Anne Strainchamps: It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge.
Can an eye-to-eye encounter with an animal change your life?
Alan Lightman: My wife is a painter, and every summer, we spend on a little island in Maine. There's an osprey's nest that's a couple 100 feet from the house.
Anne: This is Alan Lightman. He's a physicist at MIT and a novelist.
Alan: Every year for 15 years or so, the ospreys would conduct their family living there. One summer, I had been watching the babies as they grew from the beginning of June to mid-august. We watched each other all summer long. Then middle of August, the baby ospreys took their first flight, the first time they had left the nest all summer.
Alan: I was watching them from the second floor of our house which has a circular deck. They did one loop around the island, and then they headed straight for me as I stood on the circular deck. These were young adult ospreys. They were pretty big. An osprey has very powerful talents. It can rip you apart if it wants to. These two birds were hitting me with the speed of F-15s. They were coming at me really fast and my first instinct was to run back into the house but something made me stand there.
When the birds got within about 20 feet of my face, for about a half a second, they made eye contact with me. It was the most profound communication with a non-human that I've ever had. I was shaking and I was in tears. In that half-second, they had said to me, "We are brothers on this land, we share this land together. We've been watching you all summer, you've been watching us, and we're all part of nature." That's the feeling I got in that half-second of eye contact.
Anne: That's a lot to read in a single look, but when you think about it, we know how profound it can be to look deeply into the eyes of another person, so why not with another species? Eye contact with a different creature can feel an epiphany.
Steve Paulson: Eye-to-eye epiphanies, I think I first heard the term through my PhD mentor, Bron Taylor, who would book called Dark Green Religion. You do see them up here a lot. People have a profound encounter with the eyes of a non-human animal, and that gaze, that mutual gaze usually reorients that person's perspective in a really important way.
Anne: It's an awakening?
Steve: It would be a new perspective, a new view of what it means to be human among many other creatures.
Anne: I'm Anne Strainchamps.
Steve: I'm Steve Paulson.
Anne: This is Gavin Van Horn.
Steve: A writer and editor with the Chicago-based Center for Humans and Nature and an advocate for kinship with the more-than-human world.
Anne: If you're wondering what that means, instead of walking through the world treating half your neighbors as invisible, try looking, really looking, and then see what happens when someone with feathers or fur or claws looks back.
Steve: You don't have to be in the wilderness. Gavin's had encounters like this in the middle of Chicago.
Gavin Van Horn: I was on a public golf course near where I used to live and a pair of coyotes lives on the embankment next to the North Shore Channel. I saw them from a distance, and as I approached, they scrambled back down the bank after eyeing me for a little bit, but then as I neared the street where I would turn off the golf course, I had this sense that I was being watched. I looked back over my shoulder and there was one of the coyotes sitting back on his or her haunches and just looking at me. For me, it was both an encounter with a Coyote who was very aware of my presence, but it was also a larger metaphor for the city itself, the animals within the city watching us.
Anne: Gavin's written a couple of books about urban wildlife, and he's discovered there are a lot of other people interested in those eye-to-eye encounters. Steve and I went to meet him in Chicago recently at The 606, which is this amazing two and a half-mile elevated walking and biking trail. Runs right through the center of the city, a winding green path suspended above the streets.
Wow, you're down on the gritty, dirty city streets and then suddenly you're up here and it's like a carpet of grass, and trees?
Gavin: Trees. Our hidden space, yes.
Steve: We're not actually looking for wildlife today but for a piece of public art and the artist.
Anne: Although we do have a representative member of another species with us. It's your reporting team, Ann, Steve, and Toby the Dog. He comes everywhere. Is this Jenny?
Jenny Kendler: Yes.
Anne: Hi. I'm Ann. Great to meet you.
Jenny: Nice to meet you too.
Anne: This is Toby.
Jenny: Hey Toby?
Steve: This is Toby, our 13-year-old corgi.
Jenny: Hey Toby? Toby is a great name for a corgi. It suits him.
Steve: Jenny Kendler is an environmental artist and activist, and we're looking at her 40-foot long sculpture which she calls Birds Watching.
Anne: 100 giant, huge photographs of the eyes of endangered birds, just the eyes printed on metal and mounted on poles almost like traffic signs, watching us.
Jenny: I'm really interested in what the public's experience is faced by a gaze. It could be castigating. Maybe that might be the first place that we would go to knowing that we have some complicity in climate change and perhaps driving these species from the face of the planet, but we might also think of a gaze of love, a gaze of mutual respect.
Anne: There are all different species and all endangered?
Jenny: They're all considered either threatened or endangered by climate change. So this large and limpid brown eye here is actually the mallard.
Steve: Wait, a mallard is endangered?
Jenny: They're not considered endangered now. This is a report predicting what may happen in the next 50 years due to climate change. There's one that's blocked by this flowering tree here, that's actually the common raven.
Anne: What's the one that's green with yellow around it, and it's an aquamarine?
Jenny: That is a double-crested cormorant. Yes, isn’t it the most astonishing beauty? I mean, that was something else I was really interested in this, is just the aesthetics of eyes.
Steve: What would you hope as people walk by the installation that you have right here on this lovely path? What would you hope that people take away from seeing this?
Jenny: For me, I like to think of beauty as a lure or a strategy, to get people to stop in the middle of their busy lives. Oftentimes people are literally running by here. How do we get people to become curious?
Anne: What do you want people to be curious about?
Jenny: Who are these other beings looking back at us? I think that there's I think hopefully like a deep conversation that one can get into with the piece, but if you have two minutes, I think that the idea of just engaging in wonder is already a powerful place to start.
Anne: Eye-to-eye encounters can trigger that wonder, but they're also part of a larger story.
Steve: A shift in perspective, maybe even an emerging paradigm that decenters the human being and how we think about the world. Just as the Copernican revolution removed the earth from the center of the universe, this new ecological worldview challenges the idea that only humans have the capacity to think and reason, to feel pain and pleasure to have agency. It's to acknowledge that other living beings, bears, dragonflies, trees, are kin to us not just in some remote evolutionary sense, but as part of our extended family.
Anne: The question is when you look into the eyes of another creature, what do you expect to see? Recognition, communication or indifference?
Jenny: When I was a little girl, I was consumed by the obsession that if I were to get close enough to a squirrel and really engage in the mutual gaze, that this squirrel would see me and know that I was not their enemy but in fact their friend, and that then we would be friends. [laughs] I engaged in quite a lot of pretty dangerous tree climbing in order to make this happen and probably put the fear of God into a number of squirrels. [laughs]
Steve: Can you talk a little bit about the different kinds of gazes because there's some cases where we might look at the non-human being and they might look right through us or just not care about us at all.
Jenny: That's actually really powerful too, and that's something that we maybe should learn to value as human beings, having a bird or a coyote non-human be entirely indifferent to you. Recognizing that you're not part of their sphere of concern, their umwelt at all, I actually think is liberating. There's some real grace in this understanding that one is not so important after all. I guess what I mean is that there are all of these shades in the gaze, everything from indifference to really understanding that there is mutual love. I think when you look into Toby's eyes, you know that he loves you and you love him. [laughs]
Jenny: Toby agrees.
Steve: That’s right.
Steve: Well, there's a profound question. I think about looking into having that kind of eye-to-eye contact. Well to use ancient language, are you glimpsing into the soul for instance of this other being and I guess I'm wondering, do you think there is that kind of connection? I mean, Gavin, your coyote story, was there some communication going on there?
Gavin: Yes, I don't have any problem saying that there's communication. If we think of communication as a kind of nonverbal engagement, the very active scene is taking another being into one self. We can talk about that physically in terms of the light that enters our pupil and strikes the back of our head and it's translated into electromagnetic current or whatever. I think we need to stop seeing ourselves as ending at our skins. We are taking in the world in a very literal sense.
Anne: I'm curious about, I mean, you spent a lot of times 100 eyes, that's a lot of eyes to paint. I'm curious to know what kind of thoughts you had about eyes the more time you spent with them?
Jenny: I guess I was thinking a lot about the suppression of sensing and how this is the non-humans primary way of engaging with the world, is through many extended senses, perhaps sight and all kinds of senses that we don't have access to like butterflies ability to perceive ultraviolet light, for example.
Anne: Bat's echolocation in spiders.
Jenny: A lot of them have hairs that are actually like entire ears. You can imagine ears all over your body that are vibrating. We tend to live in the realm of thinking much more than we do in the realm of sensing or feeling. I guess I spent a lot of time thinking about the ecological movement and maybe where we took some missteps concentrating on that intellectual thinking part of the brain and making the scientific case. We thought for a long time and saying we identifying with environmental movement that raising awareness, teaching people, giving them the knowledge was enough and yet clearly decade after decade of inaction on climate change, inaction on endangerment of species has shown us that that's not the case. What we need is for people to really sense these things, to use the rest of their brain to feel them. Hopefully, that's where art can help to play a part in this ongoing challenge to transform our society.
Steve: Anthropomorphism has a bad rap. Is that just sort of uniformly a mistaken way of thinking that we always try to imagine everything from the human perspective? Does anyone want to defend anthropomorphism?
Gavin: I would mostly defend it actually. Anthropomorphism is a completely legitimate way of trying to think and expand our own understanding. One of the greatest gifts of being inhuman I think is the gift of imagination. I would wholeheartedly encourage from childhood to adulthood through the elderhood, to imagine oneself as being not only other animals, but what's it like to be a tree? What's it like to be the wind. What's it like to be a mountain?
Jenny: Thinking about this hearing the sounds of all the children in the background, it reminds me that a lot of these things are not things that I think that human beings need to learn or adults need to learn, but things that we need to re-learn. Almost all children love animals, almost all children are sensitive to nonhumans.
Anne: Take a walk with a toddler you walk down any sidewalk, it'll take you half an hour to go a block because they are sensitive to and noticing all the things that we've learned to tune out.
Jenny: Right, their whole body, they want to touch. They want to put things in their mouth, they want to use every part of their ability to perceive and engage with the world to understand what this natural space, but I don't think is outside of them. It is like that they blur into, like Gavan was saying.
Anne: Don't you think that's why we think of childhood as an enchanted time and why we secretly long to get back to that?
Jenny: Yes, many people if you really ask them their like, "Deepest desires that has to do with this idea of finding magic and finding wonder." I think that all of those things that we long for are there. There are places where it's more or less likely that we may tap that, and I think that's why the eyes or the gaze is so important is that it's a portal.
Steve: I just wanted to follow up on this question of how deep the eye-to-eye contact can go. Going back to the thing that Thomas Nagel talked about and will never really understand the subjective experience of a bat. I'm fascinated by that. I want to know what it would be like to be a bird or to be a dog or whatever.
Jenny: Yes, I think that for people who really engage with the natural world, that might be the greatest temptation of all. I have had that thought before. I would trade a year of my life for five minutes inside the minds of a bird perhaps.
Steve: I've had this exact conversation with Jane Goodall. She says the same thing. She would give years of her life to be inside the mind of a chimpanzee for five minutes.
Jane Goodall: If I could be inside the mind of a chimpanzee for just a few minutes, I would learn more about them than another. Goodness knows how many years of study because we can guess what they're thinking, but how do they think? Are they thinking in pictures? How do you think without words? I spent ages thinking about that, wondering about it.
Anne: We'll hear Jane Goodall's eye-to-eye story next. If you're curious about Jenny Kendler's 40-foot long sculpture with all those bird eyes, we posted some of the photos we took on our website. You'll find it at ttbook.org. I' m Anne Strainchamps.
Steve: I'm Steve Paulson. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio.
Anne: And PRX.
Anne: This hour, we're talking about eye-to-eye epiphanies, the transformative experience of looking into the eyes of another kind of creature and seeing it look back.
Steve: Maybe you've had one of these encounters, they can be life-changing. It was for Jane Goodall when she was beginning her groundbreaking fieldwork with chimpanzees.
Jane: One moment was very, very special, and that was when I was sitting in the forest with David Greybeard. I picked up the fruit and held it out to him. He turned his head away and I put my hand closer. He turned looking directly into my eyes. He reached out, took the fruit, dropped it, he really didn't want it. Then he very gently squeezed my hand, which is how chimpanzees reassure each other. In that moment, we communicated in a way that seems to predate words, perhaps in a way that was used by our own common ancestor millions of years ago.
It was an extraordinary feeling. It was bridging these two worlds. We think with words, and when we don't think with words, I think we come close to what mystics might describe as a mystical experience. Totally losing sense of one's own self. That's the only way I can really study animals because I'm on my own, I forget that I'm there.
[rain and chirping]
Jane: One was just one I'd been following a little group of chimpanzees and I was very wet. They climbed in the evening up into this tree which had new shoots of beautiful lime green and the sun behind them was making them shine and the trunks of the trees were still wet. The chimpanzees' coats were black ebony, sharp with little blooms of chestnut. The smell of light figs was strong in the air. Then this beautiful male bushbuck appeared with his coat dark with the rain, and his spiraled horns gleaming and just stood there. It seemed I could hear the insects really loud and clear. It was just incredibly vivid being at one with that beautiful world.
Anne: Looking into the eyes of another creature can lead to that sense of magic or wonder. It can also lead to a code of ethics.
Steve: There are a few seminal stories in the history of environmental thinking that are famous eye-to-eye moments. Probably the best known is Aldo Leopold's encounter with a wolf, which really did change the course of conservation over the last century. Here's how Gavin Van Horn tells it.
Gavin: Aldo Leopold was a young Buckaroo. He'd put on a cowboy hat and moved to Arizona, straight out of Yale forestry school. He was in charge almost right away of a huge section of the Carson National Forest. One of his first jobs was to go out and survey timber with a small team of people. As he tells the story, they came upon a mother wolf and her pups. He says we fired willy-nilly into the park because wolves were considered varmints, they didn't think twice. He tells though of the moment of approaching the mother wolf as she was in her death throes and looking into her eyes.
Gavin: We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger itch. I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters paradise. After seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
Steve: The thing that's so remarkable about the story is there was one moment. Leopold shot a wolf and I guess it changed his life.
Gavin: It did, but not immediately. I said that that story comes from, it's called Thinking Like a Mountain. This was mature Leopold reflecting back on those younger days. It was a missing piece of that book for a long time, but through a friend of his, Albert Hochbaum, kept encouraging him, you have to say something about wolves, you have to say something about wolves because he knew that this was a moment. Not only that, it was a moment that showed that he was fallible.
Steve: The thing that is so striking about that story, at least as he told it later, is it almost sounds like a conversion moment?
Gavin: Yes, he depicts it as a conversion moment. A kind of road to Damascus experience, a kind of come to Jesus moment. Staring into the eyes of that wolf and seeing what he called a green fire. What he meant by that was that there was a kind of pulsating energy throughout this entire ecosystem. The wolves, to some degree, were regulators of that green fire in terms of their own wildness, but they also kept the deer herds in check. Without the wolves there, he realized the deer would denude the mountain causing eventually massive erosion and even starvation of the deer themselves. Wolves served to regulate that green flame that circulated through the mountain.
In order to think like a mountain, we have to think with that broader vision. That's what he did throughout his life, what he became known for. This instance of eye-to-eye contact was a fantastic example of what we mean by eye-to-eye epiphany.
Steve: And changed the course of 20th-century environmental thinking?
Gavin: Yes. Leopold had a profound influence. Some credit him as a founder of environmental ethics. He also had an influence on how other animals are managed in this country, on environmental and conservation groups generally. You would be astounded by how often that story is repeated in so many different contexts.
Anne: There's another famous story, a contemporary story about an eye-to-eye encounter. It was also at a moment of the death of an animal. It's a story that eco-warrior Paul Watson tells about looking into the eyes of a dying whale. Actually, it occurs to me now that that experience also marked a seminal moment in the environmental movement.
Gavin: It did. Paul Watson is now probably best known for being the founder and leader of a group called the Sea Shepherd Society. That's sort of a tongue twister. This was an eye-to-eye epiphany that came in a very intense moment. He was in I believe a Zodiac boat, this essentially motorized raft, working for Greenpeace and trying to maneuver in between, I think a Russian whaling boat and the whales themselves.
Paul Watson: June 1975, we encountered the Russian whaling fleet about 60 miles off Eureka, California. We found ourselves in a small boat in front of a Soviet Harpoon vessel that was bearing down on us.
Paul: In front of us, there were eight magnificent sperm whales that were fleeing for their life. Every time the Harpooner tried to get a shot, I was at the helm, so I would maneuver the boat to try and block the Harpoon. It worked for about 20 minutes until the captain came down the catwalk. He looked at us and smiled and brought his finger across his neck. Suddenly there was this incredible explosion and this Harpoon flew over our head and slammed into the backside of one of the whales. She screamed. It was a very human-like scream like a woman and it took us completely off guard. Suddenly, the largest whale in the pod slapped the water with his tail and disappeared.
I turned in time to see him throw himself, hurl himself out of the water straight at the Harpooner. He was waiting for him and very nonchalantly pulled the trigger and sent a second harpoon into the head of the whale. He screamed and fell back and now the water is full of blood everywhere from the two dying whales. As this whale lay rolled in agony on the surface of the ocean, I caught his eye and he looks straight at me. Then I saw him dive again and I saw a trail of bloody bubbles coming straight at us real fast.
This whale came up and out of the water at an angle so that the next move would be to come forward and fall on top of us and crush us. As the head rose up out of the water, I look up into his eyes the size of my fist and what I saw there really changed my life forever because I saw understanding. I saw that the whale understood what we were trying to do because I could see the effort that the whale made to pull himself back and I saw his eye disappear, but needs to see when he died.
I personally felt indebted to that whale for having spared my life. I began to think why were the Russians killing these whales. They didn't eat sperm whale meat, but they did use the spermaceti oil to make high heat resistant lubricating oil for machinery. One of the pieces of machinery that they used it in as the manufacturer of intercontinental ballistic missiles. I said here we are destroying this incredibly beautiful, intelligent, socially complex creature for the purpose of making a weapon meant for the mass destruction of humanity. That's when it came to me with a flash that we're insane. We're just totally insane.
From that moment on, I decided that I work for whales. I work for seals. I work for sea turtles and fish and seabirds. I don't work for people.
Anne: What does Sea Shepherd do now? It's an eco vigilante group. Is that fair to say?
Gavin: That's one way to characterize that. Some would call them radical environmentalists. Those who don't feel any sympathy or favor for them might call them worse. But essentially, this moment, this eye-to-eye epiphany served as a catalyst from Greenpeace, which many people would already consider fringe, radical, environmental activist to the Sea Shepherd Society from a point of being willing to resist or protest or participate in nonviolent action to a step beyond that. He is willing to break the law because he considers those laws illegitimate.
Anne: He's currently under an Interpol red notice, which is the equivalent of having an international wanted poster. Both Japan and Costa Rica have sued him.
Gavin: They're not happy.
Steve: Well, going back to what he said in that clip, "I don't work for humans. I work for the animals. I work for the whales." I'm just trying to think about what that actually means.
Gavin: It really represents, well, his biocentric or sometimes called ecocentric perspective. The idea that humans are not the center of the universe as much as we might make ourselves out to be. His life long fight now will be on behalf other than human animals.
Anne: We'll have more eye-to-eye encounters coming up, including what happens when the animal looking back wants to eat you. I'm Anne Strainchamps.
Steve: I'm Steve Paulson. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio.
Anne: And PRX.
Anne: Have you ever thought about how many different eyes see you over the course of a day? They're not all human. Dogs, cats, birds, frogs, even insects watch us each with a different kind of eye. What and how do they see?
Steve: Ivan Schwab is an ophthalmologist who's been fascinated by that question for a long time. Like a lot of scientists, his interest goes back to childhood.
Ivan Schwab: Now see that's real easy, but the story is either very long or very short, but briefly, I've been interested in biology since I was a kid because I grew up in a small rural area in West Virginia and most of what I had was outdoors. When you'd see a dragonfly or a bird, you begin to ask the same questions how do these animals see? Once you begin to ask the question and understand the different styles, the different designs of eyes, you say, "Okay, how did it get this way?"
Steve: In other words, what was the first eye? That it turns out is a long story.
Ivan: There's good evidence that the original eye appeared at 600 million or even a billion years ago, and all eyes have evolved from that original eye, although it looks as if eyes more likely evolved from some basic molecules like the photopigments that allow us to see light rays. From those basic pigments, it's probably evolved as many as 40 times.
Steve: Can you give me some sense of the range of eyes that exist in the world today? How much variety is there?
Ivan: Steve, there's so much variety that it's numbing. For example, there's a tiny little creature. It's a single cell animal called erythrodiniopsis. This creature has an eye that is all subcellular. That means all the elements are within that single cell. The interesting thing is it chases other small creatures. It's a predator because it'll eat them, and yet it has no brain. It has only DNA. It has no nerves. It just has this eye.
Steve: When you get to some bigger creatures, what kinds of different eyes do you see?
Ivan: Well, it ranges from this tiny eye to perhaps the largest, certainly the largest vertebra eye ever in an ichthyosaur called thermosaurus. Thermosaurus was bigger was bigger than a double-decker bus. It had an eye the size of a beach ball.
Steve: I have to ask you about one argument that has come up from people who don't believe that evolution really explains the variety of species. This is a prominent argument within intelligent design. Certain people talk about irreducible complexity. The idea is the eye is so complex, it's made up of so many different parts that you cannot evolve an eye incrementally. You've got to have all of these things working together, and they say that evolution just cannot explain an eye. How do you respond to that?
Ivan: Well, on earth today, there are steps from the simple eyes spot to a complex eye in an Eagle or in a primate. Each of those steps shows that it's all niche driven, meaning the eye is selected for the task at hand and so sometimes only a small eye or a partial eye is needed. The best example of that is that there is a shrimp that lives at the vents at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean where continental plates meet. As a result, magma will come up through the vents, through the cracks, and is very hot. Water would boil except the pressure keeps the water from boiling, but there's a sharp decline in temperature from the vent to the water, some distance from it.
Shrimp live at the border where they are close enough to feed on the bacteria that are feeding on the vent, but they're not far enough away to freeze to death. That Shrimp has a retina on its back on each side. It has two strips of the retina, just plain raw retina. The retinae that it has a sense the blackbody radiation from the vents so that it doesn't get too close and it doesn't get too far away. I need to know exactly where it should sit, and those retinae allow it to do that. That is really just half an eye.
Steve: What's the strangest eye, the most remarkable eye you've seen?
Ivan: I'm asked this question a lot, is what's my favorite eye or what's the most remarkable. The most fascinating eye for most people would have to be an animal called the Mantis shrimp. The Mantis Shrimp is not really a shrimp. It's a stomatopod. It sort of looks like a bratwurst. If you get the bigger ones, they're six or eight inches long, and they look like something you'd have at a basketball game on a bun, but they have two eyes that are stocked, that means they have eyes on the end of the stocks and the eyes look around independently. It almost looks like a creature out of a Star Wars film. These are compound eyes, meaning they have different units.
They have highly concentrated compound eyes around a belt like an equator of each time. The punch line is that this animal has 14 visual pigments. Now, a visual pigment is what you use to see color, you need two of them to see color, you have three.
Steve: I have three pigments and you're saying this little creature has 14 pigments?
Ivan: Or 16 depending on how you want to calculate it. Some of these pigments can see circular polarized light and linear polarized light. Both of those concepts are hard for us to get our brain around because there's something we can't do. It's a sense we don't have.
Steve: Explain that. What is that?
Ivan: Now, if you put on a pair of Polaroid glasses, you can see linear polarized light. Well, there's another form of polarization that has to do with the way the wavelength of light comes at you, and it's called circularly polarized light, and they can see it. That's probably important for recognizing their mates, but it's not something we can conceive of easily. It's even a relatively new concept optically. That's probably the oddest, but for me, the best eyes are in the birds. I'm interested in birds. I'm a birder since childhood, so it's really the birds and that's the triumph. That's the best vision that evolution has to offer.
Steve: I've often heard the stories about how when the eagle or a hawk can soar way above the ground and sea prey hundreds of yards away, which sounds just astounding.
Ivan: It is astounding. That's why humans have come up with the phrase of the eagle eye. It's quite clear that the reptiles, the hawks, and the eagles, the owls, the animals that hunt other birds or hunt other animals, they have a very fine grade, maybe like the new iPad with lots of extra pixels, but they see so finally that they're the best in terms of acuity, discrimination, the best that evolution has to offer.
Steve: Ivan Schwab is a professor of ophthalmology at the UC Davis School of Medicine, and the author of Evolution's Witness: How Eyes Evolved.
Anne: I've been thinking about some of those earlier stories we told about the famous or significant eye-to-eye encounters with animals in the wild. Jane Goodall with chimpanzees in Gombe, Aldo Leopold with a wolf, Paul Watson with the whale. There's another story I have not been able to get out of my mind since I read it. The story of the feminist eco philosopher Val Plumwood told about an encounter she had when she was canoeing alone, in a remote section of Australia's Kakadu National Park. Here's what she wrote.
Valerie Plumwood (read by Julianna Meolo): I suppose I've always been the sort of person who goes too far. I certainly went much too far that torrential wet season day in February 1985 when I paddled my little red canoe to the point where the East Alligator river surges out of the stone country of the Arnhem Land plateau. As I pulled the canoe out into the main current, the wind and rain started up again. I'd not gone more than 5 or 10 minutes down the channel when, rounding a bend, I saw in midstream what looked like a floating stick.
As the current move me toward it, the stick developed eyes. A crocodile. The saltwater crocodile. The largest of the living crocodiles. A creature that can move so fast, it appears to the human eye as a flash. I was totally unprepared when it struck the canoe again and again. I realized I had to get out of the canoe or risk being capsized. The only obvious avenue of escape was a paperbark tree. I steered towards its lower branches and stood up to jump. At the same instant, the crocodile rushed up alongside the canoe, and it's beautiful flecked golden eyes looked straight into mine. I tensed for the jump and left.
I had a blurred, incredulous vision of great tooth jaws bursting from the water. Then I was seized between the legs in a red hot pincer grip and hurled into the suffocating wet darkness.
Few of those who have experienced the crocodile's death roll has lived to describe it. It's an intense burst of power designed to overcome the victim's resistance quickly. The crocodile then holds the feebly struggling prey underwater until it drowns. The roll was a centrifuge of boiling blackness that lasted for an eternity beyond endurance. When I seemed all but finished, the rolling suddenly stopped. My feet touched bottom, my head broke the surface, and coughing, I sucked air amazed to be alive, but the crocodile still had me in its pincer grip between the legs. I had just began to weep for the prospects of my mangled body when it pitched me suddenly into a second death roll.
I was growing weaker, but I could see the crocodile taking a long time to kill me this way. I prayed for quick finish, decided to provoke it by attacking it with my hands. Feeling back behind me along the head, I encountered two lumps. Thinking I had the eye sockets, I jammed my thumbs into them with all my might. They slid into warm unresisting holes, which may have been the ears or perhaps the nostrils. The crocodile did not so much flinch. I knew I had to break the pattern. Up the slippery mud bank was the only way. I jammed my fingers into the mud and used the last of my strength to climb up the bank and reach the top. I was alive.
Escaping the crocodile wasn't the end of the struggle. I was alone, many miles from help, and severely injured. My left thigh hung open with bits of fat tendon and muscle showing. I tore up some clothing, made a tourniquet, then staggered on through driving rain, shouting for mercy from the sky, apologizing to the angry crocodile, repenting to this place for my intrusion. In the end, I was found in time and survived against many odds. The wonder of being alive after being held quite literally in the jaws of death has never entirely left me.
Anne: That attack had a huge impact on Val Plumwood's thinking as a philosopher and deep ecologist. The way she described it as though it stripped away not only her skin but her illusions about the nature of life and death, and what it means to be human. Val died in 2008 at age 68. This is from her book, The Eye of the Crocodile, read by Julianna Meolo.
Valerie Plumwood (read by Julianna Meolo): Of course, in some very remote and abstract way, I knew that humans were animals and were sometimes very rarely eaten like other animals. I knew I was food for crocodiles. That my body, like theirs, was made of meat. Then again, in some very important way, I didn't know it. Absolutely rejected it. Somehow, the fact of being food for others had not seemed real until I stood in my canoe in the beating rain, staring down into the beautiful gold-flecked eyes of the crocodile.
I left through the eye of the crocodile into what seemed like a parallel universe, a harsh unfamiliar territory where everything flows. Where we live the others death, die the others' life, the universe represented in the food chain. I was suddenly transformed in the parallel universe into the form of a small edible animal whose death was of no more significance than that of a mouse.
As I saw myself as meat, I also saw with an incredible shock that I inhabited a grim, relentless, and deplorable world that would make no exceptions for me, no matter how smart I was because, like all living things, I was made of meat, was a nutritious food for another being. Being food confronts one very starkly with the realities of embodiment. With our inclusion in the animal order as food, as flesh, our kinship with those we eat, with being part of the feast and not just some sort of spectator of it, we are the feast.
This is a humbling a very disruptive experience. Thinking of ourselves as food for others is the most basic way in which we can reinvent ourselves in ecological terms and affirm our solidarity with other animals. By understanding life as the circulation, as a gift from a community of ancestors, we can see death as recycling or flowing on into an ecological and ancestral community of origins.
Steve: When I hear stories like this, I realize we're all part of a much larger interconnected web of life, which raises a really profound question, how does our sense of self fit into this biological community that's teeming with animal and plant beings?
Anne: What does that mean in daily life? What does kinship look like in practice?
Steve: I want to bring Gavin Van Horn back in here because this is the kind of thing that you think about, Gavin, at the Center for Humans and Nature.
Gavin: I think that's a really important question because it's important not just to consider kinship a concept but a practice. Oftentimes we're focused on our own lives, our own business, and we go about our day as though the rest of the world is scenery or backdrop. Almost as though we're in a play. When you walk down the street and you see a squirrel, for instance, it might just be that familiarity breeds contempt, and we don't think about it.
A transition or a way to think about it differently it would be if you can flip a switch in your head in your everyday life to thinking, "No, this is not [unintelligible 00:49:56], this is not empty space, this is living the trees and the vegetation and the bushes and the wind and the rocks and everything around you shares a certain degree of aliveness. What does that require of us?
Anne: That’s a good question. Maybe a question to live with. That's it for our show today. To The Best Of Our Knowledge is produced at Wisconsin Public Radio by Charles Monroe-Kane, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Angelo Bautista, and Mark Riechers. Our sound designer and technical director is Joe Hardtke. I'm Anne Strainchamps.
Steve: I'm Steve Paulson. Today's show was part of a new project on kinship with more than human world, produced in collaboration with the Center for Humans and Nature and with support from the Kalliopeia Foundation. You'll find more information about the project at ttbook.org and humansandnature.org.
Anne: That’s for listening.