“Whole Lotta Umwelt Going On”

            When I first saw this cover of the New Yorker last September, I took a quick glance and simply thought, “…people in the summer thinking about food.” I opened the magazine and began looking for the cartoons.

            But a few days later, I looked at it again and started studying it with more care.

            At first, I assumed every being is imaging what they want to eat at this moment.  The toddler is thinking of ice cream. The woman at her computer is thinking of pizza.  The bird is hoping for a dropped donut.

            Then I noticed some people are already eating or drinking something but are wishing for something else.  The hot dog vendor is fantasizing about fresh vegetables.  The woman walking with what might be iced tea is wishing it was a martini. The guy selling ice cream is imagining the taste of a cold beer.

            And then I thought more about the animals in the scene.  I counted two birds, two dogs, a parade of ants, and a cat. Just like us humans, they’ve got an idea of what might make life a little better in the moment.  There are more than two dozen living beings depicted in the scene.  I liked the idea of us sharing similar moments of imaginative thought with our fellow creatures.

            Then this past June, I came across, “How Animals See Themselves” by Ed Yong.[i]  Yong notes how popular animal documentaries are these days, and says the following:

“But in the process, they have also shoved the square peg of animal life into the round hole of human narratives. When animals become easier to film, it is no longer enough to simply film them; they must have stories. They must struggle and overcome. They must have quests, conflicts, even character arcs. An elephant family searches for water amid a drought. A lonely sloth swims in search of a mate. A cheeky penguin steals rocks from a rival’s nest.

“Nature shows have always prized the dramatic: David Attenborough himself once told me, after filming a series on reptiles and amphibians, frogs “really don’t do very much until they breed, and snakes don’t do very much until they kill.” Such thinking has now become all-consuming, and nature’s dramas have become melodramas. The result is a subtle form of anthropomorphism, in which animals are of interest only if they satisfy familiar human tropes of violence, sex, companionship and perseverance. They’re worth viewing only when we’re secretly viewing a reflection of ourselves.

“We could, instead, try to view them through their own eyes. In 1909, the biologist Jakob von Uexküll noted that every animal exists in its own unique perceptual world — a smorgasbord of sights, smells, sounds and textures that it can sense but that other species might not. These stimuli defined what von Uexküll called the Umwelt — an animal’s bespoke sliver of reality. (In German, “welt” is “world” and “um” means “around.”) A tick’s Umwelt is limited to the touch of hair, the odor that emanates from skin and the heat of warm blood. A human’s Umwelt is far wider but doesn’t include the electric fields that sharks and platypuses are privy to, the infrared radiation that rattlesnakes and vampire bats track or the ultraviolet light that most sighted animals can see…

“… By thinking about our surroundings through other Umwelten, we gain fresh appreciation not just for our fellow creatures, but also for the world we share with them. Through the nose of an albatross, a flat ocean becomes a rolling odorscape, full of scented mountains and valleys that hint at the presence of food. To the whiskers of a seal, seemingly featureless water roils with turbulent currents left behind by swimming fish — invisible tracks that the seal can follow. To a bee, a plain yellow sunflower has an ultraviolet bull’s-eye at its center, and a distinctive electric field around its petals. To the sensitive eyes of an elephant hawk moth, the night isn’t black, but full of colors.”

I had never known how vastly different the perceptual worlds of other creatures are.

I’m looking again at the magazine cover. I like the idea that we share some similar perceptions and feelings with animals, whether it’s involves a donut, hot dog, or ice cream. And I love the idea that each one of our fellow species have all kinds of ways of experiencing the world that are far beyond my ability to conceive.  “There’s a whole lotta umwelt going on.”

And as I am using my senses and imagination to write this piece, I’m also keeping an eye on Sita, our almost-12-year-old Golden Retriever. She’s in the process of dying.  She has not eaten in 5 days and barely able to get up the few times a day she tries. There’s seems to be no pain at this point, and the vet cannot detect anything other than old age.  We keep doing things to keep her comfortable, tell her we love her, and just let her lie at our feet.  I’ve seen members of my own species go through “natural death,” and it feels similar.  I don’t know what thoughts she might be having, or if she’s remembering how good a bit of grilled meat that’s fallen off the bar-b-q tastes.  I’m grateful I can be at home with her most days, and that we have shared this unlikely miracle of life together.

Image: “Food for Thought,” Tom Weld, New Yorker, September 6, 2021

[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/20/opinion/how-animals-see-themselves.html

1 Comment

  1. Marilyn+Gross says:

    Good for thought, Steve. I’ll look at our dog and cat and even the drain flies we’ve been dealing with lately with a new eye.


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