I was standing in the shower the other morning and something caught my eye. I looked up through the skylight to see a bird looking back at me. I nodded to it and went back to soaking my head. I looked again in a bit to see a flock of them looking back at me, uniformly standing around all four sides of the window frame. I hope they enjoyed the show.
Last summer was marked by reports of seagulls attacking humans on Ireland’s west coast. Apparently the nearby seas had been overfished and they were hungry. Or were they simply extracting revenge?
I have no idea if the pigeons in my skylight were hungry, homeless, cold, or simply curious. I’ve never learned how to communicate with birdbrains. But they were probably learning more about me and my habits than I know about theirs, simply because they were focused. Clever Hans, the famous counting horse, read its human co-star’s unintentional body language to become an international sensation. There’s a lot of solid research confirming the ability of our world’s non-humans to observe, act on their observations – and most importantly – to adapt their actions to changing conditions. Sounds like they’re smarter than a lot of homo so-called-sapiens.
Do we take the time anymore to study, to see, to absorb? Or are we simply scanning images that cross our retina without absorbing them? Has the “real” world joined the virtual world as junk food for the optic nerve, never reaching our brain? I’ve lost track of the studies reporting on how digital media has affected our powers of concentration. None of them are particularly encouraging.
How many of us take time to simply stare? At clouds. At a pigeon pecking at a bread crumb. At a baby discovering its toe. How many of us make the time to think about what we see, whether it’s a simple time-and-motion study of that pebble hitting a puddle or a philosophic pondering on what’s in front of us? Or do we have to be somewhere else, doing something more important than living? Sure, this might sound like a paean to the values of old rural rhythms. But urban and suburban lives have their rhythms, as well. Are we caught in them like an overly-tightened drumhead – or are we the drummers?
Years ago, when I was the human part of a factory machine, I couldn’t change the routine, but I was able to see a lot more about my immediate environment and how it worked. After a while I was given a job where I could see and learn more, driving a forklift. Eventually I became an inspector, where I had to seriously use my powers of observation and judgement. While I moved on from there, to an academic classroom, I learned that I could learn a lot, just by paying attention to my surroundings. And by figuring out what I saw.
To quote that master of the East, Yogi Berra, “You can see a lot just by looking.”