Archive for May, 2019

On noticing

On the Schoodic Peninsula, north of Mt. Desert Island in Maine, we went to a bakery that a man runs out of his house. He sells his goods in the sunroom. We bought coffee and bread, and then he offered us the Sunday New York Times, missing only a few sections, which a customer leaves with him every week, and which he never has time to read because of all the baking that needs to be done. We took it, and drove to the sea.

IMG_1564At the shore, there were some white people, rich, generations safe and clear of any laboring past, who had given their children agrarian village names like Thatcher and Mason. The family gathered by the water, and someone tried to herd the kids who were pelting each other with rose hips. I watched three dolphins cruise by in the shallows, unnoticed.They were close enough in to hear the chuff of their exhalations when they surfaced. A herring gull flustered up and pounced into the water five times before coming up with the crab. An eagle crossed the cove. A friend of the family rearranged the grouping, had everyone shuffle just left a little, angle toward me. Cadence’s attention was flagging; get her to look up. This would be the Christmas photo card, and it would be admittedly lovely, no one could deny that. It reminds me of Bruegel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” I have wide gaps in my education, and art history is one, so I had never seen the painting before I read about it in Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.” I looked the painting up with Auden’s gloss already in mind, and searched for anyone in the painting who might have noticed Icarus drowning. The people are all looking away, and even the sheep are inattentive. Only one bird, holding a hunched, maybe alert, posture on a branch overlooking the sea seems to maybe notice the legs disappearing into the water, and if she did, it was probably only long enough to realize that the shape plummeting down was not a falcon in stoop, but a boy falling through the air.

1280px-Pieter_Bruegel_de_Oude_-_De_val_van_IcarusWhy does any living thing notice the things it notices? There have been studies done on shearwaters to investigate how they find their way across a featureless ocean. Suspecting it was by scent, researchers began testing this by dousing the birds’ nasal passages with zinc sulfate, which renders the birds temporarily anosmic: deprived of the ability to smell. The birds are then released and followed with tracking devices. Some activities are not impaired by the lack of smell; the birds can generally find food and gain weight, and some do eventually find their way home, even after being dropped off hundreds of miles away, but their way-finding is altered. If they are near shore, they stay close to it, using features of the coastline to orient, like a visual tapping of a white cane. Species that usually migrate at night might shift to day time travel to better see these landmarks. But many birds wander aimlessly for the duration of their scent-blindness. I think about these birds all the time, released after the rinsing, their mental maps blanked out. What is in their minds? A gray static where the knowledge used to be? An urge for home, but no idea how to begin heading back to it? Panic?

D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Self Pity” reads in its entirety,

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

The first time I ever read this, it seemed true, and noble. But I have been among birds long enough now to find it absurd. What would make anyone think this? How would he ever know? Because birds don’t have expressive eyebrows that pinch together in a cartoon expression of anguish, we conclude they are either too stoic, or too dumb to their own suffering to understand it?

The literal disorientation of the shearwaters strips away one of the ways they make sense of the world. Eventually, the destroyed cells lining their nostrils are replaced and they can sense again. I wonder what that return feels like. It must come bit by bit, as each cell matures and links up into the brain pathway, until the map is fully restored. Does the shearwater even notice it returning? If there was fear, when does the fear recede? If there is relief, does it flood in all at once?

Farther inland on the peninsula, we went for a walk along old dirt carriage roads. A bird darted out of the shrubs and flew straight towards us, only veering left at the last possible second. A garter snake saw us, and tensing in fear, dipped its tongue toward the grass, startling an inattentive grasshopper. I love these chains of inattention, of failing to notice. I have watched a 30 second video of a black bear startled by a grouse over and over again. The bear saunters along, and then, as the grouse explodes from the underbrush, the bear jolts backward and you can see her haunches quiver for a second after the rest of her goes still and, head back, she stares at the departing bird. What is in these creatures’ minds in the moments before their attention snaps to the present?

The Schoodic Peninsula is a good place for an introvert. There aren’t many people around. When people are around, and I have to speak to them, I feel a bit like the shearwaters after the nostril rinse. I am blinkered, self-conscious, unable to fully process what is happening. I cannot noticewhen I am interacting. My second son is the only extrovert in our family. You can see his craving for contact as he roams the house and prods the rest of us, each in turn, to talk to him. The three of us peer out at him, molluscan, from our shells, observing, bewildered, exhausted. He asks me, if I could have a choice of superpowers, what would I choose: telekinesis, mind-reading, or invisibility? Invisibility, of course, I tell him.

At the oceanside, the family finishes the photo shoot, and the dolphins have moved on.  The shot was well-framed already, but may need further cropping and finessing at home to show them all in their best light. If it were Bruegel’s painting, it would be foreground to the exclusion of what is left of Icarus. There would be no sign of him.

My son asks me again about the superpowers. This time the choices are flying, teleporting, or invisibility. Invisibility, I tell him again. I want to be able to be in the world without anyone knowing I’m there. He is incredulous that I would not choose flying, but it all ends the same in the long run. Ask Icarus.

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