The watcher and the watched

Observation transforms our bodies and minds.


I had a college professor who studied squirrels. In fact, he ate, slept and breathed squirrels — you know the type. Squirrel, where?  Did it have grizzled-gray dorsal fur? Was it digging for ectomycorrhizal fungi? On a scale of one to 10, was it an 11?      

Specifically, he adored the tassel-eared squirrel, or Abert’s squirrel, a denizen of the Rocky Mountains’ ponderosa pine forests. As the name suggests, its distinguishing morphological characteristic is a tuft of hair extending approximately three centimeters from each ear. “Truly elegant,” wrote naturalist S.W. Woodhouse in 1853.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690)

Well, my professor, the Squirrel Man, also had hairy ears. The dude was tufted, tasseled, truly elegant! Furthermore, he boasted an impressive beard, a pelage really, and drank coffee in such quantities that he climbed the classroom walls during lectures. I’ve never met a person who so closely resembled, both physically and in spirit, a member of the genus Sciurus.

Which raises the question: Do wildlife lovers assume qualities of the beloved? Does the very act of sustained observation transform our bodies and minds?

Consider the devoted marine biologist swimming in endless pursuit of some sleek, streamlined fish. After hundreds of hours in the water, won’t certain of her muscles have developed and others atrophied? Or take the diehard ornithologist roaming inky-dark woodlands, searching near and far for owls. Won’t she eventually develop superior night vision?

Another professor, a guy who ate, slept and breathed Plato, summed up the ancient Greek understanding of psychology: “You become like the object you intend.” That means the things we spend time with, commit our senses to, and reflect on, alter us. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines “intentionality” as the power of minds to be about something. If your mind is entirely about, say, a prairie dog or a salamander, where does that leave the so-called you?

Walt Whitman touches on this when he describes himself as “stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over.” It’s quite the image — a human plastered with bits and pieces of other creatures, zoologically collaged both inside and out. How does the poet, or the naturalist, hybridize with his animal neighbors? Whitman answers a few stanzas later: “I stand and look at them long and long.”

Cut to a small park in San Francisco ringed with Monterey pines where, more often than not, yours truly can be found looking long and long at a family of red-tailed hawks. I found their nest a month ago — airborne feces and my stucco’d baseball cap facilitated the discovery — and have been visiting regularly ever since. To stare. To study. To take notes.

Actually, that last bit is a lie. Halfway through my third marathon session, I dropped my pencil and didn’t pick it up. Paying close attention somehow turns off the intellectual, analytical part of my brain. Just being nearby, splitting the difference between meditation and mesmerization, constitutes my method of inquiry.

A couple centuries before Whitman, the haiku master Matsuo Bashō entreated his disciples, “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn.” I’m a few notches shy of enlightenment, but this does jibe with my daily practice in the park.

Charles Le Brun (1619–1690)

I stand long and long. I look longer and longer. The tunnel of my binoculars, by focusing consciousness, makes me about that nest of awkward, tottering, almost-fledged juveniles. They turn their heads, scanning for mother and father — and I do the same, my eyes in a squint. A chilly gust ruffles their feathers, sneaks under my collar — and we all shy away, hunching into ourselves for warmth. Everybody spaces out. Borders blur. I slide towards the edge of me and the beginning of them.

And then, so fast, the raptors are dancing a jig and I’m dancing a jig and the air is full of cries because Mom’s coming in hot with a mouse. Dinner is served!

Perhaps this is getting too wacky. Let’s grab hold of something more tangible — say, Squirrel Man’s ears. Are they the result of his decades-long fascination with Sciurus aberti? Probably not. I’m the first to admit that those magnificent tufts of his are beyond my ken. Honestly, this entire subject, though exciting, leaves me dizzy.

But just in case there is some truth here — in case the lover of wildlife does assume qualities of the beloved — why not offer a quick word of encouragement to the passionate folks who research blobfishes, monkfishes, walruses, matamata turtles, vampire bats and naked mole rats? I say, be not deterred. Follow your heart’s idiosyncratic path. On a scale of one to 10, you are an 11. Pay no attention to the superficial haters when they call you ugly.

Leath Tonino’s writing appears in Outside, Orion, The Sun and other magazines. This is not his first essay — and likely not his last — to mention bird poo.

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