directly experienced right now is less linear and more cyclical – the seasons, the daily cycle, the phases of the moon.
Rhythmic time speaks of an eternal order, the light and dark of the seasons, the growth and decay of all things coming into being, to do and go, only to come again. Watching a river flow, unchanging through its continued change, enables an idea of timelessness, of an eternal time that can be experienced by simply being outside, a part of the changing reality and eternity of a single day.
Linear time is connected to the past, to memory; we experience it by looking back. By contrast, rhythmic time is the eternal now, always in front of us, right now. It speaks of what was, but in its recurrent reality, now, a story told by the rising sun each dawn.
A day begins in the dead of night from which daylight inexorably bursts forth as Apollo’s chariot completes its round. At night, stillness reigns. Little moves. What does move can only be heard – now.
Sight is useless in the dim moonlight of a crescent moon. With straining ears, the night sojourner faintly hears the far off frogs in the pond and the leaf-rustling of an armadillo across the way digging up a worm or grub, rooting more like a pig than a pig itself. There he leaves a cone-shaped, ankle-breaking hole.
Unmoving stillness is what midnight looks like; silence is its roar in a sleeping world. Yet one never fully feels alone in the night forest, and to be sure, not all of the forest is sleeping. The night sojourner ever feels like she’s being stared at: the watchful owl on the limb, the fearful golden mouse on the trail edge, the thousands of wolf spiders scurrying along the ground against the lumbering giant’s footfall.
One is never alone in a forest.
Finally a faint eastern glow begins to push back the shadows. The world is coming to life.
Morning looks like the morning glory, blooming to meet the sunlight of day. Morning sounds like the cardinals in the fetterbush thicket–tick-tick-tick-tick-tick–picking off the leaf-eating caterpillars. Morning sounds like the buzzing solitary bee that visits the meadowbeauty at the forest edge.
The sunlight traces paths a hundred-fold through the morning mist, seeking, it seems, any path to bring light to the forest floor. As the day progresses, the flurry of activity slowly ceases until only the occasional bird or the occasional bee remains. The sun finds a more direct route to the ground now. There is less forest to obstruct its path from overhead.
As the day wanes, the pace quickens again as the animals almost frantically search for their supper. The morning glories are now long closed up in preparation for the sleep of night. As night falls, the stillness that reigned the night before resumes.
The regnant shadows cloak what in the light of day was a mere pine stump. Now in the shadows it is a hunched over, wooly monster, created in the mind’s eye of fantasy and memory. A day is felt more than seen, and in that feeling one becomes a participant, a co-creator, in the wonders of place, space, and time.
Australian Aborigines are co-creators in this way. In his daily experience, Big Bill Neidjiee sings his world into being in the dreaming (as recorded by T. C. McCluhan).
I feel it with my body, with my blood.
Feeling all these trees, all this country ...
When this wind blows you can feel it.
Same for country ... you feel it.
You can look, but feeling ...
That make you.
The author marvels at nature's most powerful and breathtaking spectacle: a summer thunderstorm.
- story by James Inabinet, PhD
Turning my gaze to the gurgling creek, I notice its energetic flow despite the lack of rain. I love this place. It is a good place to be still among the beings of this forest with whom I share this beautiful place.
I listen for a while to forest sounds. I always begin mindfulness practice this way. I hear a cardinal to the north; cicadas are loud, primarily east; squawking jays fly over chasing a single crow caw west.
There’s silence for a while, and then more birds, a squirrel maybe. I’m not sure; it was a single squeak. I imagine I hear a faint sound of thunder.
Unsure, I listen closely for a while, more birds, the squirrel – it was definitely a squirrel. I hear thunder again, definitely thunder. There’s a storm to the southeast. I ignore it and begin my meditation. Thinking of nothing, I float inward.
After a while, I have no way of knowing how long, I am pulled back into the world by thunder. Looking southeast, I see dark instead of blue through the canopy. The storm is almost here. I decide to sit it out. It approaches quickly now; shifting winds animate tree tops. I settle firmly onto my pad, a kind of bracing. I look up and am ready.
Eyes closed, I focus on sounds and feelings, to hear the music of this place, bathed by rain, buffeted by wind–a flash of light, a huge raindrop–to see every flash, hear every thunder, smell the ozone, the cleansed air. There is magic in experiencing a storm. I am excited! The storm is almost here; it’s nearly dark.
The wind blows violently through the trees; falling pine needles prick my bare arms and back. The wind blows harder still, the thunder louder, flashes of light! Rain is falling, amazingly cold and hard – harder still! A flash of light north; wind blows wet hair; rain pricks skin. Thunder! The lightning is closer now. As air becomes water I close my eyes. Soaked through, I am getting chilled.
I open my eyes again to watch the lightning. I have to look down to see flashes; the rain makes looking up painful. I focus on the time between flash and sound. Twelve seconds for that one; ten for the next, then twelve, then five! I’m cold now – stuck here – what was I thinking?
I continue focusing on flash and thunder to forget about cold and rain. Maybe there’s medicine in this; I recommit. The air is charged; my stomach sinks like I’m on a roller coaster. I’m frightened – no, not frightened; maybe it’s alert, very alert, engaged, as storm and I become one.
A lightning bolt crashes very close. I didn’t count the time. Now I’m frightened. I focus again on the thunder; if there’s medicine it must be there, not in the rain. The storm begins to wane.
Lightning flashes are farther north and east now. Soon there are no sounds at all except distant thunder and water drops from trees. I am uncomfortable and that’s good; I want to feel it.
Soon I head for home, exhausted, although I cannot figure out why. I just blithely walk through the webs.
At home I reflect and feel I’m at a beginning. I am alive! The gift of thunder, its medicine, must be the gift of life for to hear thunder means to have survived lightning.
Today, as every day, I received a gift of life. It starts now and I mean to live it in a manner that recognizes the relationship between life and death, between thunder and lightning, and to a death that will eventually overtake me.
We never seem to think about life as precious gift so concerned we are with the “ten-thousand things of the world,” and so we take it for granted, and move through our life paths unconsciously, frittering that precious life away. Thunder teaches life. Thoreau says it, too, in Walden:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
I did not wish to live what was not life, [but] to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
The author takes time to study the quietness of the forest and the unique qualities of its inhabitants.
- story by James Inabinet, PhD
Winged blue jays were doing bird-things: eating muscadine berries, building nests in early spring, picking aphids off of stems, and singing songs. Wiggling earthworms were doing earthworm things: tunneling just below the surface of the ground, eating leaves, feeding armadillos, squirming when encountering ants or sunlight.
Hopping frogs were doing frog things: sitting on lily pads, hunting insects, swimming, calling for a mate, and feeding snakes. Crawling fence lizards were doing lizard things: running over the ground, hunting, slipping tongues in and out of their mouths, performing push-ups to show off blue underbellies, feeding birds, digging under leaf mats, and remaining motionless when the shadow of a bird passes over.
Rooted red maples were doing maple things: limbs reaching toward the sun, growing tall in moist bottomlands, flowering and seeding in mid-winter, and feeding squirrels.
The initial goal of the investigations was simply to make careful and detailed observations of anything that captured my interest.
In the goldenrod field, for instance, I sought the unique character of goldenrod so as to understand its process of becoming, to understand how it became what it is. Not a form frozen in time, goldenrod grows and becomes, changing every day. Through detailed observations I noted how goldenrod expressed itself: basal rosette of fuzzy green leaves, long straight stems, robust yellow fall flowers.
In the beginning, all goldenrods looked the same. Over time, the more I looked, the more I began to notice variations. I noticed that goldenrods in the field were usually small in stature, but large in flower while those in the forest tended to be large in stature and small in flower.
Further investigations revealed individual differences. No two goldenrods were alike. I was eventually able to detect particulars for each one, a unique and individual character–though detecting that individual character was often difficult.
After many forays watching animals, I noticed that after an organism’s needs were met, she would often sit idly, perhaps resting in a protected nook. A coyote near the bayou with a rabbit once panted under the low-lying limbs of wax myrtles.
A frog-fed copperhead curled up on the creek bank in the shade of titi limbs. Satiated towhees sat on limbs, either singing or resting quietly. A finch left a bush half-full of berries and never returned - unless she slipped in and out without my noticing.
It seemed that nearly all of the organisms I chose for careful study rested when not hunting or hiding or escaping. With no dire call to incessantly hunt and store food, enough seemed to be enough.
In these ways and myriad others, I noticed that the characteristics of each organism amalgamated into a unique expression.
Deathcaps of the forest floor displayed a unique sense of fungusness unlike that of puffballs. The squirrels of the canopy displayed a unique sense of squirrelness, an identity unexpressed by any other organism. Water oaks displayed a sense of oakness unique to their kind, an expression that I became so familiar with that I could eventually distinguish water oaks from others by gazing at twilight silhouettes from far away.
I called each organism’s manner of being its identity. Each organism in the forest possessed a unique identity, unique as species, unique as individuals. The primary inclination of each individual seemed to be to express its unique identity as individual in its forest home.
I longed to find out what humanness must be like in my forest home. I longed to find out my identity, to find out what Jamesness must be like if it were to be fully realized.
Our Hancock County philosopher observes the natural world around him acting in harmony and wonders where humans fit in.
- Story by James Inabinet, PhD
Minutes passed. My eyes remained closed as I felt a simple joy at being here, now. My wandering mind soon fell onto why it felt so good and it occurred to me (as it has before) that it might be the interlacing harmony of it all.
A palpable harmony, a felt one, I have quite often found myself to be ensconced here in my forest home within a panoply of seamless fits, a place where everything seemed “just so.” Homes and niches interpenetrate and overlap homes and niches–and I am a part of it!
I have surmised that every constituent being, by simply following their desires to be, by just being and doing according to true natures, contributes to and creates this harmony.
Oak trees are being oak. Driven by a desire to be oak (no more-no less) they surge with hormones and produce flowers that become acorns, food for squirrels, birds, and weevils–and budding oak trees.
Weevils are being weevil. Driven by a similar desire, they drill into acorns where eggs are laid that hatch into acorn-eating weevil grubs. Shiny green tiger beetles, driven by a desire to be and do tiger beetle, are running about–fast–on the forest floor to catch and eat small insects, notably acorn weevils.
Lizards are there too, among the beetles, prompted by desire to just be lizard. Some are flashing blue underbellies while others flash ruddy neck extensions, even as tiny flying moths are snatched up and devoured.
Bees, driven by a desire to be bee, can be heard buzzing about (a totally bee behavior), checking-in on coreopsis flowers over there, wild plum flowers over here, and huckleberry flowers over there.
Sitting on a mat of leaves, I leaned against a water oak to gaze. A barely visible dogwood bloomed through intervening foliage. I listened to the gentle breeze in the canopy and scanned.
A low-flying pine warbler, lured by desire to be warbler, flitted from limb to limb. She was singing a distinctive “warbling cheep” while jerking her head about rapidly, side-to-side, up-then down, jerky–nothing smooth about it.
To the west about a hundred feet away a male swallowtail, driven by desire, perhaps by the proximal scent of a potential mate, flew haphazardly but quickly from left to right and out of sight, two hundred feet in a matter of seconds.
In the face of a desire to be and the apparent harmony within my forest home, I wondered about humans. I wondered about human-in-harmony, about what it might be like for a human being to live in harmony with the forest in the same way an oak or a warbler or a fence lizard lives in harmony.
What would that be like? What would it feel like for a human in service to a potential “human niche” to perform a “human function” that creates it?
Ecologically, an organism performing its function in an ecosystem is performing its niche. Niche is kind of like a “job” in the ecosystem, both the place and the functioning, inseparably, together, including associates, i.e., oaks and weevils and squirrels and warblers.
Squirrels perform a squirrel function by gathering acorns, ripping pine cones apart, running along limbs, hiding from the cooper’s hawk behind a pine trunk. By performing these functions, a squirrel niche is performed.
How does the squirrel know what to do? She follows instinct for sure, but what is that like? I surmise that niching behaviors are prompted by a desire to be and become, whatever kind of organism is in question. Squirrels, driven by the instinctual desire to BE squirrel, perform niching behaviors and squirrel niches spontaneously spring into being.
This brings us back to humans and niche. In a forest ecosystem, what might a human function be? Along the lines of squirrel function and niche, this must be a performance of human function that brings about a human niche.
How would a human know what to do? Is it just instinct? In its performance, would human niching harmonize with the functioning of other beings of a forest like squirrel functioning does? What would such a human niche look like, be like? More importantly perhaps, what would it feel like?
These questions haunt me.
“Our first teachers are our feet, our hands, and our eyes. To substitute books for all these is but to teach us to use the reason of others." Jean-Jacques Rousseau
- Story by James Inabinet, PhD
Somehow, though, we are comfortable with these conflicting views.
Trouble begins, I think, when we privilege what we think and know from books or screens at the expense of experience. Ordinary third-graders are now expected to learn about trees by reading about them or by gazing at photographs in a book or computer.
Effectively removed from actual trees, these students come to know them devoid of sensual experience, without ever looking closely, without feeling the difference in texture between magnolia and beautyberry leaves, without smelling the difference between crushed bayberry and red bay leaves, without smelling the root beer scent of sassafras roots. Inside sterile rooms these students sit with their books, bored to death, engaged not in their own reason, but in Rousseau’s “reason of others.”
In many ways the whole of modern culture has given over experience in favor of thinking. We have learned more from books about how trees grow and make leaves and feed squirrels and birds and bugs than we know about the tree in our front yard – if we even have one anymore [it might fall on my house in a storm].
Oh, but the living green world that I see outside my forest home is more vivid than any words can convey. I wonder how much we have given up sitting in classrooms, looking at books, staring at screens?
Nature beckons me; it calls me home, to the direct experience of moving suns.
The natural world is directly experienced with a body first – feet, hands and eyes – the initial basis for any knowledge. I am sitting here at the edge of the forest looking at a red bay, its lance-shaped leaves deformed by galls; crossing branches hold a squirrel nest; a bevy of pines loom behind it. No book can tell me this, no screen can convey the whole of it; the smell of the leaves – try to describe that.
In these ways and myriad others, a body first comes to know a tree tacitly. Tacit means silent, without recourse to words or why or how. Tacit knowing is like typing. If we think, we can no longer do it.
We experience the world first with our bodies: feet, hands, and eyes. The very act of living in a body necessitates experience — that’s what it’s there for! In this way, my body is more a means for communion with the world than a boundary that separates.
So, what does the world of hands, feet, and eyes actually tell me? From far above I might experience the earth as kind of flat. Were I to gaze down like a soaring eagle, I might see brown and green earth, blue Gulf. I might see a bay-side city-scape dotted with houses, painted-on like a pointillist might put onto canvas.
This flat circle earth is a mandala world of rich color-in-motion. The winds of the four directions nourish me as I soar at its center. The morning sun on this stationary earth rises everyday without fail, arcs steadily overhead, and finally sets late in the afternoon. This moving sun is our experience, based on the inner workings of a life-world that’s actually lived.
The very concept of motion, of rest, of time, of space, is derived from Earth, is relative to Earth. I can watch the dome of the sky on any night turn around Polaris until the light of the sun obliterates the view. I can feel its movement as Orion descends below the horizon and Cassiopeia moves upward into view.
Experience is the birthplace of meaning. A nameless aborigine said: “Whatever one sees is a reflection of oneself.” What kind of reflection does a disembodied mind see? What meaning is derived? Is that what we want… or does it leave us hungry?
He continues, “this is not taught in schools; this is what the cuckoo taught me on the cliffs of Cornwall.”
In this series, local naturalist and Zen explorer, James Inabinet, experiments with ways to consider the world from another living creature's perspective - and discovers a new way of seeing.
- by James Inabinet, PhD
Keen far-sightedness might be another. From an elevated perch, the hawk detects subtle movements in the field that betokens the presence of tiny beings, like the vibrations of a blade of grass– not rhythmic, wind-produced vibrations but the unique, irregular movements of grass blades that could only result from a moving living being.
Other gifts might be sharp, strong gripping claws that can grab a mouse or snake off the ground on the fly. These and other potentialities are brought into the world and made manifest when hawks simply go about hawking, by hawk-doing.
All hawks do not manifest these potentialities identically. Each individual hawk possesses a unique potentiality to manifest hawk gifts. One hawk may possess more patience and decide to perch longer than another – and get a meal because of it. Another hawk may be able to see better than another or have sharper or stronger claws. All hawks exhibit hawkness equally, but each according to individual potentialities.
I tried to imagine what I would see from the hawk perch. Viewing the field from that distance, I might see it more in its wholeness than a mouse does. The mouse is so close that all she sees is field parts, her nose touching everything she sees.
The distant hawk cannot see in this way; he might see the bird and not wings, claws, or beak, or the mouse and not legs, ears, or eyes, or the field itself and not goldenrods, fleabanes, or bluestems. Seeing in a hawk way, effectively removed from individual plants, I would not know them.
As I sit, I can easily imagine myself soaring above the land looking down, but the imagery seems ephemeral, not so easy to produce and even harder to hold onto.
After a minute my mind begins to wander with thoughts of home. I sit with closed-eyes in silent meditation for a few minutes, thinking of nothing, and try to return to the soaring above.
As I wonder what I see, I try to feel it as much as see it. I become increasingly immersed in the process; more complex images form; the imagery becomes easier to produce and hold. As I lose the sense of myself, I begin to imagine tree tops, pines, oaks, and magnolias, as splotches of color, mostly varied hues of green, but tinged with brown, red, and yellow here and there – it’s fall after all.
Panning around, I can see the snaking creek, mostly obscured by trees, but splotches of dirty white tell of sandy embankments along its edge. Sunlight catches on ripples reflecting brightly in the shape of asterisks [!]. The image is so real that I mentally blink under the intensity of the light.
After a while of sitting in this way, I am abruptly pulled from the reverie of soaring by the laugh of a pileated woodpecker just out of sight off to the southwest. It took a second or so to get my bearings. I remain fascinated for a moment by the flashing images of reflected sunlight on creek ripples.
I begin to consider, again, what the hawk might see, flying high above the land over the goldenrod field. Of course, he sees the whole field.
Panning farther back and away, higher and higher, what does he see? He sees La Terre! ... but not in any normal way. Seeing trees from high above is an unusual way for humans to see trees.
To make sense of the mishmash splotches of color, the participant must think. Seeing wholes requires imagination. The participant imagines how color splotches are related to each other, how they connect to produce a recognizable form of order: “tree-top-wholes.”
To imaginatively step back further is to go beyond color splotches and consider how trees and bushes are related, how they are connected to become forest wholes, swamp wholes, meadow wholes. The preoccupation of hawk-knowing is not things but relationships.
As the soaring hawk ascends higher and higher above La Terre, he sees more and more of the surrounding land. Horizons crop the view in all directions to make a mandala: the Mandala of Hawk-Knowing. As the hawk soars ever higher, this circle of seeing expands to include much of the Dedeaux community.
From higher still, the mandala expands to eventually include the entire Gulf Coast, the entire southeast, and ultimately the entire globe as horizons extend in all directions.
A local naturalist and zen explorer experiments with ways to consider the world from another living creature's perspective - and discovers a new way of seeing.
- by James Inabinet, PhD, illustrations by Margaret Inabinet
Mouse-seeing is an innocent way of seeing that begins with an empty mind, a “beginner’s mind,” one open to anything as Zen master Suzuki describes: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”
To begin mouse-seeing, thinking is suspended through meditation or prayer. A quieted mind allows the “seer” to become more mindful of what’s happening right now, right here. With an empty mind one becomes like a hollow bone, ready to be filled with possibility.
Several years ago, I ritually began my first journey into mouse-seeing in the goldenrod field. After sitting in meditation for a while, I dropped down and put my nose close to the ground like a mouse to see the field up close the way she would.
I could see thickets of grass and goldenrod stems. With lowered head, I crawled for a while seeking mouse roads below the grass and goldenrod “canopy” and experience being in mouse habitat as I moved mouse-like through the field.
After a half hour or so, I became bored and noticed that I had been thinking about home and work. I meditated and began again. Soon I stumbled onto what appeared to be a tiny trail. I slid onto my belly to look closer and discovered a mouse trail, a round hole through grass “trunks.” Opening back into the grass, the trail disappeared in shadow. Perhaps a tiny nest was back in there but I would never know. To get close enough to gaze at it would certainly destroy it.
I turned away and crawled towards the early sun. It struck me that humans are upright strangers that blithely walk through woods and fields as hawks, seeing from afar, from on high. We rarely see a mouse or even her signs and yet mice are legion, numbering in the thousands in this place alone. There on mouse roads they run, doing the doings of mice everyday unnoticed until someone gets down on her belly and looks with mouse eyes. Only then can mice and their way of being truly begin to exist for us.
As infants, we once possessed unmitigated body-knowing, as innocent as a mouse on her mouse-road – I only have to remember how to do it. Maybe I can return somehow to an infant’s sense of wonder, alert and curious – like a mouse. Intimate with her world, she sees clearly only what is right in front of her feeling, smelling nose.
I moved closer to the stems of the grasses and goldenrods; I touched them with my face, feeling their roughness. Nose to the ground, I smelled the dark, damp earth where it was exposed. I listened closely while simultaneously smelling, feeling, looking. The mouse way is a doing way.
Energetically, I moved through the field, stopping only for brief moments. I alternately blurred my vision and then focused. In blurring, movement can be detected, vital in a mouse world that includes hawk shadows and snakes. With blurred images, one feels more than sees. Blurring interdicts thinking.
With closed eyes I laid down and focused on feelings. A surprisingly rough grass stem was touching my face. I tried to move into that feeling of roughness–without thinking. Moving my face to the side, I felt the mat of dry grass that covered the bare earth, again focusing on feelings.
Moving forward a few inches I felt a grass stem on my forehead, focusing on feelings even as an image appeared, an image of what that grass might look like. I continued in this way for about an hour and had moved only about six feet.
At the end of this experiment into mouse-seeing, I knew that particular feelings had arisen in me about the nature of the beings of the field, but I could not clearly recall them. It occurred to me that by purposefully suspending thinking, these feelings could not easily become thought and/or words. Something, though, was felt, something known, but I could not say exactly what it was.
Even so, my relationship with this place deepened.
Crossing paths - and then following - a snake hunting dinner in the woods sparks a contemplation on how humans can relate to other beings in our world.
- by James Inabinet, PhD
The immovables joined in; scale insects covered moist, succulent stems: goldenrod, asters, Joe-Pye weed. Spittlebugs ensconced below; basal leaves pushed back revealed frothy hide-outs. Cocoons were packed snugly inside rolled-up leaves or dangled under them.
A golden silk spider web blocked the way, a micrathena orb-web right behind it, a spiny-orb weaver web next - signs of late summer. Contorting my body, I went under them.
I made my way down the bluff overlooking the creek. Barefoot, I sloshed downstream on the sandy bottom; water just covered my ankles. The roar of cicadas drowned out the rippling water as I approached the confluence of bayou and creek through a tunnel of overhanging limbs and branches.
A clearing signaled my approach to the bayou ahead. Movement along the bank next to the trunk of a smilax covered gallberry at the water’s edge revealed a slithering water moccasin. The poisonous snake wended his way into the bayou, hugging the edge.
I followed – at a distance. Excited, I watched him slither, weaving back and forth, and then suddenly stop. Motionless except for a wagging tail, he steadied himself, apparently watching something. He remained this way for a long time, several minutes (!), and then struck blindingly fast. A frog jumped to safety, disappearing near the edge while the snake frantically searched.
After a minute or so the snake resumed his journey downstream. It occurred to me that this must be the dance of a snake. I followed him, wondering what it might be like to be a snake and slither in the water in this way.
Later, I thought about: “What is it Like to be a Bat?” an essay by the cognitive scientist Thomas Nagel who famously wondered about the consciousness of creatures like bats, forms of consciousness very different from that of humans.
He surmised that there must be “something it is like” to be that organism. In order to determine “what it’s like” to be another being, humans use human points of view by imagining the other to have experiences that are similar to their own.
Bats experience the world through sonar, a mode of experience profoundly unlike anything in human experience.
Nagel found no reason to believe that batness is like anything “we can experience or imagine.” Concluding his thought experiment, he declared that there is simply no way to know what it is like to be a bat. I presume that knowing what it’s like to be a snake to be no different.
Should I forget about the snake? This question cuts to the core of my research of the past 25 years, which is to come to know a forest ecosystem and its inhabitants deeply, even mystically, like a forest monk. The goal: to become a functioning human component within in an ecosystem, a functioning part of its wholeness - to fit in - like our snake or a bat or even a tree for that matter.
If Mr. Nagel remains distant from nature, sitting in his ivory tower armchair watching bats circle a streetlight through a window, he will never know batness and will conclude that no one else can. He could never experience a forest in the way I am seeking.
Because consciousness is subjective, all about me, the experience I have of another being, even a human one, remains difficult to describe. How can someone get to know “what it’s like” for another being? To know “what it’s like” there must be elements of experience where the one is like that of the other. There must be elements of experience we both hold in common.
This is what empathy is – feeling the experience of the other. I tear up when you cry because I feel it. Nagel seems to reduce experience to thinking; indeed, he seems to elevate thinking to the order of actual experience wherein what passes for knowledge arises from thinking alone.
To look at experience this way is to impose a purely “mental” form of consciousness onto humanity, leaving only a shell of experience. “Thinking” about bats becomes the only way to know about batness at all. You don’t even have to go outside and watch them.
Of course, experience itself is always richer than thinking and speaking about it. Thinking about my love, for example, is one thing, but getting a hug from her is so much better. I propose that there are other valid, more experiential, ways of knowing than Nagel’s mental knowing.
I propose that “body-knowing” is one of those ways. We have all felt parts of our bodies tightening up or relaxing in the face of profound experience, like the feeling of dread in a place that feels “off.” With body-knowing we know something even though we cannot say what we know - and no amount of thinking can help us to tell.
Another way of knowing that I propose is what I call “heart knowing.” It’s a profoundly feeling-oriented, emotional, and empathetic way of knowing, not unlike feeling love for a partner. I have found that you can actually look at and dwell-within another being - even a non-human being - in this manner.
If there is any way for humans to experience snakeness, it would seem to require one or both of these other ways of knowing. I am paraphrasing the philosopher Bruno Snell when I add that perhaps a human might never be able to experience a snake or a bat in a “human” way if she did not first experience herself - a human being[!] - in a “snake” or “bat” way.
For experience to rise to that level requires more than just thinking about snakes or bats. Following Snell’s ambitious challenge, I have become determined to try a more embodied path to the experience of snakeness and see where that may lead.