Take a look at this picture. It looks at first glance like a selfie. But a selfie by definition is a self-conscious thing. “Backstage! With Bon Jovi!” That’s a selfie. Or “Me and Diana on the Empire State Building!” Or “Guess who we met on top of the Empire State Building!! Bon Jovi!” And then the sorry end to the saga: “If anyone sees this. Please. We’re being stalked by Bon Jovi. Seriously.”
This photo, on the other hand, is the opposite. It’s the accidental portrait of someone with a new wildlife camera who hasn’t quite figured out how to work it. He knows there’s a certain combination of buttons he needs to push to turn it off, or perhaps one button that…may have turned it off? Is there a beep or a light? Where do you check? Should I try to turn it on again, to see if it’s off? And then how do I turn it off again? I thought the camera was off, and I’d just started out of the workshop, on the way down the deer trail to the great cottonwood in the ravine. There, I’d tied a khaki-colored belt around the trunk of the tree, cinching a rectangle of wood about the size of a greeting card so that it faced the trail, about three and a half feet from the ground. The wood had a protruding screw; the camera had a D-shaped loop on the back. Slip loop over screw. Piece of cake. It’s ingenuity like this that guarantees my survival when I get lost in the bush without food or water — for at least 12 hours. (Beyond that, when they find my inert body, they’ll likely say, “Poor sod. If only we’d come in time. Looks like he did everything right. You can see there where he tied himself to the tree about three and a half feet off the ground with a khaki belt…”)
I only saw the photo when I was reviewing the shots the next day. It was the first one, of course, before another of me walking back up the trail, and then twenty pictures of deer eating and mugging for the camera. What I hadn’t realized at any point on the way down was that a hawk was circling above my head, some distance up. I don’t know what kind. It almost looks like a Cooper’s Hawk, with the long white-tipped tail, but the dark leading edge of the underwing, and the fact that it’s easily the most common large raptor around here, suggest a Red-tailed Hawk instead. Doesn’t matter. It happened. Except that it didn’t happen to me. It wasn’t my experience. The experience only existed on a microSD card, and perhaps for the hawk, who is trying to balance the fact that the prey below looks awfully unappetizing with a responsibility to cull the old and the weak.
The wildlife camera was short-lived. The company I worked for had started a rewards program, marking length of service with gifts chosen from an online catalog. After fifteen years, I rated a lawnmower or a nice piece of luggage, so at least when I walked in late to a meeting at head office, after taking the red-eye, I wouldn’t embarrass myself with that schmatta of a briefcase. I chose the camera instead. It wasn’t top-of-the-line, but it would do. I started placing it on the cottonwood at the beginning of November, exactly two years ago. It lasted a month and a half. On December 16, 2016, a bitter arctic front blew into Colorado. Denver recorded -8°F by midnight. Wind chills in the northern plains were 20 below. By seven in the evening in Bellvue we had blowing snow and 7°F. The last picture the camera ever took was of a red fox facing the wind. After that valiant effort, as though it were reaching out from its deathbed (Look what I could have been!), the camera died. Water got in; the microSD card froze in its slot. Even if I had eventually figured out which buttons to press, they didn’t work anymore.
Within days of first placing the camera, though, it had taken another picture of the same location — again, around dinner time. In it, a mountain lion walks casually by the dome tent I’d been using as a blind. I’d never seen a mountain lion on the property and I haven’t seen one since. They’re out there, of course. Trail signs tell us there are mountain lions in the area, but you’re not likely to see one. And they’re right.
Druids make a distinction between what they call the apparent world — the experience of our eyes and ears during the waking day — and the otherworld. The otherworld isn’t one particular thing: it is what goes on apart from and parallel to us. In dreams and in imagination, in waking life beyond our experience, and quite possibly in some shadow life populated by those whose shapes are not always apparent. But as Zhūangzi tells us, who is to say which is real, the butterfly or the man dreaming?
The problem is not that we spend too much time in the apparent world. It’s the water we swim in, after all. It’s that we make decisions as though it’s the only world that exists. The other world — what we don’t see — the hawk in the high air, the mountain lion in the November dusk, the red fox in snow, the coral of the reef halfway around the world, no more palpable to us than men walking on the moon — that world also exists. It runs parallel to our own consuming path, but lost to us, and in peril.