By John Palka — Posted November 24, 2019
Not long ago my wife, Yvonne, and I got up at 4:00 o’clock in the morning to drive out to the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge north of Minneapolis to observe the sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis, Family Gruidae). A staff person and a couple of volunteers took us out to ponds where these amazing birds regularly spend the night before flying off in the early morning to feed in the neighboring, recently harvested cornfields. Here is an example of what we saw just as the sun was rising.
Is there not a certain serenity in the view, a richness of colors, a grace to the bodies? Do we not delight in the reflections on the still water, whether of the cranes or of the autumn foliage? Is the sight not beautiful?
To me, it is beautiful indeed, and it also raises many questions. Why do I say that the scene is beautiful? What makes it so? And why do we pay such attention to beauty? Why do we have a sense of beauty in the first place? Are we the only ones, or are there other creatures on our Earth who also have a sense of beauty, just as we have come to believe that other creatures besides us humans can love and grieve? So much to ponder!
These are the words with which I started to write this quarter’s posting on Nature’s Depths. From questions about beauty itself, I wandered over to the understanding that how we experience something in our surroundings depends on us. Many philosophers have said, and everything we know from science also tells us, that we live in a world of our own creation. Our experiential world is related to the external world by our senses. This world of our experience must be reasonably faithful to reality else we would not survive, but it is neither complete nor completely faithful. It is what we make it—any change in our senses or our brains changes that experience.
I well remember the story told by a student in one of my classes many years ago. She had suffered the loss of a part of her visual cortex. After recovery, she could see the world as she always had except for the part represented in, mapped onto, the missing cortex. That was gone. There was nothing like a gray area in its place. Rather, in the world of her experience this area was simply non-existent. When a car driving by entered her area of blindness, there was no more car. There was nothing there at all. She became aware of the car only when it re-entered the world mapped onto intact cortex—cortex through whose activity she saw the other things in her visual world.
The pithy statement “We see the world not as it is, but as we are” is usually attributed to the writer Anais Nin. There is a lot of truth in this statement—the only world we know experientially is the one we have ourselves created.
This understanding manifests in many ways. Some are dramatic, such as the loss of part of the visual world when part of the visual system is lost. Others are more subtle, as in this next example.
Salt Creek State Park on the northern shore of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state is extremely popular with visitors. Camping sites can be reserved, and they generally go within days of the opening of the reservation period.
This photograph of a sunset at Salt Creek illustrates why this is. It seems self-explanatory—an unspoiled shoreline, a view out over the water, and a chance to see Nature’s colors at their best. Of course, people would treasure the experience!
But wait a moment. Why do we so value expansive views like this? We sometimes travel great distances to obtain them. We pay a premium for waterfront property. Houses and apartments with a lovely view command far higher prices than do those without a view. Those views elicit very powerful feelings, and we are prepared to sacrifice a lot to get them.
Here’s a related observation, stemming from a study done by colleagues at my old institution, the University of Washington. Like any other large organization, the UW has many offices with no windows, whether because they are below ground level or because they are in the interior of a large building. The investigators conducted a survey to see what pictures the occupants of these windowless offices had hung on their walls. They had many options, of course. They could have chosen city scenes, or sports scenes, or abstract patterns, or people. In fact, however, outdoor scenes dominated. There were many more pictures of Nature in these windowless offices than there were in offices where Nature could be seen directly through a window. Striking, is it not! What lay behind the choice?
The most compelling explanation for this human preference is called the Biophilia Hypothesis. First advanced in 1984 by the great Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, this hypothesis proposes that “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life” are the outcome of our evolutionary history. We evolved within Nature—it is our primordial home. This is why, the hypothesis suggests, we have affectionate feelings for it. If Nature is not directly available to us, we seek substitutes like the pictures on the walls of windowless offices. And perhaps we are especially drawn to expansive views because we evolved primarily on the African savannah where climbing a tree to gain a broad view of our surroundings would have given us protection from predators and revealed to us potential prey.
From considering Biophilia, I was all set to go on to the world of beauty—to explore why we have a sense of beauty and whether we are the only ones—or whether other creatures, like the peacocks (Pavo cristatus, Family Phasianidae) of the dry forest in the south of India that Yvonne and I encountered back in 1965, also experience each other as beautiful.
BUT THEN EVERYTHING CHANGED
I have been seeing a replica of the UW study on windowless offices every day for the past several weeks. In the family waiting room of the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, seven pictures hang on the wall, every one of them a portrayal of Nature. They are part of the space in which family members take a break from sitting with their loved ones undergoing intensive care. I have been there every day because Yvonne—the same Yvonne I married in India when we were fresh out of college, the same Yvonne who saw peacocks with me so many years ago and sandhill cranes a month ago, the same Yvonne with whom I had recently hiked on trails along the North Shore of Lake Superior and with whom I was about to see a performance of Indian classical dance—is in intensive care.
While crossing the street at an intersection on the evening we were to see that dance performance, we were both struck by a car whose driver made a left turn without seeing us. I was knocked to the ground but sustained only minor injuries. Yvonne, however, has been on life support ever since. Without assistance she still cannot even breathe well enough to survive.
IT WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN
Yvonne’s brain is damaged, so she may never again experience the world as she did before, a world that was beautiful, that she loved and painted, whose music gave her great joy, and in which the people of her life moved and laughed and loved. Will she ever even talk to us again? Will she ever recognize beauty such as she painted in her Autumn Glow just a couple of months ago?
We don’t know. What we do know is that Yvonne continues to need constant care. She has become a huge part of my life in a way that neither of us ever anticipated. For this reason, I am taking a break from Nature’s Depths. I am hoping that I will be able to resume writing after a while, but for now nothing can take me away from a focus on Yvonne. When we were married in the Quaker International Centre in Delhi, India, fifty-nine years ago, we exchanged traditional Quaker vows. I said these simple words to Yvonne:
In the presence of God and these, our Friends, I take thee, Yvonne, to be my wife, promising, with Divine assistance, to be unto thee a loving and faithful husband so long as we both shall live.
Yvonne said the same words to me, taking me to be her husband. Now, these vows mean more than ever. Yvonne continues to be my beauty to whom I am devoted and whom I will serve as best I can. I will continue to find emotional and spiritual sustenance in the natural world as well as in the world of human love, but I can’t promise to produce posts on a regular schedule. Please don’t leave Nature’s Depths, just be patient with me as I adjust to my new reality.