I’ve noticed that recently Corvidae Corvus has been dominated by posts about technology and do-it-yourself/maker topics. I guess that’s indicative of where my head has been at lately. But it is Spring (a little early, but nonetheless…), and it’s hard not to notice all the changes budding out–even here in urban DC.
We’re lucky enough to sit on the edge of Rock Creek Park. Across our back alley our neighbors are the fox family, who we occasionally hear and see late at night yapping to each other down the length of the alley. No doubt, out hunting rats and other vermin for their nightly meal. The wild goings on in our alley differ markedly from those in other parts of the District. Last night, I woke to the plaintive questioning of a barred owl, “Who-cooks-for-you? who-cooks-for-you?”
For an urban dweller, I have unusual access to forested tracts. But even in parts of the city without direct access, nature abounds. Recognizing it is a matter of looking with a different kind of gaze. And also, I would argue, recognizing nature when you don’t necessarily think you’re looking at it. The falcon waiting on the ledge of a building to pick off an unsuspecting pigeon, or even the tree sprouting out from the Metro overpass are examples of nature adapting to and reclaiming the urban landscape.
Stories of raccoons and coyotes rummaging through trash cans are not at all uncommon. But the common Norway rat that we city folk see running along a wall or run over by a bus represent a little bit of the wild in our cities. The lessons of nature don’t just occur in the forested rural lands, or even in suburban back yards. Survival, growth and beauty are sometimes all the more evident for the stark contrast of the city. It’s worth taking a walk along the river or through an alley to see some unexpected scenes.
Below, I quote from a piece by Rick Curtis, Director of Princeton University’s Outdoor Action program. Mr. Curtis is writing here specifically about observation in the forest–particularly about tracking. But his advice holds even in the most congested urban area:
The most important part of nature observation is relaxation. Observation and stalking require you to slow down and settle yourself. It is akin to a moving form of meditation. Animals can sense when you are agitated, anxious or fearful and will disappear. When you settle yourself, you can move among animals without them sensing your presence. You must press yourself to use all of your senses all of the time or they will become atrophied.
I. Varied Sensory Awareness
Vary your vision. Pay intermittent attention to your environment. Shift your focus. If you pay rapt attention to one thing, it will dull your senses (“highway hypnosis”). You will learn more if you are paying intermittent attention. Flash back and forth through your various senses, vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.
II. Wide Angle (Splatter) Vision vs. Pinpoint Vision
We tend to use focal vision about 95% of the time and wide-angle vision only 5%. Animals use the reverse (5% and 95%). To use wide-angle vision you want to take in all the information from your peripheral vision constantly then focus down when needed. Concentrate on the entire picture, mentally blocking out information to focus down.
The primary thing that gives you away (or an animal) is movement. Focused vision doesn’t pick up movement whereas wide-angle vision makes the eye reactive to movement. When you notice movement then focus down to that object. And once focused, keep tracking that animal visually very closely so that you don’t loose it. Keep this process in mind! This is how the animals look for you. Anything that is out of the natural order, movement, shadow, or noise attracts their attention and they focus on it.
At night using wide-angle vision utilizes all the peripheral areas of the eye which are more sensitive to low levels of light. This improves night travel and seeing animals. It will allow you to notice nighttime animal movement. Flashlights cause focal vision which restrict your sensitivity to movement. At night a wind will blow things in one rhythm. Anything moving contrary to that rhythm, check it out with focal vision.
III. Automatic Vision
When you are looking at something you scan “take a picture” then scan, “take a picture” etc. as you look across a landscape. When you look across that landscape again you tend to “take the same pictures” or focus on the same spots. The Blind Spots (dead air space) are the ones you miss. Over time the number of automatic snap shots decreases until you only see a few out of the whole scene. Eventually you really don’t see it at all. You must consciously fight dead air space all the time. Each time you look at a scene again look at it as something new. Also, don’t just look at solid objects (e.g. a tree); look through the spaces of the tree, between the branches. There may be a deer behind that tree that you will see if you look through it rather than looking at it.
IV. Focused Hearing
We have tremendous peripheral hearing with our ears on the sides of our heads, but poor focused hearing. Since we can’t move our ears as many animals can, we don’t have directional hearing. But we can increase our hearing by 10x by cupping our hands, thumbs up, behind our ears, with the elbows out. This creates a parabolic reflector which gathers the sound in to our ears. This technique is paramount in locating animals and finding out what lies ahead of you.