Letter from the Desert: Animals besides us

I'm not sure I understand people who don't notice animals. I'm not talking about polar bears and white rhinos and rattlesnakes and other such notables; I mean the hundreds of animals we each of us see every day, perhaps barring those of us in solitary confinement or Intensive Care. I mean the little wrens and ants and desert iguanas and English sparrows (even here), the tiny little flittering and scurrying and slithering souls that make up the majority of the minds on the dry land parts of the planet.

I imagine not noticing them must be like one of those minor perceptual disabilities, like tone-deafness or color-blindness, that dramatically affect one's quality of life without obvious outward signs visible to everyone else. A person who is animal-blind might seem like the rest of us if you sit next to him on the bus, at least if the bus is not driving through a wildlife sanctuary.

I am admittedly being presumptuous with that "rest of us" thing. I have no idea whether such people are a minority. They probably aren't. It certainly seems as though they are everywhere. And thinking of it as a disability is likely inaccurate as well. Or perhaps it's the kind of disability from which one can recover, with training. We are taught to disregard animals, and so it's not particularly a surprise that some among us never learn to see them.

I didn't always see them the way I do now. I think I wrote once about the moment that changed. Hold on... here it is. That epiphany came to me at age 23, and I am impatient sometimes with people who reach three, even four times that age without shedding their own ocular scales.

Far from being a disability, in fact, animal blindness might be a logical result of natural selection. The paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey once suggested that we humans may have come by our species-wide self-absorption honestly, at that point in our evolution when our own duplicity became a larger ongoing threat to our survival than the relatively straightforward perils of large cats and venomous snakes. A lion will charge you and try to eat you, and you can outrun it or climb a tree, or you can't, and natural selection is accomplished thereby, but there are certain innate physical limits to how strong your legs or long your arms may become.

But when the threat comes mainly from your own kind, and survival relies on anticipating their treachery and either sidestepping it or besting it, then begins a kind of cleverness arms race with no such limits imposed by simple biomechanics. Humans became their own environment and selective pressure, Leakey suggested, and so it made sense that all the rest of the world became a mere backdrop to the family drama.

I find that an unwarrantedly bleak and unproductive world view, despite the palpable truth of it. It's also a prescription for an especially excruciating kind of boredom. Humans are staggeringly complex creatures, but we are staggeringly complex only in certain strictly circumscribed ways. Our diversity is charming, the way the diversity of color in a drugstore sixpack of petunia seedlings can be charming. But there's a lot more to the garden than petunias, or at least if there isn't i"m not interested in your garden.

There are so many kinds of eyes other than human one might use to see the world. And while we cannot see through those eyes directly, we can sometimes get a glimpse of those other worldviews if we deign to use the eyes we were built with, to simply watch the other inhabitants of this world as they go about their lives — even if you're just watching a fuzzy goofball relishing the shade of a creosote on a hot morning walk.

Also, let's not even get into plants just yet. How do you not notice them?

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