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.


  1. Allen, congrats on this blog! I feel the same way about spending time in the outdoor wild places. There definitely is a spiritual healing for me that takes place in the thinner, purer fragrant air of wild places. Your Goshawk moment sounds amazing and illuminating. I need to get out more. Have a great new year!

  2. I look forward to reading the great stuff you'll add to the discussion! Here's to goshawks and biochemistry in the new year.

  3. Glad to see this. Your comment re: traditional (Western?) therapy reminded me that I once heard EMDR — a therapy used for trauma based on rapid eye movement — originated when the founder of the modality felt better ...after watching birds!

  4. I enjoyed this Allen. For me, what you are talking about is touching on 'passion'. Not being passionate about something, but something that really makes the heart sing. That to me is passion.

    All the time I hear people saying things like, "I'm passionate about helping people" or "I'm passionate about health", etc. But to me, that is being 'passionate' about something, not living in or with true passion. I think that it is sad that some people will actually live their entire lives without discovering a real passion that makes their heart sing.

    For me, I discovered my passion late in life. It is staring in a wild raptor's eyes for the 15 minutes it lets me hold it. It is sitting out in the Marin Headlands, doing nothing except looking for raptors. A time not to think about war, or taxes, or family or jobs or anything that exists in reality. A time just to exist and be present. A time to really experience true passion. It changes my life just a little, every time I do it.

    I think your goshawk moment was you touching your passion and changing your life, even if just a little or just for that one moment.

    Candace C. Davenport ~ Little Books with a Big Message

  5. Yay! Happy to see you blogging. I suspect I'll see a lot of parallels in our thinking, but, as always, I'll love your fresh take on the world. Can't wait to read more.

  6. Lovely writing. Happy you started the blog. I could probably comment on everything you touched on but that would require an entire blog of my own!

  7. Definitely, Allen--we'll join you! Betsey and I were at the South Marin Christmas BIrd Count compilation dinner last night, and Peter Colasanti was talking about his birding mentor back east. I wondered aloud if I had a birding mentor, and then the answer was obvious: you. You have helped so many hawk-watchers discover their love of birds (the inner resonances with the outer, I guess you could say). Anyway, we think you have a lot to add to the discussion, and we'd love to help you bring the conversation to more people!

  8. Hi Allen, Happy New Year!
    It's that moment when the observer feels connected to wilderness (or their natural surroundings) that I try to capture in my art. I don't have time to read a lot of blogs, but yours just soared to the top of my list! I never picked your brain much on this topic, but I'd love to see a recommended reading list.

  9. Hi Allen! Happy Nude Year! Oops... Been rereading Carl Sagan of late, in particular Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. His views are remarkably similar to yours, both of which I enjoy thoroughly. In truth, we are not really separate from the rest of this, this sticky film of organic chaos which coats the surface or our spaceship Earth. We only THINK we're somehow separate...

  10. Well I've have this open for a while now, and YES finally read it. Now, I just don't know what to make of all the mumbo jumbo new age purple-robed sooth-sayers who often and remarkably happen to hit the ephemeral nail on the head... I suppose I believe because I have to, I must. I am compelled to believe that the combination of science and magic together exist. I want a rare world for my kids, their kids, a world where Goshawks still sore and jellies still undulate. Primates driving cars are not so advanced after all, given the trajectory we're on. So, I'm calling in the non-observable, the mystical, the occult.. I want that bonded to nano technology in the presence of emotional release and expert oration to move people to ACTION.

  11. I agree. This is SO true. I am so glad I found your blog!!!!!