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Creek Running North

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June 03, 2003

Animal minds

Tonight the mouth of the creek was wreathed in gray. The far shore was obscured, and the sky glowed that grayish pink that seems peculiar to the Bay Area on summer evenings.

As we ran down toward the bay, a kestrel kited - hovered more or less in place - over the pickleweed marsh across the tracks. Barn swallows swooped luxuriously through the buggy air.

Wallace Stegner wrote once that he didn't feel a place was truly a capital P "Place" until people arrived there, inhabited it. Being a thoughtful, considerate fellow, - how I wish he were still around - he apologized in advance for his anthropocentrism, but went ahead and felt that way just the same.

I wonder. In the Mojave, a desert woodrat will occupy the same 25-foot radius patch of land its whole life, often in a dwelling built by hundreds of successive generations of her ancestors. A few years back, wildlife biologists decided that California salamander distribution in the wild could be at least partly explained by plate tectonics: you might say the salamanders were so loyal to a place that they only moved when it did.

Certainly "place" as we conceive of it is a human concept - that's a tautology. But the human nervous systems that invented the concept share millions of years of ancestry - and millions of years of subsequent joint tenancy - with other beings with varying degrees of polar central nervous systems, other degrees of sentience. We may flatter ourselves to think this human concept is anything more than an essential territorial template hard-wired into the vertebrate brain, a veneer of German compound words and Kentucky poetry lacquered thereon.

The kestrel must have some concept equivalent to that of "place." Else why does he kite over the same part of the marsh each time I see him?

Posted by Chris Clarke at June 3, 2003 09:22 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs


How, also, does a first-year McGillivray's warbler know when it's reached the wintering "place"? It's never been there before. The right combination of habitat, light, temperature, and some other things we can never know. Or something else entirely.

I think the Bush people of the Kalahari have a sense of place that is closer to the kestrel's than ours. All place is divided up into what is a likely source of this plant or that, what these tracks mean about which animal went that way when...

Do you have the source of the Stegner quote? I think it belongs in the Ecotone Wiki list...

Posted by: Pica at June 4, 2003 06:31 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs