Perception

rockThis is a detail of a volcanic rock I picked up in Iceland a few years ago. Do you see what I see? The chocolate brown portions look like they are above the darker blue-black portions. They look like hills.

But they’re actually the subsurface part of the rock, the pits. Twice now I’ve experienced my eyes bringing this background to the foreground, as if it was a moving image, rack-focused. Now I can’t get my eyes to see it correctly.

This was a nice reminder that we should always consider our perception as well as our perspective. You all know about the classic social science studies which show how biases of various kinds color our perception of events (the majority of white students who say the white man who barges into the classroom with a gun is black, etc.), how malleable human witness turns out to be. TV dramas have long perpetuated the opposite notion, how foolproof eye-witness is, but then that bullshit industry has also convinced many that crime is much more prevalent than it actually is.

I was reading some comments in a piece on the myth of the black panther, which a fair number of people claim to have seen in the Southeast and elsewhere. After a thorough explanation of why there are no “black panthers,” the first comment essentially says: I know because I’ve seen one and everybody who disagrees with me has a closed mind. Actually, no; sorry, although mind might be the best place to look for your conviction. The fact that there are no black panthers will no more stop some from believing in them than the lack of verifiable UFOs stops UFO-spotters (or alleged abductees).

Interestingly, there don’t seem to be so many UFOs anymore. Could that phenomenon have been specific to its time and place? And aren’t these black panther sightings very much a phenomenon of our now? Doesn’t it seem to speak to a longing for the wild, a diminishment of the natural world, a rebellion against the shrinking of the imagination, not to mention a guilt-ridden sense of denial? The Thylacine, for instance, was “seen” for decades after its extermination in Tasmania. Many species are gone now, but we obsess on some examples: everybody knows the dodo, or thinks they do. Mostly they picture John Tenniel’s illustration for Lewis Carroll, for only a few parts of the bird remain; what it looked like is a conjecture.

We live in a time of a longing of another sort, too, at least among some. Too many, as it happens: millions are clamoring for a corrupt, orange-tinted reality-TV huckster, a con-man who wants to be a strong-man. A creature of astonishing mendacity, even on the spectrum of politician-bullshit, yet he still appeals to a crowd of sucker-punching racists and authoritarians as well as that desperate and broken contingent abandoned by the Democratic Party. I strive to understand how someone who lies so much can have a following, but Reagan long taught the Republicans that “facts are stupid things.” Rationality is irrelevant here: it’s emotion that empowers fascists, above all rage and resentment, and gives wing to the fantasy that Trumpenstein will get the trains running on time.

To return this to nature, which is of course inseparable from politics, consider the experiences of J. Drew Lanham, who “birds while black”: that’s the deplorable America Trump supporters are voting for, regardless of their reasons and/or their grievances.

4 Responses to “Perception”


  1. 1 Ellen September 26, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    Excellent, Matthew. I truly enjoyed this post.

  2. 3 Paul Lamb September 27, 2016 at 5:24 am

    Plenty of people have insisted that they’ve seen an Ozark Howler too. The only evidence is a blurry photo or two and, of course, insistence.

    • 4 mthew September 27, 2016 at 7:47 am

      First I’ve heard of one; looks like a very angry Sasquatch. Nearby south New Jersey has it’s “Jersey Devil,” which looks surprisingly like the state’s governor.


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