On my morning walk the other day I cut back through the downtown of my little Florida hamlet, a popular day trip destination for folks weary of the suburban megalopolis of Orlando. At 6 AM, all was lit in stillness, the shops and restaurants poised to spring into another chirpy day of commerce. Spring is here.
Beyond the defunct train station (rail cars use to load up a massive haul of local citrus bound for Northern markets), I came upon a row of dumpsters upon which black vultures had massed. They nest in a wild area just south of town along Lake Dora, and on windy afternoons you can watch hundreds of them spirals in the thermals. I wondered if their large population was partially due to all of these waste receptacles in a busy restaurant town. Vultures not going in and out of the dumpsters were arraigned on the nearby roof a real estate building, a row of ten or fifteen dark elders gazing at the growing light of dawn.
Are half-eaten burgers and fishwiches as nourishing as the dead? What does that make of vultures? And of us? Exploring the extinction of several vulture species, Thom van Dooren writes,
Death must be thought about not as a simple ending, but as completely central to the ongoing life of multispecies communities, in which we are all ultimately food for one another . As Heraclitus succinctly put it: “the one living the other’s death, and dying the other’s life.” In this context, vultures are at the heart of life and death’s transformative potential. But instead of taking life to produce their nourishment, they consume only that which is already dead, pulling dead flesh back into processes of nourishment and growth. I suspect that alongside the insects, bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that also make their living breaking down the dead, vultures have a special place in life’s heart. I cannot help but think here about Jean-Luc Nancy’s beautiful injunction not to separate life from death: “To isolate death from life—not leaving each one intimately woven into the other, with each one intruding upon the other’s core [coeur]—this is what one must never do” (Flight Ways: Critical Perspectives on Animals, p. 48)
Can death be domesticated? Did its deacons gaze upon me that morning foraging for mine, or were they like cows mooing for morning hay?
Then I saw the eagle, atop a nearby building, bulkier head and white crest differentiating her from the vultures. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in my 25 years here . I was enthralled with the sight of it up there staring down on me. Even in the half-light, her yellow eyes glared. What a majestic bird! There was a great flapping of wings; then another eagle lowered down next to it. How narrowed and diminished I felt in their gaze. Too big for prey but way down here where I walked, incapable of communicating, part of the monstrous human weal which was fast erasing their habitat and meaning and glory. A diminishment which does something to their instinct as well as ours. (Ah, but we’re used to it …)
In 1986 Barry Lopez published Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, an account of his 5-year stint as a biologist working in the Artic. Change was coming fast to that rough country, with oil exploration fast disrupting the fragile ecological balance of the wilderness. He writes of one day coming up out of a snooze laying on arctic tundra one summer with that creeping feeling of being watched: He looks around and sees a lemming staring at him from a few dozen feet away. “I lay there knowing something eerie ties us to the world of animals. Sometimes the animals pull you backward into it. You share hunger and fear with them like salt in blood.” But all that is most human in us sets up boundaries and walls to that connection:
Whenever I meet a collared lemming on a summer day and took its stare I would think: Here is a tough animal. Here is a valuable life. In a heedless moment years from now, will I remember more machinery here than mind? If it could tell me of its will to survive, would I think of biochemistry, or would I think of the analgous human desire? If it could speak of the time since the retreat of the ice, would I have the patience to listen?
Arctic Dreams won the National Book Award for nonfiction thanks to Lopez’ keen eye. in the decades since its publication, climate change has even more drastically affected that landscape in. How can we look arctic wildness in the eye now, with it melting virtually from sight?
Further on in my walk and now into residential neighborhoods, I came upon hawk in someone’s front yard, standing there perhaps on prey though I couldn’t see it: Just standing there, head turning slowly as I walked past maybe fifteen feet away. I could tell the bird was tensed to fly but instead it just stared at me. A hooded blackness, sharper than my unaided eyes could ever train. (The vision of humans is straight ahead; our eyes have central fovea which allow us a narrow distant focus. Hawks have both central and peripheral fovea in their eyes, allowing a more complex gaze, at once far and wide. Hawks can also see more colors than humans, diving deeper into the ultraviolet spectrum. Our gaze would be crippling to their task.)
The Giant Magellan Telescope is now being assembled and will eventually be installed in the Atacama Desert in Chile, a remote area 8,000 feet above sea level. With a 85-foot-wide mirror assembled from seven massive castings at the University of Arizona, the Magellan Telescope will have 10 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. As one scientist put it, someone in Washington DC will be able to distinguish the ball from the bat that hit it in San Francisco. Magellan will help astronomers gain deeper data into how galaxies form and grow, finding both the first sources of light and peer with greater clarity at planets much like our own (which are now difficult to see due to light from their nearby star). Humanity’s eye will become that of the universe staring at itself: How deep and penetrating our gaze will be: But the wisdom at both ends of our evolution tells us we must have the hawk’s gaze in understanding what see.
And how will we be held in that gaze? The telescope will be operational by the year 2030; will that be too late for us to see the wasteland grandeur of our error?
In her book Fathoms: The World In the Whale, Rebecca Giggs writes about encountering the look of the whale eye.
A sperm whale looked squarely at him, in the Azores, and the writer Philip Hoare said, “this was not the eye of a horse, or a cow. It absolutely was reading me.” A male grey whale returned his stare off Baja, and the journalist Charlie Siebert wrote in New York magazine, “I’d never felt so beheld in my life … (I)t felt to me as if he were taking one long and quizzical look in the mirror.” A killer whale trainee from Florida said to documentarians, “When you look into their eyes, you know someone is home. Someone is looking back. “A whale’s stare, according to marine biologist Ken Balcomb, is “much more powerful than a dog looking at you. A dog might want your attention. The whales, it’s a different feeling. It’s more like they’re searching inside you.”
I felt that gaze the other day in the raptors of life and death, both vitally affected and afflicted by my looking back. Reading the beastiary of my soul. Flying that far, diving that deep.
“Few things provoke like the presence of wild animals,” Lopez writes. “They pull at us like tidal currents with questions of volition, of ethical involvement, of ancestry.”
What are animals looking for? What are they seeing? That’s the essence of this week’s challenge, THE ANIMAL GAZE. Tell us of your encounters with that gaze. What do we share with that gaze, how do we differ? How can we understand it, considered in the marbled and congealed in masses of neurocortical fibers and dense clusters of culture and language and all-too-habitual mastery? And what does that gaze read in us?
I’ll leave you with my favorite animal gaze poem, written by (surprise surprise) Ranier Maria Rilke and translated by Stephen Mitchell.
The Eighth Duino Elegy
Ranier Maria Rilke
With all its eyes the natural world looks out
into the Open. Only our eyes are turned
backward, and surround plant, animal, child
like traps, as they emerge into their freedom.
We know what is really out there only from
the animal’s gaze; for we take the very young
child and force it around, so that it sees
objects — not the Open, which is so
deep in animals’ faces. Free from death.
We, only, can see death; the free animal
has its decline in back of it, forever,
and God in front, and when it moves, it moves
already in eternity, like a fountain.
Never, not for a single day, do we have
before us that pure space into which flowers
endlessly open. Always there is World
and never Nowhere without the No: that pure
unseparated element which one breathes
without desire and endlessly knows. A child
may wander there for hours, through the timeless
stillness, may get lost in it and be
shaken back. Or someone dies and is it.
For, nearing death, one doesn’t see death; but stares
beyond, perhaps with an animal’s vast gaze.
Lovers, if the beloved were not there
blocking the view, are close to it, and marvel…
As if by some mistake, it opens for them
behind each other… but neither can move past
the other, and it changes back to World.
Forever turned toward objects, we see in them
the mere reflection of the realm of freedom,
which we have dimmed. Or when some animal
mutely, serenely, looks us through and through.
That is what fate means: to be opposite,
to be opposite and nothing else, forever.
If the animal moving toward us so securely
in a different direction had our kind of
consciousness—, it would wrench us around and drag us
along its path. But it feels its life as boundless,
unfathomable, and without regard
to its own condition: pure, like its outward gaze.
And where we see the future, it sees all time
and itself within all time, forever healed.
Yet in the alert, warm animal there lies
the pain and burden of an enormous sadness.
For it too feels the presence of what often
overwhelms us: a memory, as if
the element we keep pressing toward was once
more intimate, more true, and our communion
infinitely tender. Here all is distance;
there it was breath. After that first home,
the second seems ambiguous and drafty.
Oh bliss of the tiny creature which
remains forever inside the womb that was its shelter;
joy of the gnat which, still within, leaps up
even at its marriage: for everything is womb.
And look at the half-assurance of the bird,
which knows both inner and outer, from its source,
as if it were the soul of an Etruscan,
flown out of a dead man received inside a space,
but with his reclining image as the lid.
And how bewildered is any womb-born creature
that has to fly. As if terrified and fleeing
from itself, it zigzags through the air, the way
a crack runs through a teacup. So the bat
quivers across the porcelain of evening.
And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
turned toward the world of objects, never outward.
It fills us. We arrange it. It breaks down.
We rearrange it, then break down ourselves.
Who has twisted us around like this, so that
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away? Just as, upon
the farthest hill, which shows him his whole valley
one last time, he turns, stops, lingers—,
so we live here, forever taking leave.
Awesome essay, Brendan. I have been gazed at by a whale – such an ancient presence, and it was definitely seeing inside me. In Tofino we have resident whales that hang around all season and they become used to the whale watching boats. Some, called “friendlies”, sometimes approach the boat and allow people to touch them……..I have always felt they sensed the energy aboard the boat and are selective about who they approach. There is telepathy going on. How wonderful to have encountered such birds on your walk. I have been very close – ten feet -from an eagle and they are HUGE up close. This is a wonderful prompt. Many thanks.
I too have been stared at by a whale in the Azores. It was humbling.
On another trip, a group of young male dolphins came right up to the boat to talk. Then raced us…boys will be boys…
Magnificent essay, Brendan. Lots to ponder.
Brendan, this is such an inspiring post and has got me back posting as this animal gaze theme is just so much a part of my writing and my friend’s art work. Thanks so much for the Rilke poem it is extraordinary. We so need to make these connections when so much is at stake for the wild world. I will check up on others in the morning!
Another great prompt that kept me busy for days finding the words to describe experience. I looked into the eye of a whale once and have never forgotten it. I like your quotes about that experience and can relate to those words but I’ve chosen to write about an encounter I had with some koalas instead. Thank you, once again, for the inspiration.