Noticing 2: walking with other species

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the dogs listen to the forest

In  my last post I was thinking about our observation of the world about us, and the other beings in it.  Here I want to consider how this noticing is shaped by the bodies we inhabit.

In the photo above, taken in a Scottish winter, the dogs are ahead of me on the forest path.  They are listening intently, their ears held erect and swivelling to hone in on interesting sounds in the thick of the trees.  While I am noticing the way the winter sun lights up the snowy path, and thickens the darkness of the surrounding forest, they are noticing the presence of other creatures within its dense growth.  As usual on our walks together, they are engaging with this place differently from me, using senses that are common to all us mammals, but differently attuned  Watching them respond to the world makes me aware of my own human-ness.

Wittgenstein said: ‘if a lion could talk, we could not understand him.’  Other species that dwell on this planet have their own cultures, interests and ways of communicating.  But he also said: ‘If I see someone writhing in pain with evident cause I do not think: all the same, his feelings are hidden from me.’    This is an example of a context in which we can understand the feelings of others, through their actions.  For this philosopher the context drives the communication. Regarding other species, we know the causes of many of our dogs actions because they are part of our daily lives. We share a long history together.

hare_hound getty.edu

medieval illumination http://www.getty.edu

As countless books demonstrate, we know a lot about this particular species, and they know a lot about us humans.  Alexandra Horowitz’s ‘Inside of a Dog’, for example, explores how dogs perceive their worlds and our relationships with them.  From childhood, we build up our consciousness of self and other through our interactions.  These interactions are not only with other humans, but also with other species and the plants and places we spend time with.

I am in a wood with the dogs and I have stepped to the side of the path and crouched down to look closely at some pale fungi sprouting from a fallen log.  The lurcher runs back to look for me.  I watch silently as she runs right past me, even though I am in plain sight.  I notice that she is looking upwards to a height which I realise is roughly where my eyes are when standing.  This unusual direction of her gaze makes visible my upright, two-legged position; how I carry my main sense and communication organs perched on the top of my body.   In contrast dogs mainly keep theirs close to the earth that their four limbs are firmly planted on.

garden and Shell Island August 2016 004

Their noticing is led by their noses, jampacked with sensory cells.  What makes a walk an aesthetic experience for me is most often what I see – the sunlight dancing on the water, the blue mountains melting into the far horizon.  The sharp tang of seaweed and salt water, or the coconut perfume of the gorse flowers may add to my pleasure.  For the dogs though, beauty is to be found in a heady mix of fragrances.  Potentially edible ones are exciting, maybe leading to a sun-cured rabbit carcass or the remains of a picnic.  Places frequented by other dogs are also of great interest to them, and they study the messages splashed onto gate posts and rocks with the same absorption as my contemplation of a graceful tree, or bank of bluebells.

As we walked along the river one day I glanced up the wooded slope to the right of the path.  Half way up, amongst the young saplings, my eyes slowly focussed on a motionless deer, almost blending into the dappled shade.  I then made out two more nearby, as immobile as statues.  The dogs were just in front of me, noses to the ground, unaware.  They discovered the scent trail of the deer some minutes later, by which time the deer had disappeared. 

Similarly, in another wood an old fox and I stared at each other for what seemed like a goodly amount of time, plenty enough for me to admire his red pelt and bushy tail.  I don’t know what he was thinking about me.  This silent interaction was abruptly terminated by the dogs rushing back down the path, ears and tails up, their noses now full of his particularly pungent perfume.  The fox made a quick exit through the undergrowth.  Dogs need movement to trigger their visual attention, whether they are looking for their human friend, or for the opportunity for the kind of chase that lies deep within their bones.

We humans also have in our minds imagination and language, through which we can enter into other consciousness, to amplify our perception of this world We use these for creative purposes as I said in the last post.  We are also slowly discovering that other species too have complex communication systems and creativity.  Sharing our time with other species can remind us that we are embodied beings too.

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our musical selves

georges-braque-www-guggenheim-org

Georges Braque ‘Guitar, Glass and Fruit Dish on Sideboard from http://www.guggenheim.org

I have been thinking for some time of writing about music as part of our set of ‘selves’, long before Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature!  Since music is an everyday part of most people’s lives, and universal to all cultures in our diverse human world, it should have its own space on this blog.

Music is certainly the basis for more than one of my everyday identities.  For over ten years I’ve been a member of a variety of local choirs, formal and informal. (I am currently part of a small ‘chamber’ choir).  With these different groups I have sung a wide range of music from traditional African songs to large, choral works by Berlioz, Handel, Karl Jenkins, and Brahms.

193222batala-croppedA year ago I also joined a samba/reggae drum band and entered into a new world of rhythms and movement.  According to Ian Cross, a musicologist, the Igbo word, nqwa, which we translate as ‘music’, encompasses singing, playing instruments and dancing.  The sum of these is what ‘music’ means to these people in Nigeria.  Singing is a tiny part of the music we make in the band, but choreographed movement is as important as the drumming, unlike the choir, where embodied action is much more static, and concerned with the lungs, throat and mouth rather than the whole body.  Being part of this band, and performing outside of buildings, in our public spaces, feels like this wider kind of music making, which is not surprising as our rhythms originate from the mixed cultural spaces of North Brazil.

After lengthy periods of ‘apprenticeship’, I can now say I belong to both of these groups.  They draw on quite separate parts of the local community, and my ‘drumming’ self feels distant from my ‘choir’ self – two groups of people making different kinds of music that draw on distinct cultural traditions and networks.

LIPS Choir

Lips Choir, London, (not one of the choirs I have been a member of), photo taken by Michael Eden, on Timeout blog 2014

There is little spatial or social overlap between the two, yet, I move comfortably between them, unifying them within my particular body and mind, and adding them to my other ‘selves’ that I have chosen, or inherited.

For most of my life though, I didn’t actively make music – I was not able to think of myself as having anything ‘musical’ to contribute.  Possibly, I was too busy taking risks in other ways.  But music has always been a part of my everyday life, intertwined with all my experiences, through listening, and through dancing.  Certain concerts I’ve been to are like memory markers in my mind – such as those by Leonard Cohen and Salif Keita in Barcelona, and Ella Fitzgerald in Manchester – mental places I can go back to, and catch the ghosts of fleeting happiness.

Music, however you define it, is, of course, so important in our lives because of its intimacy with our emotions.  It expresses them, and produces them in the listeners, in complex ways. Ludwig Wittegenstein, who could be said to be an epitome of ‘the intellectual’, spending his life wrestling with theory, was also passionate about music (although he limited this passion to a handful of German composers such as Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms).  His involvement in this music was as just as intense as his engagement with trying to change the way we see things, such as the language we use.  He became a ‘virtuoso’ whistler, and could whistle whole movements of symphonies.  Listening to, and performing music in this way helped him through his periods of black despair and depression.

Apparently, some evolutionary theorists argue that music is just a ‘by-product’ of other human survival competencies, because it does not ‘produce’ anything essential to survival. They say its disappearance from our worlds would change nothing.  For me, this kind of reasoning results from a detachment from the theorists’ own bodies and emotions, and from the everyday world that surrounds them.  It ignores the ways music can rescue us from emotional darkness, as it did with Wittgenstein,  as well as the ways it is threaded through our celebrations on being alive, of longing and belonging.

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Jan Vermeer ‘The music lesson’ from commons.wikimedia.org

Reading

‘Music, Cognition, Culture, and Evolution’.  Ian Cross, Annals New York Academy of Sciences, 2006, 930.

‘The Imaginary African: Music, identity and Race’.  Nicholas Cook, Samuel Colerigde-Taylor Newsletter, 2015, 38.

‘Ludwig Wittgenstein: the duty of genius.’  Ray Monk, 1990, Vintage.