Yellowstone Opens the Doors of Perception

While I was sauntering through woods I mused how quickly the intensity of first impressions fade to extinction. How the frisson of a new place or a face we want to sustain with its original freshness never burns so brightly afterwards, like the turning down of a dimmer switch except the hand that turns it is unconscious.

I was in the backwoods of Montana last week at dawn. I was told to drive past the last ranch on a gravel track to where it peters out at the edge of a lodgepole pine forest that girdles a snow-capped mountain. Part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it is outside the Park and a better place for the only big beast on my list that I hadn’t seen inside. I followed the directions of a local man to signs posted for grizzly habitat.

I left the car to tramp into a dew-soaked meadow where there were wild forget-me-nots, bluebells and lupines in bloom, and crouching among the sagebrush there was a kind of golden sunflower. A Painted Lady flitted around, confused by the choice of flowers to suck for nectar. There was a powerful fragrance of pine resin breathing out of the trees, and it involuntarily triggered a memory flash of another forest walk long ago. The place was so silent only the ringing in my ears kept me from mental numbness. I stood soaking in the scene and scent for several minutes before starting along a forest trail used by riders in the fall who come to hunt elk and mule deer.

This is not a prologue to a terrifying bear story. Sorry! It was the hope of seeing one of those old men of the woods that brought me there, and I was alert because without rummaging in my backpack I wasn’t sure if in the dark cabin to avoid disturbing my wife I might have brought a can of hair spray instead of bear spray.

Ecstatic absorption in a scene obliterates other thoughts and pushes away anxieties, if only for a few minutes. I remember I had the sense of being naturally high before, not always on nature. It is a mysterious emotion of pure being the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart called is-ness, and the best word to capture my feelings for the object is love. As for the bears, I never saw or heard them, and yet wouldn’t exchange that lone stroll in the woods for lying longer in bed. But those feelings are becoming strangers as the days pass. The images, fragrance and silence faded as soon as I started back along the path to the ordinary day.

It’s tempting to wish to live permanently on the heights of exaggerated sensibility, to continue to enjoy the fullness of being in the woods, a new home, a new lover, and all those other special moments that are fleeting. But our minds quickly shut down inputs from our senses, which I suppose protects us from too much distraction in the business of normal life, or even from going mad.  Maybe that’s what T.S. Eliot meant by, “Humankind cannot bear too much reality.”

Arrowleaf balsamroot

Most of the time we look and do not see; we listen and do not hear; we breath and do not smell. That’s my experience. My brain diminishes the world, casting aside unnecessary details I only notice when they are fresh, making it less extraordinary and the experience of being alive less astonishing. Familiar stimuli quickly slip from the mind into a chasm of unconsciousness. The aroma of barbecue fades before the end of the meal, the stale smell of tobacco smoke is not so offensive by the end of the taxi-cab journey. I don’t notice dust on my bookshelf unless a visiting mother-in-law holds up an accusing finger she wiped across its surface. It takes concentrated effort to focus on the same object for long. I mostly achieved it when I was scanning specimens for rare cell types under a microscope, and when I used to draw and paint and had to scrutinize the subject for the finest details.

When the dimmer switch is turned down and our senses are no longer in rapt attention, the mind draws in on itself to internal thoughts and memories. I don’t think it is only introverts who will admit this. l can walk a familiar path without much consciousness of my surroundings, and am sometimes so absorbed in thought (including plans for the next blogpost) that if my dog didn’t steer me away with her leash I could walk into a tree or lamppost.

I wonder if my dog lives a much more sensate, much less introspective life than I do. Both predator and prey animals must remain alert to their environment to capture nuances that help them find food and to survive. Humans are relatively liberated from this urgency because we learned to provide more security for ourselves by controlling our environment and sharing responsibility.

Perhaps early hominids engaged the sensory world more acutely and more like animals, but it seems likely that big differences in natural sensibility exist between modern people. I doubt if this territory has gotten much attention from researchers because it is subjective, but I think artists like van Gogh and poets like Blake had this gift.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake

The author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, experimented with mescaline from the peyote cactus and with LSD to induce psychedelic experiences for mimicking the experiences that inspired William Blake’s art. He wrote about the intensity of visions and red-hot poker plants in his book The Doors of Perception, which became a handbook for early hippies. But drugs provide an artificial and forced escape without the fullness of an experience that comes free from nature and empties the mind for liberated senses to fill. Coming out of the internal cavern spontaneously to experience a “high” in the woods was so much more rewarding for being rare, taken by surprise, and not bent under pharmacology.

Next Post: Eunuch Dog on Stilts




Fences, Neighbors and Owls

A pair of new neighbors moved into our woodlot this spring. We hear them calling on and off during the day while they are resting until they fly off for night work. They repeatedly chatter to each other: “Hoo, hoo, who cooks for you?”

Owl pellets

I am curious about their diet. Scratching in the ground cover under their favorite tree, I looked for pellets regurgitated from indigestible food. I found several about an inch or two long and floated them in a bowl of water until they were soft for tearing to shreds between sharp points. The solid matter settled to the bottom of the bowl for identification, first by naked eye and then with the low-power lens of a dissecting microscope. I hoped there wouldn’t be evidence of small birds in their diet because we had two broods of bluebirds fledging from one nestbox and also a family of titmice from another box that might be tempting tidbits.

They were mostly eating insects. There was a jumble of legs up to the size of large cricket’s, as well as the hard chitinous protein of beetle elytra. I found the skull and femur of a vole. No feathers. Phew!

Jumble of undigested material

They often roost in a hackberry tree like a romantic pair perched side-by-side. To make our yard their base for months in springtime surely means they have family plans, or even a hidden brood. I guessed they had a nest in an old maple tree whose heartwood was rotted out to form an entrance hole nearly 20 feet up. The sticks and limp greenery poking out of the hole confirmed something was living there, but they never showed themselves.

Considering how most wildlife scoot off at first sight of us, regarding humans as arch-enemies or super-predators, owls are remarkably trusting. I can walk to within seven paces without disturbing them any more than rotating their heads through 180° to watch me go. But I make concessions to win their trust, meaning I saunter past looking nonchalantly and avoiding abrupt motion. I pretend not to notice them and never look them in the eye as a hunter does.

It is a moving experience to build a friendly relationship with a wild and beautiful creature. People rarely come into conflict with owls and they are beneficial for farmers and gardeners. People love them and we are introduced to the wise bird in story books and cartoons at early ages. But it wasn’t always so. In folk-lore they were depicted in a superstitious light and as harbingers of death, probably because they are beasts of the night.

Owls have few friends apart from us. Prey animals loathe them, of course, but so do other birds in our yard, regarding them in the same way as they do red-shouldered hawks. It’s an injustice when they haven’t committed crime against their feathered relatives. Whenever there is a tremendous cacophony of mocking birds, titmice, and blue jays outside I know the owls are in for a mobbing, and soon enough a murder of crows arrives to accuse our friends, who look like two thieves crossed on a horizontal branch. “Murder” is an apt collective noun for crows, whose bills are as sharp as spear points.  Shouting to scare them away is wasted effort. Crows are so smart they know the difference between a man carrying a gun and empty hands. Owls are not dumb and know when to retire from the bullies into dense cover.

Barred owl in our persimmon tree

As night workers, owls have eyes and ears for perceiving objects too faint for us to see and too slight to hear. I guess they long to open their pupils at the end of day after they were stopped down like camera lenses in daylight, and if birds have any sense of time I expect they look forward to when the yard falls quiet in the gloaming.

I remembered another amazing adaptation for their nightly patrols when I found a flight feather where they were preening. It was barred white and brown for camouflage (they were Barred Owls), but I was more interested in the leading edge because the vane was brushed into a delicate comb. Uniquely in owls, it reduces turbulence from air passing over the feather to muffle sound and perhaps even raise the pitch above the threshold for prey to hear. It “comes with gossamer softness,” wrote a birder with a poetic heart.

Since this post is about neighbors I was recalling some years ago when I had a row with the man next door after I erected a fence along our property line. He didn’t want it in his line of sight and didn’t know it was for good cause, because “good fences make good neighbors.” Our owls, like Mr. X, are no respecters of fences, but we are getting along with them and welcome their trespassing.

Next Post: Hail Yellowstone



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