Eye-To-Eye Animal Encounters

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Photo illustration by Mark Riechers.

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Original Air Date: 
February 08, 2020

There's a certain a kind of visual encounter that can be life changing: A cross-species gaze. The experience of looking directly into the eyes of an animal in the wild, and seeing it look back. It happens more often than you’d think and it can be so profound, there’s a name for it: eye-to-eye epiphany. So what happens when someone with feathers or fur and claws looks back? How does it change people, and what can it teach us?

Our friends at the Center for Humans and Nature have some suggested follow-up reading, if you enjoy this episode:
osprey
Sonic Sidebar

Locking eyes with another creature in the wild can be a profound experience. For physicist and writer Alan Lightman, half a second of eye contact with a pair of ospreys felt like an epiphany.

Length: 
2:24
"Birds Watching." Printed reflective film mounted on aluminum on steel frame.
Photo Gallery

In Chicago, writer Gavin Van Horn and environmental artist Jenny Kendler visit her new art installation, which confronts viewers with the gaze of 100 giant bird eyes. It's meant to provoke curiosity, wonder, and awareness of how many non-human eyes are always watching us.

Length: 
15:24
chimpanzee
Sonic Sidebar

In 1960, a young primatologist stared deeply into the eyes of a wild chimpanzee. She was Jane Goodall. He was David Greybeard. Their mutual gaze changed animal science forever.

Length: 
2:32
Northern Rocky Mountains wolf
Audio

There are two famous moments that helped shape environmental politics. Gavin Van Horn, of the Center for Humans and Nature, tells us what happened when Aldo Leopold met the eyes of a dying timber wolf and when Paul Watson looked into the eye of a dying sperm whale.

Length: 
10:08
owl
Audio

Dogs, cats, birds, frogs, even insects watch us. Each with a different kind of eye. What, and how, do they see? Ivan Schwab is an ophthalmologist who’s been fascinated by that question for a long time.

Length: 
7:44
crocodile eye
Audio

The feminist eco-philosopher Val Plumwood was one of the few people to survive a crocodile's death roll. The attack reoriented her thinking about life, death, and what it means to be human.

Length: 
8:20
Gavin on the 606.
Audio

Eye-to-eye epiphanies are experiences of kinship with the more-than-human world. Gavin Van Horn says kinship is also something to practice. He shares a few thoughts about how.

Length: 
1:05
Show Details 📻
Airdates
February 08, 2020
October 03, 2020
Guests: 
Creative Director and Executive Editor, Center for Humans and Nature
Environmental Artist and Activist
Activist, Scientist, Animal Rights Activist
Writer, Physicist, and Educator
Categories: 
Full Transcript 📄

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ANNOUNCER (00:00):

Support for WPR comes from Sitka Salmon Shares, a community supported fishery home delivering traceable, Wild Alaskan seafood, more about their small boat fleet at SitkaSalmonShares.com/wpr.

Anne Strainchamps (00:16):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge. Can an eye to eye encounter with an animal change your life?

Alan Lightman (00:28):

My wife is a painter, and every summer we spend on a little island in Maine, and there's an osprey's nest that's a couple hundred feet from the house.

Anne Strainchamps (00:39):

This is Alan Lightman. He's a physicist as MIT, and a novelist.

Alan Lightman (00:46):

Every year for 15 years or so, the osprey's would conduct their family life there. One summer I had been watching the babies, as they grew from the beginning of June to mid-August. We watched each other all summer long, and then middle of August, the baby osprey's took their first flight, first time they had left the nest all summer. I was watching them from the second floor of our house, which has a circular deck. They did one loop around the island, and then they headed straight for me as I stood on this circular deck. These were young adult osprey, so they were pretty big. An osprey have very powerful talons, it can rip you apart if it wants to. These two birds were heading at me with the speed of F-15s. They were coming at me really fast, and my first instinct was to run back into the house, but something made me stand there. When the birds got within about 20 feet of my face, for about half a second they made eye contact with me.

Alan Lightman (02:06):

It was the most profound communication with a non-human that I've ever had. I was shaking, and I was in tears. In that half second, they had said to me that we are brothers on this land, we share this land together. We've been watching you all summer, you've been watching us, and we're all part of nature. That's the feeling I got in that half second of eye contact.

Anne Strainchamps (02:44):

That's a lot to read in a single look. When you think about it, we know how profound it can be to look deeply into the eyes of another person, so why not with another species? Eye contact with a different creature can feel like an epiphany.

Gavin Van Horn (03:03):

Eye to eye epiphanies, I think I first heard the term through my PhD mentor, Bron Taylor, who wrote a book called Dark Green Religion. You do see them up here a lot. People have a profound encounter with the eyes of a non-human animal. That gaze, that mutual gaze, usually reorients that person's perspective in a really important way.

Anne Strainchamps (03:32):

It's an awakening?

Gavin Van Horn (03:34):

It would be new perspective, a new view of what it means to be human among many, many other creatures.

Anne Strainchamps (03:42):

I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Steve Paulson (03:44):

And I'm Steve Paulson.

Anne Strainchamps (03:48):

And this is Gavin Van Horn.

Steve Paulson (03:48):

A writer and editor with the Chicago based Center for Humans and Nature, and an advocate for Kinship with the More Than Human World.

Anne Strainchamps (03:55):

If you're wondering what that means, instead of walking through the world treating half your neighbors as invisible, try looking. Really looking. And then see what happens when someone with feathers, or fur, or claws, looks back.

Steve Paulson (04:10):

And you don't have to be in the wilderness. Gavin's had encounters like this in the middle of Chicago.

Gavin Van Horn (04:23):

I was on a public golf course, near where I used to live, and a pair of coyotes lives on the embankment next to the Northshore Channel. I saw them from a distance, and as I approached they scrambled back down the bank, after eyeing me for a little bit. As I neared the street where I would turn off the golf course, I had the sense that I was being watched. I looked back over my shoulder, and there was one of the coyotes sitting back on his or her haunches and just looking at me. For me, it was both an encounter with a coyote who was very aware of my presence, but it was also a larger metaphor for the city itself, the animals within the city watching us.

Anne Strainchamps (05:23):

Gavin's written a couple of books about urban wildlife, and he's discovered there are a lot of other people interested in those eye to eye encounters. Steve and I went to meet him in Chicago recently, at the 606, which is this amazing two and a half mile elevated walking and biking trail. It runs right through the center of the city. Winding green path, suspended above the streets. Oh, wow. You're down on the gritty, dirty city streets, and then suddenly, you're up here and it's like a carpet of grass and trees.

Gavin Van Horn (05:57):

Trees. A hidden space, yeah.

Steve Paulson (06:03):

We're not actually looking for wildlife today, but for a piece of public art and the artist.

Anne Strainchamps (06:10):

Although, we do have a representative member or another species with us. It's your reporting team, Anne, Steve, and Toby, the dog. He comes everywhere. Is this Jenny?

Jenny Kendler (06:24):

Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (06:25):

Hi. I'm Anne. Great to meet you.

Jenny Kendler (06:26):

Hi. Nice to meet you.

Steve Paulson (06:28):

This is Toby.

Anne Strainchamps (06:29):

This is Toby.

Jenny Kendler (06:29):

Hi, Toby.

Steve Paulson (06:29):

Our 13 year old Corgi.

Jenny Kendler (06:30):

Oh, Toby is a great name for a Corgi. Really suits him.

Steve Paulson (06:37):

Jenny Kendler is an environmental artist and activist, and we're looking at her 40 foot long sculpture, which she calls Birds Watching.

Anne Strainchamps (06:45):

100 giant, huge, photographs of the eyes of endangered birds. Just the eyes, printed on metal, and mounted on poles. Almost like traffic signs, watching us.

Jenny Kendler (06:59):

I'm really interested in what the public's experience is faced by a gaze. It could be castigating, maybe that might be the first place that we would go to knowing that we have some complicity in climate change, and perhaps driving these species from the face of the planet. We might also think of a gaze of love, a gaze of mutual respect.

Anne Strainchamps (07:24):

And they're all different species?

Jenny Kendler (07:25):

Yes.

Anne Strainchamps (07:25):

And they're all endangered?

Jenny Kendler (07:27):

They're all considered either threatened or endangered by climate change. This large and limpid brown eye here, is actually of the mallard.

Steve Paulson (07:37):

A mallard is endangered?

Jenny Kendler (07:38):

They're not considered endangered, now. This is a report predicting what may happen in the next 50 years, due to climate change. There's one that's blocked by this flowering tree here, that's actually the raven, common raven.

Anne Strainchamps (07:52):

What's the one that's green with yellow around it, and it's an aquamarine?

Jenny Kendler (07:57):

That is a double-crested cormorant. Isn't that the most astonishing beauty?

Anne Strainchamps (08:01):

Yes.

Jenny Kendler (08:01):

That was something else I was really interested in this. Just the aesthetics of eyes.

Steve Paulson (08:07):

What would you hope as people walk by? The installation that you have right here, on this lovely path, what would you hope that people take away from seeing this?

Jenny Kendler (08:18):

For me, I like to think of beauty as a lure, or a strategy, to get people to stop in the middle of their busy lives. Oftentimes, people are literally running by here. How do we get people to become curious?

Anne Strainchamps (08:35):

What do you want people to be curious about?

Jenny Kendler (08:37):

Who are these other beings looking back at us? I think hopefully, our deep conversation that one can get into with the piece, but if you have two minutes, I think that the idea of engaging in wonder is already a powerful place to start.

Anne Strainchamps (09:01):

Eye to eye encounters can trigger that wonder, but they're also part of a larger story.

Steve Paulson (09:07):

A shift in perspective, maybe even an emerging paradigm, that de-centers the human being and how we think about the world. Just as the Copernican Revolution removed the Earth from the center of the universe, this new ecological world view challenges the idea that only humans have the capacity to think and reason, to feel pain and pleasure, to have agency. It's to acknowledge that other living beings, bears, dragonflies, trees, are kin to us. Not just in some remote evolutionary sense, but as part of our extended family.

Anne Strainchamps (09:44):

The question is, when you look into the eyes of another creature, what do you expect to see? Recognition? Communication? Or indifference?

Jenny Kendler (10:06):

When I was a little girl, I was consumed by the obsession that if I were to get close enough to a squirrel, and really engage in the mutual gaze, that this squirrel would see me and know that I was not their enemy, but in fact their friend. Then, we would be friends. I engaged in quite a lot of pretty dangerous tree climbing in order to make this happen. And probably put the fear of God into a number of squirrels.

Steve Paulson (10:38):

Could you talk a little bit about the different kinds of gazes? There's some gazes where we might look at the non-human being, and they might look right through us, or just not care about us at all.

Jenny Kendler (10:49):

That's actually really powerful, too. That's something that we maybe should learn to value as human beings.

Anne Strainchamps (10:55):

How come?

Jenny Kendler (10:56):

Having a bird, or a coyote, non-human, be entirely indifferent to you, recognizing that you're not part of their sphere of concern, their umwelt, at all, I actually think is liberating. There's some real grace in this understanding that one is not so important after all. I guess what I mean, there are all of these shades in the gaze, everything from indifference to really understanding that there is mutual love. I think when you look into Toby's eyes, you know that he loves you and you love him.

Steve Paulson (11:34):

That's right.

Jenny Kendler (11:35):

Toby agrees.

Steve Paulson (11:41):

There's a profound question, I think, about looking into... Having that eye to eye contact. Are you, well, to use ancient language, are you glimpsing into the soul, for instance, of this other being? And I guess I'm wondering, do you think there is that connection? Gavin, your coyote story, do you feel there was... Was there some communication going on there?

Gavin Van Horn (12:05):

Yeah. I don't have any problem saying that there's communication. If we think of communication as a non-verbal engagement, the very act of seeing is taking another being into one's self. We can talk about that physically in terms of the light that enters our pupil and strikes the back of our head, and is translated into electromagnetic, or whatever. I think we need to stop seeing ourselves as ending at our skins. We are taking in the world, in a very literal sense.

Anne Strainchamps (12:38):

I'm curious about... You spent a lot of time. It's 100 eyes. That's a lot of eyes to paint. I'm curious to know what thoughts you had about eyes the more time you spent with them?

Jenny Kendler (12:52):

I guess I was thinking a lot about the suppression of sensing, and how this is the non-humans primary way of engaging with the world, is through many expended senses, perhaps sight and all senses that we don't have access to. Butterfly's ability to perceive ultra-violet light, for example.

Anne Strainchamps (13:15):

That's eco location. Spiders.

Jenny Kendler (13:17):

Exactly. A lot of them have hairs that are entire ears, so you can imagine ears all over your body that are vibrating. We tend to live in the realm of thinking much more than we do in the realm of sensing or feeling. I guess I spent a lot of time thinking about the ecological movement and maybe where we took some missteps, concentrating on that intellectual thinking part of the brain.

Anne Strainchamps (13:47):

And making the scientific case?

Jenny Kendler (13:49):

We thought for a long time, I'm saying we, identifying with the environmental movement, that raising awareness, teaching people, giving them the knowledge, was enough. And yet, clearly, decade after decade of inaction on climate change, and action on endangerment of species, has shown us that that's not the case. What we need is for people to really sense these things, to use the rest of their brain to feel them, and I think that, hopefully, that's where art can help to play a part in this ongoing challenge to transform our society.

Steve Paulson (14:27):

Anthropomorphism has a bad rap. Is that uniformly a mistaken way of thinking that we always try to imagine everything from the human perspective, or does anyone want to defend anthropomorphism?

Gavin Van Horn (14:41):

I would mostly defend it, actually. Anthropomorphizing is a completely legitimate way of trying to think and expand our own understanding. One of the greatest gifts of being human, I think, is the gift of imagination. I would whole-heartedly encourage, from childhood to adulthood, through the elderhood, to imagine one's self as being, not only being other animals, but what's it like to be a tree, what's it like to be the wind, what's it like to be a mountain.

Jenny Kendler (15:25):

Thinking about this, hearing the sounds of all the children in the background, it reminds me that a lot of these things are not things that I think that human beings need to learn, or adults need to learn, but things that we need to re-learn. Almost all children love animals, almost all children are sensitive to non-humans.

Anne Strainchamps (15:45):

Take a walk with a toddler. You walk down any sidewalk, it will take you half an hour to go a block because they are sensitive to noticing all the things that we've learned to tune out.

Jenny Kendler (15:57):

Right. Their whole body, they want to touch, they want to put things in their mouths, they want to use every part of their ability to perceive and engage with the world, to understand what this natural space, that I don't think is outside of them, it's that they blur into, like Gavin was saying.

Anne Strainchamps (16:17):

Don't you think that's why we think of childhood as an enchanted time, and why we secretly long to get back to that?

Jenny Kendler (16:23):

Yeah. Many people, if you really ask them, their deepest desire has to do with this idea of finding magic, and finding wonder. I think that all of those things that we long for are there, and there are places where it's more or less likely that we may tap that. I think that's why the eyes, or the gaze, is so important. It's a portal.

Steve Paulson (16:49):

I just wanted to follow up on this question of how deep the eye to eye contact can go. Going back to the thing that Thomas Nagel talked about, "We'll never really understand the subjective experience of a bat." I'm fascinated by that. I want to know what it would be like to be a bird, or to be a dog, or whatever.

Jenny Kendler (17:10):

Yeah. I think that for people who really engage with the natural world, that might be the greatest temptation of all. I have had that thought before. I would trade a year of my life for five minutes inside the mind of a bird, perhaps.

Steve Paulson (17:27):

I've had this exact conversation with Jane Goodall. She says the same thing. She would give years of her life to be inside the mind of a chimpanzee for five minutes.

Jane Goodall (17:44):

If I could be inside the mind of a chimpanzee for just a few minutes, I would learn more about them than another, goodness knows how many years of study. We can guess what they're thinking, but how do they think? Are they thinking in pictures? How do you think without words? I spent ages thinking about that, wondering about it.

Anne Strainchamps (18:10):

We'll hear Jane Goodall's eye to eye story next. If you're curious about Jenny Kendler's 40 foot long sculpture with all those bird eyes, we posted some of the photos we took on our website. You'll find it at Ttbook.org. I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Steve Paulson (18:27):

And I'm Steve Paulson. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio.

Anne Strainchamps (18:34):

And PRX. This hour we're talking about eye to eye epiphanies, the transformative experience of looking into the eyes of another creature, and seeing it look back.

Steve Paulson (19:00):

Maybe you've had one of these encounters, they can be life changing. It was for Jane Goodall when she was beginning her ground breaking field work with chimpanzee's.

Jane Goodall (19:18):

One moment was very, very special, and that was when I was sitting in the forest with David Greybeard. I picked up a fruit and held it out to him, he turned his head away, and I put my hand closer. He turned, looking directly into my eyes. He reached out, took the fruit, dropped it. He really didn't want it. Then, he very gently squeezed my hand, which is how chimpanzees reassure each other. In that moment, we communicated in a way that seems to predate words. Perhaps, in a way that was used by our own common ancestor, a million of years ago. It was an extraordinary feeling. It was bridging these two worlds. We think with words, and when we don't think with words, I think we come close to what mystics might describe as a mystical experience. Totally losing sense of ones own self. That's the only way I can really study animals, because if I'm on my own, I forget that I'm there.

Jane Goodall (20:50):

One was just one night following a little group of chimpanzee's and I was very wet. They climbed an evening up into this tree, which had new chutes of beautiful lime green, and the sun behind them was making them shine, and the trunks of the trees was still wet. The chimpanzee's coats were black ebony, shot with little gleams of chestnut. The smell of ripe figs was strong in the air, then this beautiful male bushbuck appeared with his coat dark with the rain, and his spiraled horns gleaming, and just stood there. It seems I could hear the insects, really loud and clear. It was just incredibly vivid being at one with that beautiful world.

Anne Strainchamps (21:48):

Looking into the eyes of another creature can lead to that sense of magic, awe, wonder. It can also lead to a code of ethics.

Steve Paulson (21:58):

There are a few seminal stories in the history of environmental thinking, that are famous eye to eye moments, probably the best known is Aldo Leopold's encounter with a wolf, which really did change the course of conservation over the last century. Here's how Gavin Van Horn tells it.

Gavin Van Horn (22:22):

Yeah. Aldo Leopold was a young buckaroo. He had put on a cowboy hat and moved to Arizona, straight out of Yale Forestry School. He was in charge, almost right away, of a huge section of the Carson National Forest. One of his first jobs was to go out and survey timber with a small team of people. As he tells the story, they come upon a mother wolf, and her pups. He says, "We fired willy nilly into the pack because wolves were considered varmints." They didn't think twice. He tells though of the moment of approaching the mother wolf, as she was in her death throws, and looking into her eyes.

Gavin Van Horn (23:20):

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes. Something known only to her, and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger itch. I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean that hunter's paradise. After seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf, nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Steve Paulson (24:03):

The thing that's so remarkable about this story, there was one moment. Leopold shot a wolf, and I guess it changed his life.

Gavin Van Horn (24:12):

It did, but not immediately. The essay that that story comes from is called Thinking Like a Mountain. This was a mature Leopold reflecting back on those younger days. It was a missing piece of that book for a long time, but through a friend of his, Albert Hochbaum, kept encouraging him, "You have to say something about wolves. You have to say something about wolves." He knew that this was a moment, and not only that, it was a moment that showed that Leopold, that he was fallible.

Steve Paulson (24:41):

The thing that is so striking about that story, at least as he told it later, is it almost sounds like a conversion moment.

Gavin Van Horn (24:47):

Yeah, he depicts it as a conversion moment, a road to Damascus experience, a come to Jesus moment. Staring into the eyes of that wolf, and seeing what he called a green fire, what he meant by that was that there was a pulsating energy throughout this entire ecosystem, and the wolves, to some degree, were regulators of that green fire, in terms of their own wildness, but they also kept the deer herds in check. Without the wolves there, he realizes, the deer would denote the mountain, causing eventually massive erosion, and even starvation of the deer themselves. Wolves served to regulate that green flame that circulated through the mountain. In order to think like a mountain, we have to think with that broader vision. That's what he did throughout his life, what he became known for. This instance of eye to eye contact, was a fantastic example of what we mean by eye to eye epiphanies.

Steve Paulson (25:53):

And changed the course of 20th century environmental thinking.

Gavin Van Horn (25:58):

Yes. Leopold had a profound influence, some credit him as a founder of environmental ethics. He also had an influence on how other animals are managed in this country, on environmental and conservation groups, generally. You would be astounded by how often that story is repeated in so many different contexts.

Anne Strainchamps (26:22):

There's another famous story, a contemporary story, about an eye to eye encounter, and it was also at a moment of the death of an animal. It's a story that eco warrior, Paul Watson, tells about looking into the eyes of a dying whale. Actually, it occurs to me now that that experience also marked a seminal moment in the environmental movement.

Gavin Van Horn (26:47):

It did. Paul Watson is now probably best known for being the founder and leader of a group called the Sea Shepherd Society, that's a tongue twister. This was an eye to eye epiphany that came in a very intense moment. He was in a, I believe it was a Zodiac boat, essentially motorized raft, working for Greenpeace and trying to maneuver in between, I think a Russian whaling boat, and the whales themselves.

Paul Watson (27:27):

In June 1975, we encountered the Russian whaling fleet, about 60 miles off Eureka, California. We found ourself in a small boat in front of a Soviet harpoon vessel that was bearing down on us. In front of us was eight magnificent sperm whales, that were fleeing for their life, and every time the harpooner tried to get a shot, I was at the helm so I would maneuver the boat to try and block the harpoon. It worked for about 20 minutes until the captain came down the catwalk. He looked at us and smiled, and brought his finger across his neck. Suddenly, there's this incredible explosion and this harpoon flew over our head and slammed into the backside of one of the whales. She screamed, it was a very human like scream, like a woman. It took us completely off guard. Suddenly, the largest whale in the pod slapped the water with his tail and disappeared. I turned in time to see him throw himself, hurl himself, out of the water straight at the harpooner. He was waiting for him, and very nonchalantly pulled the trigger and sent a second harpoon into the head of the whale. He screamed and fell back. Now, the water is full of blood everywhere from the two dying whales.

Paul Watson (28:48):

As this whale rolled in agony on the surface of the ocean, I caught his eye and he looked straight at me. I saw him dive again, and I saw a trail of bloody bubbles coming straight at us, real fast. This whale came up and out of the water at an angle so that the next move would be to come forward and fall on top of us, and crush us. As the head rose up out of the water, I look up into this eye the size of my fist, and what I saw there really changed my life forever, because I saw understanding. I saw that the whale understood what we were trying to do. I could see the effort that the whale made to pull himself back, and I saw his eye disappear beneath the sea, and he died. I personally felt indebted to that whale, for having spared my life.

Paul Watson (29:33):

I began to think, "Why were the Russians killing these whales?" They didn't eat sperm whale meat, but they did use the spermicidal to make high heat-resistant lubricating oil for machinery. One of the pieces of machinery that they used it in, is the manufacture of intercontinental ballistic missiles. I said, "Here we are destroying this incredibly beautiful, intelligent, socially complex creature for the purpose of making a weapon meant for the mass destruction of humanity." That's when it came to me like a flash, we're insane. We're just totally insane. From that moment on, I decided that I work for whales, I work for seals, I work for sea turtles and fish, and sea birds. I don't work for people.

Anne Strainchamps (30:13):

What does Sea Shepherd do now? It's an eco-vigilante group? Is that fair to say?

Gavin Van Horn (30:33):

That's one way to characterize it. Some would call them radical environmentalists. Those who don't feel any sympathy or favor for them, might call them worse. Essentially, this moment, this eye to eye epiphany, served as a catalyst from Greenpeace, which many people would already consider fringe, radical environmental activist, to the Sea Shepherd Society, from a point of being willing to resist, or protest, or participate in non-violent action, to a step beyond that. He is willing to break the law, because he considers those laws illegitimate.

Anne Strainchamps (31:15):

He's currently under an Interpol red notice, which is the equivalent to having an International wanted poster. Both Japan, and Costa Rica have sued him.

Gavin Van Horn (31:27):

They're not happy.

Steve Paulson (31:30):

Going back to what he said in that clip, I don't work for humans.

Anne Strainchamps (31:33):

I don't work for humans.

Steve Paulson (31:34):

I work for the animals. I work for the whales. I'm just trying to think about what that actually means.

Gavin Van Horn (31:41):

It really represents his bio centric, or sometimes called eco centric perspective. The idea that humans are not the center of the universe, as much as we might make ourselves out to be. His life long fight now will be on behalf of other than human animals.

Anne Strainchamps (32:07):

We'll have more eye to eye encounters coming up. Including what happens when the animal looking back wants to eat you. I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Steve Paulson (32:16):

And I'm Steve Paulson. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio.

Anne Strainchamps (32:21):

And PRX. Have you ever thought about how many different eyes see you over the course of a day? They're not all human. Dogs, cats, birds, frogs, even insects watch us. Each with a different eye. What, and how, do they see?

Steve Paulson (32:49):

Ivan Schwab is an ophthalmologist who's been fascinated by that question for a long time. Like a lot of scientist, his interest goes back to childhood.

Ivan Schwab (32:58):

Steve, that's real easy, but the story is either very long, or very short. Briefly, I've been interested in biology since I was a kid, because I grew up in a small rural area in West Virginia, and most of what I had was outdoors. When you see a dragonfly, or a bird, you begin to ask the same questions, "How do these animals see?" Once you begin to ask the question and understand the different styles, the different designs of eyes, you say, "Okay. How did it get this way?"

Steve Paulson (33:31):

In other words, what was the first eye? That, it turns out, is a long story.

Ivan Schwab (33:37):

There's good evidence that the original eye appeared at 600 million, or even a billion years ago. They've all... Eyes all have evolved from that original eye. Although, it looks as if eyes more likely evolved from some basic molecules, like the photo pigments that allow us to see light rays, from those basic pigments it's probably evolved as many as 40 times.

Steve Paulson (34:05):

Can you give me some sense of the range of eyes that exist in the world today? How much variety is there?

Ivan Schwab (34:12):

Steve, there's so much variety that it's numbing. For example, there's a tiny little creature, a single cell animal called Erythropsidinium, and this creature has an eye that is all sub-cellular. That means, all the elements are within that single cell. Interesting thing is, it chases other small creatures, it's a predator because it will eat them, and yet it has no brain, it has only DNA, it has no nerves, it just has this eye.

Steve Paulson (34:45):

When you get to some bigger creatures, what different eyes do you see?

Ivan Schwab (34:49):

Well, it ranges from this tiny eye to perhaps the largest, certainly the largest vertebrate eye ever, in an Ichthyosaur, called thalmasaurous. Thalmasaurous was bigger than a double decker bus. It had an eye the size of a beach ball.

Steve Paulson (35:06):

I have to ask you about one argument that has come up from people who don't believe that evolution really explains the variety of species. This is a prominent argument within intelligent design. Certain people talk about irreducible complexity, the idea is the eye is so complex its made up of so many different parts that you cannot evolve an eye incrementally, you've got to have all of these things working together, and they say evolution just cannot explain an eye. How do you respond to that?

Ivan Schwab (35:37):

Well, on Earth today, there are steps from the simple eye spot, to a complex eye in an eagle, or in a primate. Each of those steps shows that it's all niche driven. Meaning, the eye is selected for the task at hand. Sometimes, only a small eye or a partial eye is needed. The best example of that is that there is a shrimp that lives at the vents at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, where continental plates meet, and as a result, magma will come up through the vents, through the cracks, and it's very hot. Water would boil except the pressure keeps the water from boiling. There's a sharp decline in temperature from the vent to the water, some distance from it. Shrimp live at the border, where they are close enough to feed on the bacteria that are feeding on the vent, but they're not far enough away to freeze to death. That shrimp has retina on its back, on each side. It has two strips of retina, just plain, raw, retina. The retina that it has, a sense the black body radiation from the vents so that it doesn't get too close, and it doesn't get too far away. It needs to know exactly where it should sit. Those retina allow it to do that. That is really just half an eye.

Steve Paulson (37:12):

What's the strangest eye, the most remarkable eye you've seen?

Ivan Schwab (37:16):

I'm asked this question a lot, what's my favorite eye, or what's the most remarkable. The most fascinating eye for most people would have to be an animal called the Mantis shrimp. The Mantis shrimp is not really a shrimp, it's a Stomatopod. It looks like a bratwurst. If you get the bigger ones, they're six to eight inches long, and they look like something you'd have at a basketball game on a bun. They have two eyes that are stalked. That means they have eyes on the end of these stalks, and the eyes look around independently. It almost looks like a creature out of a Star Wars film. These are compound eyes, meaning they have different units. They have highly concentrated compound eyes, around a belt like equator of each eye. The punchline is, this animal has 14 visual pigments. Now, a visual pigment is what you use to see color. You need two of them to see color. You have three.

Steve Paulson (38:21):

I have three pigments, and you're saying this little creature has 14 pigments?

Ivan Schwab (38:26):

Or 16, depending on how you want to calculate it. Some of these pigments can see circular polarized light, and linear polarized light. Both of those concepts are hard for us to get our brain around, because they're something we can't do. It's a sense we don't have.

Steve Paulson (38:41):

Explain that. What is that?

Ivan Schwab (38:42):

Yeah. If you put on a pair of Polaroid glasses, you can see linear polarized light. There's another form of polarization, it has to do with the way the wavelength of light comes at you, and it's called circular polarized light. They can see it. That's probably important for recognizing their mates. But, it's not something we can conceive of easily. It's even a relatively new concept optically. That's probably the oddest. For me, the best eyes are in the birds. I'm interested in birds, I'm a birder since childhood, so it's really the birds and that's the triumph. That's the best vision that evolution has to offer.

Steve Paulson (39:26):

I've often heard the stories about how an eagle or a hawk can soar way above the ground and see prey, hundreds of yards away, which sounds just astounding.

Ivan Schwab (39:37):

It is astounding. That's why humans have come up with a phrase of the eagle eye. It's quite clear that the raptors, the hawks and the eagles, the owls, the animals that hunt other birds, or hunt other animals, they have a very fine grade, maybe like the new iPad with lots of extra pixels, but they see so finely that they're the best, in terms of acuity, discrimination, the best that evolution has to offer.

Steve Paulson (40:05):

Ivan Schwab is a Professor of Ophthalmology at the UC Davis School of Medicine, and the author of Evolutions Witness, How Eyes Evolved.

Anne Strainchamps (40:23):

I've been thinking about some of those earlier stories we told. About famous or significant eye to eye encounters with animals in the wild. Jane Goodall with chimpanzees in Gambia, Aldo Leopold with the wolf, Paul Watson with a whale. There's another story I have not been able to get out of my mind since I read it. It's a story the feminist, eco philosopher, Val Plumwood told about an encounter she had when she was canoeing alone, in a remote section of Australia's Kakadu National Park. Here's what she wrote.

Juliana Meolio (40:59):

I suppose I've always been the sort of person who goes too far. I certainly went much too far that torrential wet season day in February 1985 when I paddled my little red canoe to the point where the East Alligator River surges out of the Stone Country of the Arnhem Land Plateau. As I pulled the canoe out into the main current, the wind and rain started up again. I had not gone more than five or 10 minutes down the channel when rounding a bend I saw in midstream what looked like a floating stick. As the current moved me toward it, the stick developed eyes. A crocodile. The salt water crocodile. The largest of the living crocodiles. A creature that can move so fast, it appears to the human eye as a flash. I was totally unprepared when it struck the canoe again and again. I realized I had to get out of the canoe or risk being capsized. The only obvious avenue of escape was the paper bark tree. I steered towards its lower branches and stood up to jump, at the same instant the crocodile rushed up alongside the canoe and its beautiful flecked golden eyes looked straight into mine.

Juliana Meolio (42:35):

I tensed for the jump and leapt. I had a blurred, incredulous vision of great toothed jaws bursting from the water. Then, I was seized between the legs in a red hot pencil grip, and whirled into the suffocating wet darkness. Few of those who have experienced the crocodile's death roll have lived to describe it. It's an intense burst of power, designed to overcome the victim's resistance quickly. The crocodile then holds the feebly, struggling prey underwater until it drowns. The roll is a centrifuge of boiling blackness that lasted for an eternity, beyond endurance. When I seemed all but finished, the rolling suddenly stopped. My feet touched bottom, my head broke the surface, and coughing, I sucked in air, amazed to be alive. The crocodile still had me in its pencil grip between the legs. I had just begun to weep for the prospects of my mangled body when it pitched me suddenly into a second death roll.

Juliana Meolio (44:02):

I was growing weaker, but I could see the crocodile taking a long time to kill me this way. I prayed for a quick finish, and decided to provoke it by attacking it with my hands. Feeling back behind me along the head, I encountered two lumps. Thinking I had the eye sockets, I jabbed my thumbs into them with all my might. They slid into warm, unresisting holes, which may have been the ears or perhaps the nostrils. The crocodile did not so much as flinch. I knew I had to break the pattern. Up the slippery mud bank was the only way. I jammed my fingers into the mud and used the last of my strength to climb up the bank and reach the top. I was alive. But, escaping the crocodile wasn't the end of the struggle. I was alone, many miles from help, and severely injured. My left thigh hung open with bits of fat, tendon, and muscle showing. I tore up some clothing, made a tourniquet, then staggered on through driving rain, shouting for mercy from the sky. Apologizing to the angry crocodile, repenting to this place for my intrusion. In the end, I was found in time and survived against many odds. The wonder of being alive after being held, quite literally, in the jaws of death, has never entirely left me.

Anne Strainchamps (45:51):

That attack had a huge impact on Val Plumwood's thinking, as a philosopher and deep ecologist. The way she described it is though is stripped away, not only her skin, but her illusions about the nature of life and death, and what it means to be human. Val died in 2008 at age 68. This is from her book the Eye of the Crocodile, read by Juliana Meolio.

Juliana Meolio (46:16):

Of course, in some very remote and abstract way, I knew that humans were animals, and were sometimes, very rarely, eaten like other animals. I knew I was food for crocodiles, that my body like theirs, was made of meat. Then again, in some very important way, I didn't know it. Absolutely rejected it. Somehow, the fact of being food for others had not seemed real until I stood in my canoe, in the beating rain, staring down into the beautiful gold flecked eyes of the crocodile. I leapt through the eye of the crocodile into what seemed like a parallel universe, a harsh, unfamiliar territory, where everything flows, where we live the other's death, die the other's life, the universe represented in the food chain. I was suddenly transformed in the parallel universe, into the form of a small edible animal, whose death was of no more significance than that of a mouse. As I saw myself as meat, I also saw with an incredible shock that I inhabited a grim, relentless and deplorable world that would make no exceptions for me, no matter how smart I was.

Juliana Meolio (47:42):

Like all living things, I was made of meat. Was nutritious food for another being. Being food confronts one very starkly with realities of embodiment, with our inclusion in the animal order as food, as flesh, our kinship with those we eat, with being part of the feast and not just some spectator of it, we are the feast. This is a humbling, and very disruptive experience. Thinking of ourselves as food for others is the most basic way in which we can revision ourselves in ecological terms, and affirm our solidarity with other animals. By understanding life as a circulation, as a gift from a community of ancestors, we can see death as recycling. A flowing on into an ecological and ancestral community of origins.

Steve Paulson (48:41):

When I hear stories like this, I realize we're all part of a much larger, interconnected web of life, which raises a really profound question. How does our sense of self fit into this biological community that's teaming with animal and plant beings?

Anne Strainchamps (48:58):

And what does that mean in daily life? What does kinship look like in practice?

Steve Paulson (49:05):

I want to bring Gavin Van Horn back in here, because this is the thing that you think about, Gavin, at the Center for Humans and Nature.

Gavin Van Horn (49:11):

I think that's a really important question, because it's important not just to consider kinship a concept, but a practice. Oftentimes, we're focused on our own lives, our own business, and we go about our day as though the rest of the world is scenery, or backdrop. Almost as though we're in a play. When you walk down the street and you see a squirrel, for instance, it might just be the familiarity breeds contempt, and we don't think about it. A transition, or a way to think about it differently would to be, if you can flip a switch in your head, in your everyday life, to thinking, "No, this is not Terra nullius. This is not empty space. This is living. The trees, the vegetation, the bushes, and the wind, and the rocks. Everything around you shares a certain degree of aliveness." What does that require of us?

Anne Strainchamps (50:20):

That's a good question. Maybe a question to live with. That's it for our show today. To The Best Of Our Knowledge is produced at Wisconsin Public Radio, by Charles Monroe-Kane, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Angelo Bautista, and Mark Riechers. Our sound designer and technical director is Joe Hartdke. I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Steve Paulson (50:40):

And I'm Steve Paulson. Today's show was part of a new project on kinship with the more than human world. Produced in collaboration with the Center for Humans and Nature, and with support from the Kalliopeia Foundation. You'll find more information about the project at ttbook.org and Humansandnature.org.

Anne Strainchamps (51:00):

Thanks for listening.

Last modified: 
December 03, 2020