I read an article a few days ago in the New York Times that brought my attention the the concept of “umwelt”. It is really just a German word for environment, but the idea behind it is that we, as humans, only have our own corner of perception, very different from other animals, fish, and birds.
From the piece in the NYT by Ed Yong (author of “An Immense World”):
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.”
…when I think about other Umwelten, I feel my mind flexing and the joy of an impossible task nonetheless attempted. In these small acts of empathy, I understand other animals more deeply — not as fuzzy, feathered proxies for my life, but as wondrous and unique entities of their own, and as the keys to grasping the true immensity of the world.”Ed Yong
One cannot read those words and not wonder what reality is. If there is such a thing. Clearly, at the very least, it is relative. Magic is the thing we cannot understand, even if science might explain it, we can never actually know it.
Nature is a great mystery. Spring in the mountains exceeds any other I’ve experienced, and sitting amongst the beauty of plant and animal beings in my own garden as well as in others in the region, has been profound.
My mother taught me that everything was alive, conscious, had a soul; not just the animals, but the trees, the rocks, and even my stuffed animals (I think that was a ploy to keep my room tidy). I believed that with my whole heart as a child and this “animistic” world view has stuck with me as an adult. They speak to us and touch us if we can listen, watch, let us see into another dimension of sorts.
The painting at the top of this post started as a sketch of one of my crow family, my daily visitors. Around the time I painted it, I had to have YAG laser surgery to remove scar tissue from my eye lens. One of the side effects are black floaters. One floater looked like a raven or a crow, flitting quickly across my vision, while slower, lighter ones reminded me of the bumblebees in the garden, floating from flower to flower like drunk sumo wrestlers. These beings ended up in the painting. Some of their being, some of mine.
The koi below was an experience of connection. For a moment we watched each other, the water rippling with the slight movement of its fins. Colours flickered and changed as its scales played with the light, like piano keys. I wonder what the koi saw? Felt? I think the koi thought I might have food, but I can only feebly imagine how it perceives the world, its world. The painting is a portrait of this koi taking elements that cannot be seen, but only felt, and giving them presence through line using art as a gateway to a different point of view, limited as I might be. It is, after all, my perception, through my being. The portrait is of the koi, but it really is a portrait of us both.
Portraits of Being
This is the beginning of a new series. A series of paintings and some great stories about the beings I encounter.
In a world where the few are imposing their will on the many, one must wonder how, even within a species with a more broadly shared sensory perception of the world, how empathy has been so lost, and so has magic. The Great Mystery is before us. Every day. It is changing, and some of its dimensions are being lost. Every day.
So I’m lost in painting. I’m loving it more than I ever have, making more than I ever have, because – time is short. Enjoy yourself – it’s later than you think!
Here is a fantastic article (and link to the interview) from NPR on Ed Yong’s book and the “umwelt”: