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Every now and then, we get to be a part of bright, mysterious moments where unexpected life-threads twist together. I recently had an afternoon that twirled many interesting threads together at once, and I was reminded afresh of the beautiful interconnectedness of our experiences.
For context, I love flying. Believe it or not, I even love airports. After not having been on a plane since well before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was excited that my recent four-day reunion with my mom and my sisters gave me the opportunity to fly from Ottawa to Winnipeg to meet them.
During my quick layover at Pearson airport in Toronto, I took a walk to stretch my legs, and on a whim, I stopped in at one of the little shops along the concourse. I bypassed the cheesy Canadiana souvenirs and the overpriced bags of chips, and I headed straight for the bookshelves. I’d never splurged on a new book at an airport shop before, but I found myself picking up a book called “An Immense World”, written by a science journalist named Ed Yong.
I boarded my flight to Winnipeg, and as usual, grinned all the way through takeoff. What a miracle it is to fly! What an incredible triumph of science and engineering! As I marvelled at the beauty of the landscape unfurling below me, I thought about perspective.
There were roads and highways below me that I’ve driven before, and I paid particular attention to the ones that hugged the edge of the lake. There’s a special kind of beauty you experience when you’re travelling along a road that traces the shoreline of a body of water. How interesting, I thought, to experience a new kind of beauty in the same landscape by changing my perspective to one that looked at the lake from thousands of metres above. I watched the little moving specks of vehicles on the roadway, and imagined their drivers’ joy in experiencing the lake-view from their own perspective at the exact same moment.
We nudged through the cloud cover, and as the flight attendants began their journey down the aisle offering packets of almonds and cups of coffee, I remembered that I had a new book to enjoy. I pulled it out and began to read.
As the author laid out the premise, he explained that all creatures – humans included – have a range of senses with which we perceive the world, and those perceptions simultaneously enable us to make sense of our world and limit the ways that we make sense of our world. Yong wrote:
There is a wonderful word for this sensory bubble—Umwelt. It was defined and popularized by the Baltic-German zoologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1909. Umwelt comes from the German word for “environment,” but Uexküll didn’t use it simply to refer to an animal’s surroundings. Instead, an Umwelt is specifically the part of those surroundings that an animal can sense and experience—its perceptual world… a multitude of creatures could be standing in the same physical space and have completely different Umwelten.
Yong added that no creature feels like they’re missing out – their Umwelten simply are their realities.
The human’s [Umwelt] might be bigger than the tick’s… but we are still stuck inside one, looking out. Our Umwelt is still limited; it just doesn’t feel that way. To us, it feels all-encompassing. It is all that we know, and so we easily mistake it for all there is to know.
This is an illusion, and one that every animal shares.
I thought of the drivers winding along the roads at the edge of the lake, unaware that someone else could be experiencing that location at the same time with an entirely different viewpoint. My curiosity was piqued by the challenge of expanding my understanding of what is real and true in my own world by stretching my ideas to imagine the senses and the perspectives of others – other people, and other creatures.
It was lovely to have Yong seem to pick up the idea-threads that had already been twisting together in my mind, so I was reading fairly slowly, savouring the book in small portions, taking time to look out the window and let all the threads intertwine.
“Are you enjoying that book?”
I looked up. The man sitting in the row ahead of me had turned around and was directing this question to me. “Oh! Oh yes – well, I just started it,” I stammered, “but it’s wonderful so far, and I’m very excited to see where this author goes with these ideas.”
The man smiled. “I was curious, because I’m a photojournalist, and I worked very closely with the author of that book for several years! We worked together to fight animal trafficking in Indonesia – primarily orangutans in Borneo and Java.”
We went on to have a fascinating conversation about his work, both with Ed Yong and beyond. He showed me some of his photos from Indonesia, and he gave me some website leads to share with my teenaged daughter, who is considering a career in wildlife conservation.
As we each settled back into our reading, I couldn’t stop smiling. I was amazed that of all the books, I had chosen that one, and of all the days and times that gentleman could have been flying from Toronto to Winnipeg, it was on the same flight as mine, with a seat just one row ahead. And out of that, I had gained new perspectives.
Now as I turned the pages, I had such a clear image in my mind of the author – and my fellow passenger with him – working to understand, appreciate, and preserve the beautiful diversity of life on Earth. Threads had twisted together, and my Umwelt had gotten a bit more vibrant.
My sister Lisa picked me up at the airport. When we arrived at her home and I plopped my bag down on a chair in her living room, I saw the spinning wheel that she had inherited from our grandmother. I asked Lisa if it really worked. “Oh yes, of course,” she smiled. “I’ve been making my own yarn from raw wool! Watch this.”
Lisa reached into a basket and pulled out an ivory-coloured cloud of soft, clean wool that she had carded. She gave the wheel a spin, and with her right foot keeping perfect time like a silent drummer, she showed me how the wool fluff stretched and twisted into a uniform strand of yarn. It was like magic. “And if I want, I can make thicker yarn by taking two strands and feeding them through together like this so that the spinning wheel twists them together,” she said.
Experienced from my Umwelt, the intertwined strands were absolutely beautiful.