Perhaps you’ve heard about the passenger pigeon, a creature who has become a sort of poster child for the human proclivity to extinguish the incredible abundant offerings of life from Earth. The story is an all too common one these days, a heart wrenching nostalgia for the times when salmon ran so thick the rivers throbbed as silver veins, pumping blood to the heart of the land. Passenger pigeons once blackened the skies in massive hordes, falling to the ground without even an aim. Hunters did not consider the possibility of their extinction; it seemed preposterous. And then they were gone.
But as easy, and usually true, as it is to wrap up the story as human greed, it wasn’t so simple with the passenger pigeon. They were migratory creatures, but unlike the salmon, did not attune to particular places on Earth, but to each other, to the massive body they formed as they flocked from forest to forest. Under the trance of each other’s movements, they mastered the art of profligacy as assurance against predation. But as their numbers declined, the spell diminished, the depth of their trance loosening its grip, until finally, they had no way to orient.
Maybe you've also heard of the double slit experiment, where researchers learned that their observation itself impacts the decision of light to behave like a particle or a wave. What this experiment demonstrates is that we are not on the outside looking in. There is no objective reality that we simply come upon, instead we shape reality. How we shape reality depends vastly upon what magic carpet we're riding, the spell we're under, the glasses we wear.
Let me offer a few easy examples of this, so you can relate. When you learn about something new, you suddenly begin to notice that thing everywhere. Last year I took a landscaping job, where I learned about pruning methods. Magically, every bush revealed how human hands had shaped it, my world now full of examples of different gardening techniques. I remember as well when I was deep in the antiracism scene -- every movie, every interaction, every news article, seemed to be about race. Back then I didn't believe it was how I was perceiving the world at all: everything was about race and if you didn't see it that way you were wrong, and well, racist. But the truth is we are all wearing a pair of glasses through which we see the world, most of us have just been wearing them so long, we've forgotten they're on our face.
I'm sure you've met people, maybe even me, who are deeply absorbed in their story, some way they see their lives or the world that makes them, or those around them, utterly miserable. They just won't let it go, even though you sense that everything would change if they could. They're just sitting there, clutching their glasses, as if the handrails of a roller coaster, as if letting go means death. And in a way it does mean death. If we take off a pair of glasses we've been wearing our whole lives, our world falls apart, morphs. We don't know how we fit in it anymore. We become disoriented.
We always have a pair of glasses on, that is unavoidable. For example, our eyes don't just passively gather the world. Vision is a complex system that is representational. The eyes and the mind make a best guess of what something looks like and that is the image you see - it is constructed. And of course this happens in a particularly human way. Much of our behavior stems from our particular way of seeing and sensing the world, just like a dog is driven by scents we can't even smell, the way they perceive the world and what those perceptions mean to the creature shaping how they move, what they seek, who they are.
But unlike dogs, and apparently passenger pigeons, humans have the capacity to notice we are wearing glasses, and develop some agency over what kind of glasses we're wearing. It is possible. I'm not saying it is easy. Nor am I advocating for rose colored glasses, where we only see the goodness in the world. But given our perception has such a huge bearing on the world we see, the world we inhabit, the world we create, it would do us some good to wonder how what we're seeing is colored by the glasses we're wearing, the spell we're under.
If we put on the glasses of Western civilization for the past 500 years or so, and we see the world as dead, nature as resources for the taking, technology as the pinnacle of creation, evolution as self-interest incarnate, we keep creating the world we live in now, a world where we've forced those things to be true. What if we put on glasses to see the world as rooted in beauty, obsessed with cooperative evolution and more life, teeming with subjectivity, dancing with meaning, and singing of interbeing?
We are all under some spell, hypnotized. Increasingly, we are attuned to each other, like the passenger pigeons, under a collective trance that pays no attention to the world around. Many believe we can't change, but I wonder if more and more of us fall from the sky of the industrial growth society if the trance will weaken, and suddenly modernity isn't so captivating, and we are back on Earth again. Maybe, unlike the passenger pigeons, rest their souls, we can fall under a new spell before it is too late.