Sunday, April 21, 2013

It’s All a Matter of Perspective

On this day in 1852, Henry David Thoreau recorded an interesting observation in his journal:
“The birds are singing in the rain about the small pond in front, the inquisitive chickadee that has flown at once to the alders to reconnoiter us, the blackbirds, the song sparrow, telling of expanding buds. But above all the robin sings here too, I know not at what distance in the wood. ‘Did he sing thus in Indian days?’ I ask myself; for I have always associated this sound with the village and the clearing, but now I do detect the aboriginal wildness in his strain, and can imagine him a woodland bird, and that he sang thus when there was no civilized ear to hear him, a pure forest melody even like the wood thrush. Every genuine thing retains this tone, which no true culture displaces. I heard him even as he might have sounded to the Indian, singing at evening upon the elm above his wigwam, with which was associated in the red man’s mind the events of an Indian’s life, his childhood. Formerly I had heard in it only those strains which tell of the white man’s village life; now I heard those strains which remembered the red man’s life, when these arrowheads, which the rain has made shine so on the lean stubble-field, were fastened to their shaft.”
—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), April 21, 1852.
How anthropocentric we tend to be, even in our simplest observations of nature.

I noticed this yesterday too,
on the blog of a prominent author of nature guides. A few days ago, the author had posted stunning photos of some birds seen in his/her backyard. Very nice. The next day’s post had the title “[Bird] Tragedy” It seems that a local Cooper’s Hawk had dispatched one of the subject birds. Well, that’s interesting, but it’s not a tragedy, it’s just Nature. From the hawk’s perspective, it was a good day!

Too often, we ascribe “good” and “bad” qualities to animals, plants, and even the weather, mostly as a reflection of human values and tastes.

Is poison ivy bad, or good? Bad, according to human beings who are allergic to it (then don’t touch it!). Good, for birds such as the American Robins and Northern Flickers that eat its berries.

Is a dead tree bad, or good? Bad, according to human beings whose esthetic sense does not allow for dead or dying things. Good, for birds or other animals whose lives depends on the insects found in dead or dying trees, or for those that depend on empty cavities for nesting and rearing young.

Is a long winter bad, or good? Bad, according to human beings who don’t like cold or snow. Good, for plants who have evolved to remain dormant in sub-freezing temperatures for many months.

It’s all a matter of perspective. And ours is not always the best.

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