Did you notice?

There are times I really admire the observational skills of the TV detectives who populate the shows I tend to watch. Even G.K. Chesterton’s character, Father Brown, seems to notice things that we average people would miss on a detailed examination of the most obvious crime scene. Of course, that’s the point I guess: if we could all do it, then there’d be no story, and certainly no mystery to draw us back to the program and its sponsors time and time again.

Still, although I’d like to think I have bursts of detection, they are rare. I’m usually so involved in the big things happening around me, that I forget to observe the little, easily ignored things that might add colour to my sometimes monochromatic existence; add purpose to an otherwise forgettable day; add agency to a life too often swept along in the dust of others.

Take plants as an example; they are a nation with an Umwelt of their own. By and large quiet, their trespass is accidental, motivated by opportunity, not intention; shy by nature, they keep to others of their own kind, their own kingdom. They move with seeds, not feet; they signal with colours and scents, not hands or phones. It is difficult for someone like me to know if they’ve crossed a line.

Of course animals are different yet again: they cross boundaries, but they do not understand legal trespass; they, like us, clearly inhabit different Magisteria than plants, and move with agency to survive. If we hope to interpret either, we must try to puzzle out their Umwelten. Sometimes, they (like us, again) make mistakes which we, with patience, might learn to spot.

Can we actually understand other species, though? Can we, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel asks in his famous 1974 paper (What Is It Like to Be a Bat?), ever really know what it’s like to be something else? If we could be liberated from our usual constraints of culture and reason, might it ever be possible to see through different eyes -even my own perhaps…?

Retirement is a peculiar blanket which dampens the signals from the work-a-day world, and with the subtle neurological degeneration which often accompanies old age, probably distorts those which do manage to filter through. But what does penetrate is not necessarily simply noise -random fluctuations bearing no usable information; sometimes signals beg for a different perspective, a different meaning. Signals, as do their creators, transmit agency.

When weather, and an ageing body permit, I often go for lengthy bike rides. I live on a small but exceedingly hilly island, so the actual distance reported on the phone app I carry does little to explain the fatigue I feel as the time -but not the distance- wears on. Still, a bike ride, however long, is an adventure unlike that of travelling in a car: I am in Nature, not watching it roll past. I can smell it, feel it, examine it as I pass, and on a whim (or fatigue) even stop and analyse what I see. My favourite route loops around a forest, and skirts the beckoning coastline, eventually retracing the same road on which I start.

But stopping makes me feel guilty, I’m afraid, and usually I’ll only become aware that I should have stopped to investigate something long after I’ve passed it. Actually, the commonest time when I’m moving slowly enough to notice anything worthy of further analysis is on a steep uphill slog, and stopping would mean losing what little momentum I’d managed to entice from my tired legs.

Recently, there was something that I noticed on a steep hill that I felt guilty about once I’d surmounted the peak and was roaring down a winding downhill course. At first, lumbering past it, and barely able to look around, I caught sight of a dark little lump near the centreline of the road. A clod of soil, I told myself at the time, breathing in short little bursts clawing for air, not insight, as I fought for the summit. But on the other side, when my oxygen debt had been repaid, the lump re-surfaced in my memory. Had I seen a tiny beak? Feathers? Were they moving in the wind, or under their own desperate volition? If it had been a little bird, was it still alive? The centre of a road on a hill, was dangerous; if it was a bird, it would not last long. In my heart, it was still alive; in my mind things were different however. More dire.

As I continued cycling up and down the remaining road, guilt convinced it was a baby bird that had tumbled out of its nest attempting to fledge prematurely. But whatever the cause, it was so small it was unlikely to alert an approaching vehicle. It would surely be dead before I returned; I had to hope it was only a lump of dirt that had fallen off a car.

I followed my route along the loop past forests of hemlock, cedar and Douglas fir whose birds would normally have enticed me to slow down and listen; over streams glistening and gurgling beneath tiny bridges; past distant views of the sparkling ocean, its white caps waving to remind me of my occasional detour to their shore. But nothing could engage my interest on that fateful day -not with something that I might have saved lying vulnerable and injured on the road.

I finally saw the lump again on my hurried return as I crested the final hill and quickly threw down my bike on the grassy shoulder, fearing the worst. As I ran up to it, there was a sudden movement, as if I’d startled it from its hiding place. I could see now it was a baby bird with no obvious injury and presumably heeding Nature’s advice to stay still and hidden until help arrived. It sensed danger now that it had been discovered, though, and decided the best policy was to scamper away. I stood behind it, steering it onto the shoulder where it, again lay still and hidden in the tall grass.

I wasn’t sure what to do at that stage, but thought I should wait in case an eagle, or more likely, a prowling cat came close. But I needn’t have worried; suddenly a larger bird swooped down, inspected it, and flew away. As I watched from a distance, it returned with something in its beak and fed her obviously hungry little child.

I don’t know… was I the agent acting on the little bird, or merely the unwitting observer of its agency? Do birds obey Sartre’s law (if I may call it that): existence precedes essence? Is a bird really only a bird after it acts like a bird and creates a destiny for itself? I wonder…


1 thought on “Did you notice?

  1. I love your style of writing and how you think, thanks for taking the time to share!


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