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.