I woke up in my tent and stared at myself in my small plastic mirror. It’s a vain habit to bring that mirror with me when I go camping, since the bright light of the open-air morning discloses more than any bathroom mirror can. Beyond the slightly sadistic pleasure of really being able to see every new wrinkle and blemish, the unadulterated morning light often reveals a version of my face that I cannot access in my daily life. I tend to look softer, more aware, less guarded. I like to remind myself that this version of me still exists.
That morning, I peered at the creases in my forehead, the triple folds under my eyes, the fine lines around my mouth, the pores on my nose, the gray-blue of my eyes, surrounded by lashes still clumped from sleep. I looked tired, overwhelmed, a bit bleak. The version of myself I sought wasn’t showing up.
I had arrived at camp the night before, full to bursting with the heavy hollowness of grief. It had been a summer of accumulating emptiness, a vacuous magnet inside me drawing clumps of ache, growing emptier in their accretion. I was reverberating with loss. I usually gratefully dissolved into the forest but that morning, I felt impermeable.
I lay there, listening. It started once the golden sunlight reached the tops of the tallest firs — a buzz, rising from everywhere and nowhere, filling the air from the ground up, rendering it lighter, more electric, vibrating off the night’s dampness. Piccolo shrieks and bleeps of small birds high in the canopy, flitting from tree to tree. Dust rising, then settling, then rising again. Syncopated thuds of woodpeckers. Chirps of larger songbirds flying, then perching, then flying again. Raspy open-throated calls and high-pitched punctuation over the constant hum of insects, coating the forest floor like a sonic blanket. I was grateful for the passivity of listening. I didn’t need to do anything — the morning’s orchestra simply entered my head.
I put the mirror away.
As John Berger has written, “animals are always the observed.” In the wild, we spy on them from blinds, equipped with eye-extending tools to better witness their every twitch and blink. Biologists have developed ethograms, inventories of known behaviors, for most animal species. Hunters hide in treetops or litter the ground with merciless traps, a sort of hand extension, a form of remote warfare from before this era of drones. And then there is the zoo, a nod to human power and our ability, our right to observe animals, to make of them a spectacle in a micromanaged, farcical approximation of their habitat. Even more abstractly, our culture is obsessed with seeing animals on screens. This is our most domesticating gaze. It doesn’t just transport animals from the wild to the city, like a zoo, but from the wild to our homes, our pockets. They become an abstracted mobile possession.
Observing is never neutral. The male gaze objectifies and flattens the observed female, ensuring that she is a “bearer of meaning, not [a] maker of meaning,” in the words of Laura Mulvey. As Susan Sontag has written, the observer of a photograph exerts a kingly power over the photographed. Being looked at can be a violation or a privilege, or both at once.
But how does looking shift when it is interspecies? What does it mean to be looked at, peered at from above, by the chorus of songbirds announcing your arrival as you walk on any path in any forest? City birds are also acutely attuned to human presence; the humble pigeon perceives a wider range of the visible spectrum of light than any other species. What do the crows in the huge elms outside my house see when they peer into my windows early in the morning? What do the squirrels see as they leap and scurry in the parks? What does it mean to be looked at by the animal other? What do they know?
Aristotle proclaimed that “with regard to intelligence, [animals possess] something akin to sagacity.” Berger agrees, understanding animals in the human imagination as “messengers and promises.” From the roots of Western culture until today, animals have been understood as the earth’s sages, sacred messengers, promises. It is understood that the animals can see us clearly, in a pure and unimpeded form. We are recognized as one small, scared, dangerous, struggling part of a vastly larger whole.
What does it mean, then, to witness an animal witnessing you? The experience is transformative, a temporary suspension from the complex and superficial narrative of life. You are nameless and suddenly aware. Alison Hawthorn Deming writes, “Do you remember a time when you saw an animal and it made you startle into wonder? That moment of consciousness is where art and science and religion were born, that moment of snapping awake.” Your small cage of identity dissolves and there you are, alive in the living world.
It happened like this: my husband and I were sitting at the edge of a large meadow with our backs to a thick forest of fir and spruce. We weren’t talking. He was reading and I was silently contemplating loss, feeling hopeless, held in abeyance. Then I felt myself being looked at from behind. I turned, instinctively, as animals do, in the direction of the gaze, and made eye contact with the cougar. He was close, at eye level, at a distance about the length of my body. It was a long, slow-motion moment of recognition, in which my brain scrambled to keep pace with my eyes. A kaleidoscope of honey-colored pieces fell slowly into place, arranging themselves around a word, a centripetal force: cat.
I want to ask, who did he see? But I know that he didn’t see a “who.” There was no identity there, no invisible, abstract framework. There was just my body, my scent, the quality of my presence, and then my gaze, the whites of my eyes pooling as perception slowly gave way to recognition.
I didn’t see the cougar at first because I didn’t expect to see him. Vision is selective. Neuroscientists are beginning to understand the brain as a vehicle of world-making rather than a vehicle of world-perceiving. We misread the world in subliminal, active, and creative ways. We see what we expect to see, which means that we mostly see the world as a hall of mirrors, reflecting our expectations back to ourselves. A large predatory cat watching me from behind, so close I could reach over and brush its long white whiskers — this was not what I was expecting. It was only when the shape of the two ears connected in my brain to the ears of my house cat that I understood what I was seeing. Until then, I was as stymied by the honey-colored vision before me as a newborn. It was what I imagine the world might look like to a child before she learns the tidy and domesticating symbolism of language. There are shapes, colors, sensations. There is sweetness and there is pain. No expectations, no predictions. No past or future, no names. In that wild and pendulous moment of eye contact with the cougar, he and I were one consciousness. He looked me in the eyes. He said: live.