Friday, December 27, 2013

The goshawk in my chest.

About 25 years ago, I was -- now looking back -- between lives.  I was trying to figure out why I had destroyed my old life, and I was quite unsure just what the next life would be.  The continuity in my life, since I had been about seven, was birds.   Today, I'm a bird biologist, running the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory near San Francisco but I'm deeply interested in all aspects of the natural world, or "the nature" as friend of mine used to say.  Then she would laugh.  Why would she laugh?  Because "the nature" is all of us; it is everything.  Anything we might be tempted to call "not nature" was somehow constructed from nature by us, say for instance, a V8 engine, or bubble wrap, or Tang Orange Breakfast Drink Mix.

Mid-elevation Sierra Nevada western slope.  Close to the goshawk spot.
But back to 25 years ago.  I'm sitting on a hillside in the Sierra Nevada, and a pretty cool raptor, a Northern Goshawk -- rarely seen and when seen, rarely seen for long -- has grabbed a morning thermal of rising air off the east side of the hill, and is soaring wide circles below me.  To not scare it, I pretend I'm a rock.  The goshawk flaps and soars upward within a few dozen feet of me, and then ascends quickly to hundreds of feet higher.  Without shifting much, I turn my head, squinting against the morning sun rays, to watch her.  As she rises past me I can see the occasional flutter of her back feathers.  I can see her eyes, and the tilt and retilt of her tail as she adjusts to stay in the circle of the thermal.

And then something happens.  My chest rises. (OK, just WHAT does that mean?)  Some swirl of lightness (I'll get back to that later) rises up through my body on an inhale, straightens my posture and swells into my chest and head, and I am grinning like an idiot on the exhale.  And the hawk is well above me now, and I am so damn happy, as if this bird has just pulled me out of my woe-is-me, self-pitying, gloom-pit, and carried me into a state of clarity and even mild ecstasy.

What just happened?

I am an aethiest.  To be specific, I have never come across anything in my own life experience or that of my immediate circle of family and friends, that wasn't completely explainable in non-supernatural, "scientific" terms.  And that the sciencey explanation was far more interesting and even inspiring, in its chain of cause and effects, than a supernatural explanation could have been.

So, yes, I can see how many people would take my rising-chest feeling and say conclusively, "obviously, Allen, your spirit was rising" or "god is a goshawk" or even just "the goshawk is your totem."  And all of these things might be true for them, but they are not intresting to me.  Rather, I want to know this: what is the biochemistry of my response to the hawk?  And why should I, a large primate in 1990, have such a powerful biochemical response to a mere hawk rising on a thermal?  What is the evolutionary advantage to me?  How might I survive better or reproduce more as a result of watching this hawk, this hawk who has just made me so happy?  (Back to that later….)

So that was my "Aha!" moment, my minor epiphany that -- what happens in OUTER nature can be reflected in INNER nature, that our bodies (brains and bodies) can be in a kind of dialogue with our environment, or with elements of our immediate environment.  And doesn't this make total sense?  Think of how many millions of mornings that our hominid ancestors have shrugged off sleep, stretched, stood up and peered out of the [bush, cave, tree, porthole, window] to watch the colors and patterns of the sunrise, and -- from that -- assess the weather for the next few days.  Hominids who correctly assessed the weather, and reacted to it, presumably lived longer and they, and their family, survived.

What I'm trying to get across is this: being in touch with the rhythms of OUTER nature was (is) a pretty good idea in the survival department.  But perhaps also our body biochemistry, our centers of hormone production, and our connected emotional response, have a response to our OUTER nature.

So is it weird to even stop and think that our happiness, or emotional well-being, has something directly to do with what's going on in the environment around us?  It sounds so obvious.  But here's something to think about: how many of us have gone to psycho-therapists to lighten up some dark place in our lives?  (Come on, raise your hands. No one's looking.)  Has any traditional therapist ever said, how much time have you been spending outside lately?  Or even, what's your favorite tree?  Pretty rare events, these.  It is NOT part of the language of professional medically-ordained therapy to discuss the (kind of huge) effect of OUTER nature on our INNER natures.

So, I've been thinking about INNER NATURE and OUTER NATURE for a few decades, and I'm glad to say that, there are a lot really good writers in this department.  Enough in fact, that I have spent at least ten years wondering what I could add to the discussion.  [I would love to see the American Psychiatric Association add "lack of contact with OUTER NATURE" to their official list of causes of depression.]  What more impresses me is that for the many people I know who intetntionally use TIME OUTSIDE as a form of personal therapy, we just don't talk about it with others.  We are shy.  We don't tell the county supervisors that the county park that's about to be bull-dozed is a critical place for my mental health walks.

So, I'm tired of being shy on this issue. The world is a far more interesting place when we see ourselves as mammals who evolved to live and survive in fantastic and complex wild landscapes, a theme
my brother Randy loosely calls "primates driving cars."  I hope you'll join me occasionally for some of this exploration.