TAoN No. 115: A prompt from a new book for combating "the pollution of disconnection." Plus a 'Lost Objects' discount, and more.
Note: This Monday issue going out early Tuesday due to technical error on my part! Sorry!
I’m a bit late to this party, but writer Ed Yong has been getting a lot of attention lately for his book An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us. Most recently I heard him on the Keen On podcast, via Lithub, and what caught my ear was his description of trying to imagine the sensory world of other animals — as what he called “an act of radical empathy.”
This practice involves a word I didn’t really know:
Umwelt — the sensory bubble in which any given animal (including me, including you) exists.
Yong writes about the practice of trying to understand another animal’s Umwelt — to try to imagine experiencing the world the way that animal does — in this New York Times essay. There he defines Umwelt as …
“… an animal’s bespoke sliver of reality. A tick’s Umwelt is limited to the touch of hair, the odor that emanates from skin and the heat of warm blood. A human’s Umwelt is far wider but doesn’t include the electric fields that sharks and platypuses are privy to, the infrared radiation that rattlesnakes and vampire bats track or the ultraviolet light that most sighted animals can see.” And so on.
Yong goes on to propose what I’ll call The Umwelt Empathy Prompt:
“By thinking about our surroundings through other Umwelten, we gain fresh appreciation not just for our fellow creatures, but also for the world we share with them. Through the nose of an albatross, a flat ocean becomes a rolling odorscape. … To a bee, a plain yellow sunflower has an ultraviolet bull’s-eye at its center. …
“Even the most familiar of settings can feel newly unfamiliar through the senses of other creatures. I walk my dog — Typo, a corgi — three times a day, passing the same streets and buildings that I’ve seen thousands of times. But though this urban landscape seems boring and stagnant to my eyes, its smellscape is constantly fascinating to Typo’s nose. He sniffs constantly, his nasal anatomy allowing him to continuously draw in odors even while exhaling. …
“By watching him, I feel less inured to my own life, more aware of the perpetually changing environment around me.”
In the Keen On interview, Yong referred to this practice partly as a response to the “sensory pollution” of modern life: “the pollution of disconnection,” that makes our individual Umwelt/perceptioni bubbles smaller, obscuring and distracting us from the natural world.
Of course such efforts will always be limited; there is no way to, say, see colors that only birds can, or to understand the specific information your dog is getting by furiously snifffing that fire hydrant.
But this exercises encourages us to imagine what we can’t perceive. And perhaps the more we think about what we might be missing, and challenge the limits of our individual perception bubbles, the more we will notice. Let’s try.
(There’s a long piece in The Atlantic adapted from Yong’s book, here.)
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IN OTHER NEWS
Absurd Trolley Problems. Set aside a few minutes; recommended. (My “kill count” was 70.)
The World’s Smallest Park. Delightful.
The “lost art” of the mini golf course.
Publisher Hat & Beard is offering a limited time discount offer on LOST OBJECTS, the book I co-edited with Joshua Glenn: Go here and use checkout code LOSTOBJECTS to take 20% off the price of either the book or a book/poster combo. (The book’s shipping has been delayed by a variety of supply chain problems, but I’m told copies are finally arriving and shipping. The book is beautiful, see below.) More Lost Objects updates at HILOBROW.
OKAY THAT’S IT!
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or use the comments.
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And thanks for reading …
All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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