Earth Matters: A world where we aren’t at the center?

In “An Immense World,” journalist Ed Yong discusses umwelt, or the bubble of the world that an animal can perceive through their own senses.

In “An Immense World,” journalist Ed Yong discusses umwelt, or the bubble of the world that an animal can perceive through their own senses. PHOTO BY MONYA RELLES

Hitchcock Center Environmental Educator Monya Relles’ backpack and copy of “An Immense World” by Ed Yong wait to be taken into the woods with Relles’ after-school students.

Hitchcock Center Environmental Educator Monya Relles’ backpack and copy of “An Immense World” by Ed Yong wait to be taken into the woods with Relles’ after-school students. PHOTO BY MONYA RELLES

By MONYA RELLES

For the Gazette

Published: 02-23-2024 9:43 PM

Over the summer, I read and enjoyed “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us” by Ed Yong. One of Yong’s central theses is that animal senses are so different from our own that it’s almost impossible to imagine the ways animals could be thinking, feeling, and perceiving the world.

Yong calls the bubble of the world that an animal can perceive (through hearing, sight, electromagnetic senses, or senses even stranger) an animal’s umwelt. That umwelt, Yong argues, is often entirely foreign to our own. Even within our human species, it can be challenging for us to imagine and communicate our unique umwelt. If I have limited ways to describe a color to you as I see it, then I have even less vocabulary to talk about the ways a bee might see a flower, lit up with elaborate patterns and designs on the ultraviolet spectrum.

And that’s with light, which humans can see. That’s not even starting to consider senses we lack entirely, like electromagnetic senses. There’s no telling the size of the immense world that scientists have just begun to discover contained in non-human animal senses.

There’s a game I love by Avery Adler, who designs games and art pieces, journaling prompts, and meditations. The game is called Universal Translator and it asks you to believe that you are an alien who has been fitted with a universal translator. Of course, no machine is perfect. “The universal translator necessarily removes some cultural context and nuance as it does its work,” Adler writes.

 Adler challenges the player to look through their real life for moments of connection that are simply incomprehensible, too weird or out-of-context to understand. Of course, we’re not really aliens speaking though an occasionally faulty translator, but it’s certainly true that within humanity and without, some things seem impossible to interpret.

Yong tells us that scientists are just beginning to comprehend the vast scale of whale song. It seems possible that some species of whales are singing together across the planet in order to map and communicate about the entire and unimaginably vast ocean floor. How can a human imagine sensing an entire ocean floor? But, Yong argues, this doesn’t mean the science of animal umwelten is futile. The job of the scientist isn’t to shy away from the impossible, it’s simply to stop humanizing animals with umwelten so different from our own.

This argument brought to mind an argument from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Kimmerer writes about the personhood and respect that Anishnabe speakers hold for animals and the earth. In Potawatomi culture, she tells the reader, instead of personifying animals, people are given animal and plant-like qualities. Instead of a fox being intelligent like a person, a human might be curious like a fox.

I think Kimmerer, Yong, and Alder, are all asking us, in different ways, to imagine a world where humans (specifically white humans, including myself) are not at the center. Where we know our sensory experiences are not universal, or a standard from which we can understand all animals. Where we understand humans may not hold all the answers to climate change and ecological resilience. Where some things are simply impossible for humans to understand, but are worth considering anyway.

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In a different talk by Kimmerer, titled “What Can Plants Teach us?” she tells us that instead of thinking about how to impose human desires onto nature, we would do well to consider, especially in light of climate change, what we can learn if we consider plants, animals, and the more-than-human world around us.

What could we learn from phragmites, which is usually considered a harmful invasive species but can uptake carbon faster than almost any other plant?

What could we learn from forests that only thrive when there is a genuine and abundant diversity of life contained within them? Trees that transfer nutrients across species through mycelial fungal networks in times of scarcity?I do not mean to say that trees are more moral than humans, or that their behavior is more natural than that of chimpanzees, who resolve conflict with physical fights.

Only that we owe it to ourselves, as imagineers of the impossible and collectors of the untranslatable, to stop thinking about humans (white humans) as the holders of all knowledge and wisdom and start to think about ourselves as students to our non-human (more-than-human) teachers.

In an essay titled “We’ve Been Stranger Things,” Adler writes, “It’s important to sincerely imagine impossible things, to develop empathy towards impossible creatures, to practice being impossible. … When we learn to see ourselves in the fantastical, the impossible, the absurd — when we construct new lenses by which to understand our own power and identities — we also put forward a challenge to the world around us.”

It’s worth saying that one of the themes of the essay is that certain types of humans (Black, Indigenous, and trans folks, among others) are people often relegated to less than human status. When we consider animals and nature to be “less than human,” it becomes easier to sort humans into those categories, too.

So I’m trying to shift my worldview from one where humans (and specifically white, wealthy, cisgendered men) are at the center of a world that exists to serve and be exploited by me — especially as a white person with considerable privilege myself. I’m trying to consider a world where humans are just one piece of a vast and complex web of interactions between living and nonliving things. Maybe I’ll never be able to imagine how octopi think with one brain in each arm, but I can know that my own perception of the world is one among many.

I am trying to imagine the impossible, to look for gaps in my understanding in the context of the world. I am trying to listen and learn from the lessons of phragmites and ferns, bees and whales.

Monya Relles(they/them) is an educator at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment with a passion for environmental justice. In their free time they can be found hiking, dancing, or playing off-key ukulele at the Connecticut River, much to the mortification of people who pass by. Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 14 years. The center’s mission is to educate and to inspire action for a healthy planet. Our Living Building and trails are open to all at 845 West St. in Amherst. To learn more, visit hitchcockcenter.org.