I spent two and a half seasons avoiding humans and meeting the rest of life.
I isolated myself from most people for an unusual amount of time over the past year. I imagine you may have too. The best I could do is get to know the life that was around me. I moved to a northern city (Amsterdam) in the dark of winter with few acquaintances in the thick of Covid lockdowns. While my government told me to stay home and avoid contact with other people, I thought,
“If I can’t meet new humans, I’ll try meeting non-humans.”
I’m not convinced that I took time away from social life solely due to government-mandated pandemic restrictions. I had a self-motivated craving for a more real relationship with the non-human world — plants, birds, insects, fungi, water, etc. I sought to know these beings as I know humans. Over six months / two and a half seasons, from November through May, I dove deep into fostering something of an acquaintanceship with my neighborhood of Gaasperplas, the last southeast metro stop from Amsterdam Central.
Almost every morning I would leave home and walk for 10 minutes to the lake. I’d sit in the same place each time, facing east. I’d let my body relax into stillness and quiet, watching the lake water, the tree line and sky, animals, the reeds, and whatever else would slip into view for 20–30 minutes. During that time, I began to really get the interactions and personalities of the seagulls, crows, ducks, and swans. Just as the colors, shapes, smells, and textures of ingredients become more familiar each time I cook the same dish, the land and all its elements became richer each time I observed it. My awareness of how the elements and animals interact with each other became clearer as well.
It felt something like this: Sitting, watching waves of sensation. Light lilts of feeling help me read an inner landscape. Sensations ebb and ripple through the body like wind through the lake: compressed and tense transforming fluidly through light and lifted and on and on and on. Hello, it’s nice to get to know you.
Feeling the personalities of birds was a realization. While walking through my neighborhood nearby the lake, I would look at a pigeon or magpie, often in the eye, and subtly read their body language as if I were passing a human on the sidewalk. Eventually, I started recognizing individual birds who nested and foraged for food at my morning sit spot.
I’m not totally convinced that I took time away from society solely due to restrictions of the pandemic. I had been slowly squaring up my attention to other-than-human beings for a few years and much of the research I conducted in the past four to five years was founded on ideas about the human relationship with non-human beings (like a river for example).
Getting to know other-than-human beings with the same mindset I hold when meeting people or groups of people helped me see more personality in those creatures. Now, I’m curious to reverse that mindset and start meeting humans with the lens of meeting non-humans. Lots of curiosity lurking there.
How blurry can we make this boundary👏?
I’m writing to remind us that there’s a lot of life on this planet, and we have a right, a privilege, and a responsibility to foster loving, playful, and genuine relationships with it. Go on, introduce yourself to someone new!