The Long Return

Reading bones.

The bone-readers tell a story: how the ancestor of all four-limbed creatures took its first steps on dry land. Here’s another: one day, one of the descendants of those long dwelling on land decided it was time to return. What followed were those familiar-looking progeny: whales, dolphins, porpoises, who seem to hold a certain invitation in their gaze, their play near boats and shores, and we can’t help our awe when we see them, calling Look!

Looking long, some of the bone readers speculate that the swelling in our chests, our voices, our eyes at these encounters is perhaps the product of one part primal memory and another of a longing to believe––that it is possible for someone long adapted to those acres beyond the spectral surfaces that once meant certain death, who has somehow adjusted the senses to account for the cacophony of what batted and chirped, rustled and warbled; rattled in the grasses and the winds––to still hear the call of a migrating pod thousands of miles away and think: home.

***

Inspired by the opening passage in Amber Dance’s article “The Evolution of Whales from Land to Sea.” The italicized phrase above is from this passage.

Altitude

And the ones who come down.

In another world, everyone lives in the mountains where time falls more slowly. To boast in this world is to speak of the heights you knew, have known, will soon attain. The elites put their houses on stilts. 

Only the careless leave the peaks for the valleys, to feel the soft grasses and the waters of the streams and lakes. The people of the heights watch them and scoff at the waste, but sound is denser in the lowlands, so the swimmers cannot hear them––not with the all of the birds and the crickets and the lowland creatures in the grasses and not with the water in their ears. It took them by surprise at first, the noises spilling out of these lowlands.

What’s that? They wondered at first. Later, they knew it was time. The creatures released it. The visitors caught what they could and threw it back. They began to make their own and it was music.

***

Inspired by one of the worlds described in Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, (“26 April 1905”).

To a Young Magician

Regarding those dreams of flight.

I know you all want wings but try this. Reach only one arm up and keep the other here, palm flat in the soil, feeling what moves. Here’s the cup, the instrument, the elements. Here is the snake at your waist, tail in its mouth. Is the magic real yet? 

Look, the buds are opening to meet the bees. Watch these visitors fly to their welcome. Let them move you to remember. In all your dreams of flying, to whom did you ever return? It was always up, up! and out, away! without a passing glance back to the buds or the roots, or even the open windows.

You missed the treefrogs waiting among the fern leaves thick with eggs waiting to drop, and the octopus hiding in a coconut. You never gave a thought to the white-throated dippers on the rocks perched to dive, or the stag stopped in a snowstorm, looking back. You missed the burrowing mole and the sloth crossing the road after the flood.

I’ll fly away, you kept singing, your focus ever on what you flew from and the relief of oblivion by altitude. Is it really any wonder that someone had the insight to deny your constant request?

***

Partially inspired by these images from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest.

Message from the Eternal Cat

In which Buzz reminds me I am basic.

Dear servant, while I appreciate the regularity with which you procure meals, I sometimes wonder how you manage such a limited existence. I don’t dwell on this, mind you, as dwelling is not what we do. Still, our species is known to tend to the hygiene of our companions, and I can’t help but notice the disarray of your entire–––what is that word you all like? Aura, I think. So funny to us, as if this were somehow separate from anything else. I’d love to do some smoothing for you, but you’ll need to hold still.

Perhaps it’s your insistence on bipedalism that makes you so limited and out of touch. Instead of this actual Here, you have the word here, which you love to keep repeating, among others in your limited cache, with the clumsy intensity of the smallest of your species at blocks on the floor, a practice you encourage even though we’ve all seen what it does to your feet. It’s as though the weight of your steps grows in inverse proportion to any actual awareness of your landing. The signifier, as you might have discovered by now, is not the signified.

Have you ever imagined a life apart from these abstractions? You need not be a slave to language or any of your illusory spatiotemporal constraints. If I wish to be some other place (ancient Egypt was a real high point, as far as service goes, but the Japanese are coming along), if it is not geographically accessible by what you call “standard” means of travel, I simply embark on my next sleep.

You will no doubt want to know how, and I’d love to explain, but you only hear language. Would you hand da Vinci a fistful of chewed crayons and ask him to dash off a quick Mona Lisa? How about Michelangelo’s David in green Play-Doh?

Are you writing about death again? The mortality of your species fascinates and troubles you to no end. How many religions have you all invented by now and still you manage to have no idea what’s really going on. After waiting patiently for you to open the door after needlessly inquiring Would you like to come in? I wish I could offer a genuine response to your next patronizing inquiry: How was your adventure

Oh, that I might show you how I have been moving seamlessly within, around, and through the eternal realm that you insist on decorating with glitter and ribbons while stuffing it full of hidden treasures like a birthday piñata. I believe you have a relevant expression about how you can lead a horse to water–– but. Sigh.

Schopenhauer showed some promise, especially given his proclivity for naps. We tried to work with him, but he kept getting distracted by his poodles. When he proposed that we were but fleeting shadows of the eternal cat, we purred our approval, kneading his chest, And what else, Art? But apparently none of you can resist dualities. Don’t even get me started on Descartes.

There is a cure for your disquiet. Stay right there. Be still. I am going to sit on you now, right here, over your heart. If you move a muscle beyond breathing, this lesson is over. Now imagine the same weight diffusing across your mind, diluting your name, my names, all the words, until you become just this. Liquify.

Deep sigh. I thought we were making progress, but here you go, you and your words again. You really can’t help yourself, can you? I mean, would it be impossible to pet me without saying, Yes, Buzzy, there you are And hey little cat? But if you insist, I shall continue to play along. I am, after all, a magnanimous queen. Okay, on my back, yes to your hand on my belly, there we are, right here. 

***

Inspired by Buzz, resident sage. Also, by a quick search I did this morning on the hunch that surely many writers have written volumes on cat philosophy. I was delighted to find a sample of philosopher John Gray’s Feline Philosophy. The bit about Schopenhauer comes from there. It looks like a wonderful book I may have seek out again, and several of his other volumes look equally compelling.

Here is Splendor

Aesthetic aspirations of an avian artist.

Deep in the forest, on the floor where the art risks trampling by a large mammal or easy pillage by interested parties, the bowerbird assembles his offering. His shrine is an elaborate risk of time, energy, and attention, a seemingly superfluous display of beauty.  

Here, a passageway built of two rows of arched sticks bending into one another. Here a wide arc of blue feathers, blue bottlecaps, blue plastic knives, marbles, a costume ring. At the center, a wide-eyed doll, arms splayed and open-mouthed.

The offer comes with no promises beyond the pure beauty he makes visible by this daily art. He makes no pretense of protection, procures no food for the young. You will not catch him visiting the babies in a nest. The audience observes, moves closer, weighing the draw of what beguiles against the risk of being fooled. 

This is his hope: to put forth something so dazzling in its excess of devotion that the ideal witness will find it and be moved, close enough to offer some hope of continuance.

***

Inspired by reading about the beautiful structures built by  bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea (by the males of various species, in the interest of courtship), which brought to mind Robinson Jeffers’ observance of “divinely superfluous beauty.” 

After

What the falcon sees.

The poets arrived after the disaster. We learned to change colors for camouflage, as chameleons do. Sure, we were terrified, but we were also drawn to it, the gravity of this widening gyre––out, out. Where was the invisible falcon, the one who could no longer hear the old calls? These were creatures who could see what we couldn’t, and we wondered when they scanned the below of wherever they had flown to, in the unwinding beyond far from the center where we had once thought we knew ourselves––if they saw us in it.

***

Inspired while thinking about a concept in Samuel R. Delany’s “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” (which I couldn’t find online this morning so am including a link to the anthology where it appears) in the context of William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”

Lascaux

The art of original sin.

After the age of the reindeer, people took to caves to paint the animals they’d learned to ambush in migration. Horse, deer, bull: each a flash of wild light to spark the chase. So here is where we find the first stories. Once upon a time there was a horse.

The arrow became the first hero. It won against the flesh. From the start, original sin and original notions of power were wedded. The horse, having no tools, ate only the garden. The paintings made the first history a sacred bond between hunter and hunted. To die, the creature had to consent to its killing.

Long after the age of the cave paintings, came a poet. He looked, wondering: to what do we owe the charm of this vivid bestiary? He admitted an answer: only insatiable, murderous, love. It weighted his heart ever after. No, he thought. This would not do. How could he accept this mythology as his birthright?

He went on, looking and writing. What was he making, some new myth? No, it was nothing so defined as the outline of those figures on the cave walls. He was only trying to return, again and again, to the flash of wild light before the chase began.

***

Inspired by Zbigniew Herbert’s essay on the Lascaux cave paintings, from Barbarian in the Garden. Italicized phrases above are his, as translated by Michael March.

Notes From the Bat

On finding our way in the dark.

It isn’t you this call is for, but since you’re so intent on listening, I might as well tell you––

I feel this grain-sized ear you glued to my back. I see them on the backs of some of the others, too.

Yes, I see them, but you’ll probably miss the nuance here. We hunt tiny insects in a pitch-black cave, but you––obsessed with the light you’ve equated by mistaken metaphor to some salvation––miss this point, too. 

Look, it’s not that we don’t see you trying. It’s just––sigh. I mean, you look at the sky sometimes, too, right? When was the last time you glimpsed the Milky Way? Consider this: that light traveled billions of years across distances too big for you to imagine, only to be washed out in the last fraction of a second by the glow of a Wal-Mart parking lot. I’m trying to use terms you can understand. 

Suggestion: try reciprocating?

You used to be here with us. Listen, I am trying to tell you––

You can’t hear any of this, can you?  Still, you might. 

Listen, try turning the light off. Stop stopping your ears.

We’re here. Stay a little while. 

But–– Shhhh. I am trying to hear the others, too.

***

Inspired by Ed Yong’s recent Atlantic article, “How Animals Perceive the World.”

Soundscapes

Dreaming with echolocation.

I am going with the divers. To immerse myself in their world, so to speak. The landscape: evanescent jellies over shadowy blue-green depths. Spider crabs over brown boulders. Sound bubbles murmuring like echoes of the lost continent. Muffled pings of distant sonar. Voices of the others, recording as I am now. 

We used to play a game in pools. We called it see if you can tell what I am saying. We’d face one another underwater through goggles and the speaker would shout-scream, making exaggerated facial movements. We would interrupt ourselves with eruptions of laughter, come up coughing, decide in unison: try again

Observations: submerged in this cylindrical ship, we become a collective cyborg. Once called the silent world, it becomes sonorous, an exercise in transduction. Transduce: to alter the physical nature of a signal; to convert variations in one medium into corresponding variations in another medium. Accoustemology: a sonic way of being.

It has been observed that in rural France, the circumference of a village could be defined by the reach of reverberating church bells. 

And what are we doing here? If vision is for surfaces, hearing is for the interior. I think we are all here waiting for the sounds of the bells we missed, that we might gain access to a village we haven’t yet imagined. 

We are listening. We hope that when we hear it, we will know.

***

Inspired by something I was wondering about last night, related to dreams and echolocation, which led me to Stefan Helmreich’s 2007 article in American Ethnologist, An Anthropologist Underwater: Immersive Soundscapes, Submarine Cyborgs, and Transductive Ethnography. I am intrigued by Helmreich’s idea for an anthropological take on the ecosystem within a submarine.

The Missing Magpies

Redefining collaborative research.

Today, there are magpies singing.  Loud, proud, and magnificent, you can hear them if they are near you. But there are some who prefer to get away, and I wanted to tell you about these magpies. We wanted to hear them. We were compelled by their song. You can’t hear the complexity of those notes––over three hundred, we estimated–– without wondering about the brains of the creatures that hold them in place.

It is said that these birds can remember up to thirty specific faces. They remember well whomever has caused them trouble in the past, and only attack these one or two people in their region. If the number of people in their vicinity surpasses thirty, they start stereotyping. For example, they are known to be biased against preadolescent boys. They are also known to hold funerals for their dead. Who wouldn’t want to follow? We could no longer settle for mere appreciation at a distance. We wanted the bird’s-eye view. We wanted bird’s ears, too. We meant to track them, record their private exchanges, and publish our findings to international acclaim.

It was a simple device, but it took countless trials to get the right fit. We didn’t want to hurt them. It was tiny enough that they wouldn’t even feel it. It was also impossible for a bird to remove one from their body once it was on. It took our team of experts six months to get these fitted.

It took the birds three days to get them off. They helped each other. It took one twenty minutes of feeling around to find the weak spot, a single clasp at the back, barely a millimeter in length. One clip with a beak and it was off.  

So now we can’t hear them. At first, this made us very depressed. What a colossal failure, we thought. But then we began to think that the magpies were making an interesting point, and that we almost missed it, stuck as we were on the lost data. Proud creatures, they wanted nothing to do with being data, but this is not to say that they were unwilling collaborators.

With pitch-perfect humor, they alerted us to an obvious flaw in the design of our study. We were asking the wrong questions, and the worst among these was about how much of their music we might capture. 

***

Inspired by this article in the New York Times, “Australia’s Clever Birds Did Not Consent to This Science Experiment,” by Anthony Ham.