Our holiday weekend — wildlife and books
by Rob Tiller
We had a happy July 4 family gathering at the Outer Banks. There are a lot of stress inducers in the news these days, and it was good to unload some stress. It helped to spend some time walking on the beach and some time reading.
I also brought along my new camera, the Nikon Z9, and started getting comfortable with it. There is definitely a learning curve, but I was pleased with some of the results, a few of which are here. It was fun seeing the wild horses at Corolla, which mostly seemed in good health. We also stopped at Alligator River wildlife refuge on the way and saw a few bears, owls, and (a first for us!) alligators.
Speaking of animals, I highly recommend a lively short essay by Ed Yong titled How Animals See Themselves. Yong highlights some of the amazing sensory capabilities of non-human animals, including not just extraordinary sight, smell, and hearing, but also abilities like echolocation which we can barely conceive of. Appreciating the umwelt (a term he promotes) of these animals makes our own lives richer, and potentially more compassionate. I’ve downloaded Yong’s new book on this subject, An Immense World.
On a related subject, NPR had a great little piece this week on octopuses and how they operate. I hadn’t realized that the receptors in the suckers of an octopus are vastly more numerous than the nerves in our fingers, and each sucker has not only a sense of touch, but also of taste and smell. Instead of processing information in a centralized brain, most of their neurons are associated with their suckers. Scientists are starting to figure out how all their mini-brains work together so that, for example, they can unscrew jars from the inside and perform astonishing feats of camouflage. I’ve seen a a few of these creatures on diving trips in the Caribbean, and they are truly amazing.
Meanwhile, while recovering from covid, I finished a big book: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. It had been some forty years since I last read this famous work, but I still remembered some of it. Besides being long, it is notable for its scope, which is both narrow (a few months in the lives of a handful of Russian aristocrats) and broad (Russian society in the process of major changes). Having learned some history over the last few decades, I was better positioned to appreciate Tolstoy’s insights and also his blind spots.
Some of the book, which was written in the mid-1870s was visionary, or at least a magnificent struggle for a vision. There is insight into the emotional lives of the characters, including their most creative and destructive emotions. At times Tolstoy’s consciousness seems to merge with the lives of animals and plants, and evokes the grandeur of nature. But at other times he seems to regard peasants as useful but inferior, like horses, and other animals as merely good targets for shooting.
Part of Anna Karenina deals with the severe depression suffered by its title character, and also by Levin, who most represents Tolstoy himself. Tolstoy doesn’t use anything like the modern vocabulary for describing psychological problems, but he evokes them with power. It is not comfortable to enter into these experiences, but they are definitely timely.