Toad in the Hole

October 18, 2006

Double-crested Cormorant

d-c cormorant

It occurs to me sometimes, e.g. when I'm watching aquatic birds, that all the maps I have superimposed in my head, maps that include landmarks and things to orient by and ways to get around, would look entirely different if I had wings, or if I swam underwater a lot, or if I looked at a lake and thought, roughly, "pantry," or "market," or if washing up after dinner meant something like "get out and dry my feathers off." Superimpose any two of those conditions and the maps change again. And that's just for land-based air-breathers, of course. "Water as highway" means related but different things to a big fish, to a little fish, to a whale, to a penguin; "air as access" means different shapes of map to an albatross, an Arctic tern, a songbird -- and think what air means to a flying fish!

We got a car after I'd lived here for, oh, six, seven years, and Joe had lived here longer than that. We'd had the thing for a year or two before I realized that the way I drove around town was almost always along bus routes, because I was accustomed to thinking of those as the way to get from one place to another. I believe Emma had a similar problem with giving people driving directions; Berkeley has a number of traffic-stopper things that bicycles can get around (legally and physically) but cars can't, and some bike paths as well. Emma rode her bicycle around in ways that, to drivers, translated to "You can't get there from here".

Think how a town would look if people had wings. Maybe like a swallow colony; maybe like a cliff pueblo minus even the scary little steps and ladders. Reliable updrafts instead of highways; a hill's not an obstacle, but an expressway sign. Or maybe we wouldn't have towns at all.

Thinking about access -- wheelchair access, even bad-knees access -- sharpens that map-drawing consciousness too. Empathy's not just a squishy emotion; it's an intellectual tool.

Posted at October 18, 2006 05:58 PM


A coupla different things:

I've been reading how we have a net of neurons that fire when we see some other beast in pain. But that way is the dreaded evo-psych--to which I am strangely attracted.

I'm writing a novel for children (ha ha ha ha ha--that's what I call it to protect myself) that is all about birds and sea creatures and their maps (and neural nets).

I didn't appreciate birds when I was young, it was all about the mammals. I wish I knew my birds the way you do.

The getup you described on the Hairy Legs post (bell bottoms, yeomantype shirt--or so I picture it--and fringed vest), would have had me starry eyed, and sitting at your older woman feet, as a 12 year old. Of course, I also thought it was extremely poetic to play the theme from MASH ("Suicide is Painless") on my flute. I piped away on it and imagined myself very sensitive. And I was, I was!

I no longer care for the flute.

Posted by: bdaggerlee at October 18, 2006 11:37 PM

Evo-psych would make sense if so many of its people weren't writing it up as just-so stories. Anything with "must have" in the narrative -- with a grudging exception for things like "the first Australians must have crossed water to get there" and that's provisional too -- is suspect. Looks to me like a matter of taking one's metaphors as literal fact, which is never a good idea. When we start seeing documentation of developmental pathways, I'll pay attention.

But yeah, those neurons would explain some of my own experience. I tend to feel that stuff physically: not exactly feeling what the other would be feeling, but as a jolting pain across my upper legs and lower gut, sometimes all along legs and arms and just below my clavicle, as if I'd been smacked with a sharp armature roughly in my shape. The exercise of intellectual empathy is more pleasant: What does the world look like through eight eyes?

FWIW, I didn't own a pair of binocs or a serious fieldguide until I was in my early 20s. I did spend a lot of time as a kid hiding out in the woods, though. And what I wish I'd had when I was a kid was music lessons. We did a lot of choral singing in gradeschool but I never did even learn to read music.

Posted by: Ron at October 19, 2006 05:22 PM