This is a rewrite of an earlier post published here on WIZ.
One dark night in January of 2010 Mark and I made a last minute run to the only grocery store within 22 miles. On our return trip home, I drove with the SUV’s highbeams on, because we live on a rural road where, even in winter, we’re likely to come across a wide variety of animals on the pavement, anything from cats, rabbits, deer, mice, coyotes, and foxes to neighbors’ loose horses and cattle. In spring and summer, the variety of animal-on-road is even wider.
As we arced along a curve, the vehicle’s lights splashed against something moving on the road. A small cottontail had emerged from cover, probably looking for something to eat at the road’s edges where the unusually heavy and long-lingering snow had melted back from the asphalt’s edges.
€œA bunny, € I said. The rabbit hopped straight for us and I slowed down. As the vehicle edged to a stop, we saw another flash in the headlights, high up in the air to our right. A great horned owl dropped out of the darkness into the swath of our headlights, swinging its talons out toward the rabbit, working its wings to correct its aim.
€œWhoa! € we both said, surprised by the sudden drama. The cottontail feinted right, seemingly away from the owl but still heading toward the car. The owl hesitated midair, quite possibly blinded by our headlights, then tumbled to the ground a good two feet off its away-running target. For a moment, the bird sat on the roadside, staring after the rabbit. It looked like it was considering giving chase but, glancing at us, seemed to decide the risk wasn’t worth it. The opportunity had passed. With another flash of wings, the big bird lifted away into the darkness above the highbeams.
I don’t remember who said it, but one of us exclaimed, €œWow, that was something! € I asked, €œIs the bunny under our car? € It would be a grief if the rabbit, having escaped the owl, suffered death beneath our tires. Mark grabbed a Maglite and slid out to look. €œNo bunnies under the car, € he said, getting back in, and we drove the very short distance home. €œA bunny lived a little longer and an owl possibly went hungry because we were there, € I said to Mark.
Many of us have had similar experiences of happening to be somewhere then seeing that our being there affected some outcome, perhaps powerfully. This observation effect, if I might borrow a phrase from quantum mechanics, is a very common phenomenon that occurs more than we might realize. Sometimes just choosing to walk outside your door is enough to trigger an event or series of events and engage you in the flow of experience. Sometimes your involvement in an incident occurs only in your witnessing it, witnessing being no small thing, since, one way or another, witnessing an event affects it.
Example. One day I was waking home from the BYU campus when a commotion in a hedgerow caught my attention. I heard small birds’ panicked shrieking, then a kestrel flew out of the hedge clutching a sparrow in its talons. The image of the silhouette of that sparrow rising toward its end, head hanging limp, beak slightly open, has stayed with me for over thirty years. While I think that drama was well on its way before I arrived on the scene, my being there to witness it became part of the event and it entered my life. My telling of it now expands its occurrence.
Here’s an example of my more direct yet unintentional involvement in a similar experience. After we moved to our home in southeastern Utah, I walked out my front door one morning in a routine act of departure. A flock of juncos rummaging the yard for seeds took to the air at the sight of me. Perhaps because they’d invested their attention in me and/or were caught up in reading each other’s movements, they didn’t see the mid-sized hawk arrowing toward them €˜til too late. The hawk struck one junco in flight, knocked it senseless then seized it in its talons as it floundered against the ground. It all happened too quickly for me to even be able to identify what kind of hawk had benefited from my unintentional assistance. Lesson (still being) learned. I’m grateful that I was aware enough to see what happened; many times, I’m not.
Back when I lived along the Wasatch Front, I went on my morning walk one day along a route that took me past an elementary school. As I started up the hill, ahead of me on the opposite side of the street I saw a boy of eight or nine chucking rocks at a girl following him that I’d guess was kindergarten age or maybe in first grade. As I processed what was going on, the boy pegged her a good one on the leg. The girl’s face contorted. She sat down on the sidewalk, grabbed her leg, and began crying. The boy picked up another rock. €œHey! € I yelled from half a block away. €œStop it! €
The boy turned, saw me, dropped the rock. Unsure of what to do or what I was going to do, he stood, fidgeting, €˜til I’d walked past. After I’d walked up the road a bit, I turned to see what course of action he’d chosen. He’d crossed the road, leaving the girl sitting in a sulk on the sidewalk where he’d stoned her. I don’t enjoy giving orders, but the moment seemed to require it. €œGo back and help her cross the street, € I said. Obediently, the boy turned back, helped the girl up, led her to the corner and across the street.
The obvious effects of my €œhappen stance € €”of my happening to be present and aware at that moment and of my involving myself €”was that the boy stopped throwing rocks at the girl for the time being then saw to her safety as he helped her cross the street and led her to the school. The less obvious effects? Who can say. But they include the impact the incident made upon me, including changing me, and that now include the effects that carry forward into whatever meaning the telling of the story gives rise to.
This is a beautiful, terrible, endless, destructive, creative, full-bodied participatory world, where events echo and continue to unfold moment to moment. Where they arise in language, such as in the telling of these stories, they likewise €œhappen, € engaging readers in the continuity of events by their choice to read these words today. In this way, human language is every bit as active as any other action and not merely passive expression or the diluted by-product of an action. Nor is it a cage to capture experience. Language is. It does.
Many are the times I’ve gone out into the environment that’s traditionally called Nature, become involved, and, surprise and confusion stripping me of favorite, comfortable clothing of suppositions, found myself standing naked in the eye of the universe, wondering, €œWhat just happened? € I might not have learned much during the experience itself, but as I considered my actions afterward, I took another happen stance €”that of self-examination, of witnessing the movements of my body and mind across the landscape of an event and then choosing differently. Such after-the-fact choices might only affect the outcome of the enlivening event by how they change me. Yet potential for those effects to continue through me exists in how I word them when I recount the event later.
The incident of the cottontail and the owl is carried forward in these words €”has given rise to them, in fact.
Is life just too much, or what?
Anyway, it’s always more than we think we know.
4 thoughts on “The happen stance by Patricia Karamesines”
I feel deeply for individuals of other species. Is it part of being a moral agent to notice all the harm and joy we create among other creatures? On the one hand, it’s so delightful to put out food for the birds and squirrels and watch them enjoy it. On the other, it’s so heartrending to hire someone to trap the raccoons living in one’s attic that have come to see one as a benign and benevolent supplier of food. Killing them because of the damage they cause, and the disease, parasites, all the grown-up rational reasons that don’t take into account their trusting eyes and sweet faces, and the adorable kits that climb and tumble around all over one another in that mixture of terror and joy with which they face the human-who-feeds.
I want to be a benevolent god to the animals, yet my house itself was sited on a spot that likely provided plenty of habitat and food to those denizens who were killed or driven away when it was built. I’m a cruel and heartless god, a traitor god who doesn’t keep her implied promises. And then I torture myself with these reflections. I see the dead animals on the side of the highway that we kill without a thought, in service to getting-there-quicker. I would be a Jainist if that would work, but there’s no servant to brush the path before me. The servant is me, discomfiting the insects no less with my broom than my feet would in walking by. Before we can act morally we first have to notice the effects of our actions, to feel empathy for the suffering we cause. Is there no way not to cause harm?
Speaking of observer effect, I remember reading a paper about barn cat societies where moms pooled their litters and took turns watching the kittens. The observer described an incident in which a tom cat came and killed dozens of kittens while the mothers were all away hunting. I realized that the observer herself had come to be trusted by the mothers over time, when she didn’t harm the babies, and that she had been left as babysitter by the mothers, not knowing her ideas of scientific observation would keep her from intervening to protect, as the other mother cats in the babysitting pool naturally would. By being a trusted presence, she had fooled the mothers into leaving their kittens vulnerable. I wonder if she ever realized that? I wonder what was going through her mind as she watched the slaughter of the kittens and made notes on her tablet?
A picture in a textbook of a kitten experimentally given panleukopenia, how it looked the third week after infection, sickened me and made me wish to be not a member of my species. Yet I eat meat. Even when I was vegan I realized the crops we grow kill animals. By being here alive we trample or crowd out other lives. On the one hand, the earth will cease to sustain us eventually if we don’t change our approach to other living things. On the other there seems to be endless pain leading to no real change? I do know that before we can change, we have to let ourselves feel what we’re doing to the least of these.
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I have an idea or two. First, many effects of our actions and words, good and bad, unfold beyond the range of our vision. They fly away into the deeper realms of life that I call “the abyss” where they do things on their own, cause things to happen, affect events we aren’t even aware are going on. Currently, I don’t think we have developed the consciousness to have the sense that living our lives can really stir things up out there past our bounded thinking about our own concerns. Yet the possibility for deeper connection and alertness exists, in spades. As I think about these things, the difficulty that arises is that sometimes I make my best offer–my best good act–and it triggers a bad reaction. I think we have to allow for that and not see the event as a closed system of cause and effect. In the case where I act as well as I’m able to and the event still takes what might be considered to be a bad turn, my responsibility is to live with what happens and learn from it, understanding that the experience has not come to a close. Something may still be made of it though years may pass before the event comes to some fruition. Even then, I may never know of the outcome for one reason or another.
Second, I think we’re still evolving, that our brains are still evolving. The pressure of difficult events pushes us to the edges of our world where we change, stagnate, or die–our choice. If we change, we often become more aware. And now our species has language, a different kind from what other creatures have. Some language evolution theorists are coming to see our involvement with language as having become a powerful impetus for evolutionary movement. My thinking: We need to treat language as an environment that changes us as we change it and figure out how to behave better in its dynamic realms. If we do that, our awareness can magnify.
Even Buddhist monks have taken stands against raccoons. (See Raccoon Nation by PBS, a Nature program.)
Often, animals benefit from interaction with us and we benefit from their presence in our lives. Sometimes they don’t. My approach to this condition of human-animal interaction is educate myself as much as possible about the problems that can arise and then decide what to do. For instance, every once in a while I find cougar tracks in the canyon I frequent. Sometimes the cat is just passing through, but once, the tracks appeared so frequently and were everywhere, and I knew one had moved in. It was chilling to find those tracks inset into my own boot prints in the canyon. I stayed out of the canyon while I educated myself about what kinds of behavior put you more at risk when you’re in a cougar’s territory. You don’t bend over to tie your shoes, because cougars attack from behind and bite through your spinal column at the back of your neck. You don’t go near areas that might hold a den site. You don’t jog through the area because it will trigger a cougar’s chase instinct. You stay alert. If you encounter a cougar, don’t turn your back to it. Make a lot of noise. Make yourself look bigger, etc.
FYI, recently, we sealed up a hole into our roof where starlings have been nesting for two years. They actually pried off an end cap and raised approximately six broods over those two years. We chose not to seal the entrance when there were baby birds in the nest (we could hear them), but there was some risk in allowing the birds to use our roof structure for a rookery. Starlings are another species that pose threats of property damage, parasites, and other problems. This year, we made a point of sealing the hole before the nest was completed. I had my son wear a mask while he hammered the cap back into place. In this case, learning to live with starlings (a non-native species, by the way–aggressive, hard on native species) includes not allowing them to nest in our roof.
I think you’ve hit the problem squarely: We have to notice the effects of our actions, to feel empathy for the suffering we cause. My cats don’t do that. They catch a chipmunk or rabbit and don’t consider for a moment the terror, pain, and other kinds of suffering their hunting and killing causes. Yet they are themselves terrified of the fox that hunts them. They can’t make the connection. The coyote doesn’t feel empathy for the prairie dog it digs out of the den. The raven doesn’t worry over the pain and suffering it causes when it raids nests of other birds and makes off with their babies. After noticing, we shoulder the task of learning a better way.
I’d like to caution against relying on the “reduce the amount of suffering” or “prevent suffering” argument. It seems like a great idea, but it’s often used to justify bad acts or to sustain oppressive practices that might actually retard human development.
That’s a stunning example of the observer effect, perhaps saying more about the observer than about the effect. It’s interesting to watch Star Trek and witness good ‘ole Captain Kirk violate the Prime Directive episode after episode, isn’t it? I think we have to choose to act to the best of our abilities then live with the outcomes of our choices. Yet, in this case, the observer’s actions did include a very important effect: She recorded the incident. You came across the language. It affected you. You made your own judgments and, one would guess, your own choices about what you would do under similar circumstances. So she did do something, and the effect carried forward. Of course, part of what we might have to do in reading of such an event is decide whether or not to trust the observer’s account.
Trampling and crowding out isn’t all we do. By being here alive we also foster and protect other lives. Yeah, even our best intentions sometimes go wrong because we weren’t as aware of what was going on as we thought we were. That’s a constant condition. But we’re gaining from experience–perhaps painfully slowly, but our species is changing. We are becoming more aware and learning to allow for the presence of others, both people and animals. My own life, the life of my disabled daughter, my husband’s life–all the challenges members of my family have faced, together and separately–point to humankind becoming more humane, with gains being made just in my lifetime. Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist and language evolution theorist, says that all evidence points to our living in a time of unprecedented peace. The picture emerging from the past suggests that violence was the rule. I often reflect that while the risk of experiencing violence still exists, I’ve made it a whole heck of a lot further and experienced greater freedom than I might have had I been born some generations back.
And in actual relationship, who is “the least of these”? I’ve found that in my interactions with the hummingbirds that frequent our feeders, the moments of encounter can be so intense that I feel on level ground with these remarkable birds. So small, yet they’re dynamos, up to teaching us if we don’t diminish the prospects. They, in turn learn who-knows-what from their up close and personal encounters with me. As long as I’m doing my best to prevent their harm, what they learn from me is their business. (Can you believe we actually taught our cats to leave them alone?) I only know that I’m better for the presence of hummingbirds in my life.
And they’ll be back again soon–in about three weeks!
One positive story I can share is when a couple of us discovered a bumble bee that had not got back to its hive late at night. We covered it with a butter dish because it was going to rain, and later fed it honey. It went from listless and grounded to buzzy with a kind of sheer joy to feel better. It really perked up! That one, at least, seemed to be a ‘got that one right’ account. Since then, I’ve taught my kids to do this as well when we find a bee that is struggling and left behind. Over the years this makes for three whole bees that had honey and a home provided by us. Made for memorable discussions and a chance to think about things we might not have otherwise.
That’s a good story, Lora. I like bees. In the garden in the spring, after the flowers have bloomed, I often find bees sleeping in the blossoms, waiting for the sun to warm them up. We come across cold bees often in places where they’re at risk. You can pick them up then. They’ll cling to your finger. I’ve never been stung by cold bees.
Bees need as much help and shelter as they can get.
Bumblebees tend to pollinate my tomato plants the best. Here, I’ve seen three or four kinds of bumblebees. Up north, I only ever saw one species frequent the garden.
We have a host of hoverflies that come to the garden in the spring, and other kinds of bees, including species I’ve never seen before. I don’t know what they’re called. We also have metallic green bees. They actually live in the garden sometimes in holes they dig in the raised beds.
Mid and late spring mornings, what a sound there is out there in the flowers, a warm, continuous hum. I love walking through it.
Yeah for bees, and thanks for the bee-reviving advice!