Perception and the Platypus
By Jay Johnston
I was desperate to see a platypus. Standing on riverbanks I would look out, simultaneously expectant and forlorn, scanning for signs of this notoriously shy monotreme. The platypus eluded me until I was taught how to see platypus. The onus, all along, was on me to actively cultivate my perceptive skills. I needed to learn how to read the river surface, the play of light and object, before these glorious animals could come into view. Thankfully, Nipper, platypus guide and member of La Trobe Landcare group (Tasmania), was ready to assist, and in an hour, my vision and life expanded.
Platypus are magic in a fur suit with webbed feet and a duck-bill!
It is just one of Australia’s many iconic mammals. But as the global, sixth great age of extinction continues apace, Australia leads the way causing amongst the highest rate of mammalian extinction. Not a leader-board worth topping. Statistics of loss can overwhelm and stultify as we try to engage the diverse occupants of the natural world generously and ethically. And harder still, we are struggling to care for life forms we can’t perceive or experience.
I’ve been fascinated — academically and personally — by Charles Foster’s account of learning to be an animal as recounted in Being a Beast (2016). In this text he describes how, through research into the physiognomy of the specific animal species and by consciously cultivating their life ways, he sought to experience the world as would a badger, a red deer, an otter, a fox, and a common swift. From living in a sett and eating earthworms to fossicking in city bins for discarded leftovers, Foster sought to experience the animal’s sensorium. In preparation for his “fieldwork,” he trained his perceptive skills to, for example, refine his sense of smell.
I’ll spare you my philosophical musings on this project. However, for this natter’s purpose, what resonated deeply was that changing our embodied habits allows us to experience the world differently and to know animal-others newly. That is, altering perception results in new types of knowledge. While a human can never be another animal species — maintaining and respecting that difference is an ethical imperative — cultivating our perceptive skills allows us to perceive them more accurately and in many cases, for the first time. One moment of connection in “nature” can reorient a life.
Shifts in perception allow us to change daily habits — what we routinely pay attention to, the effects we (and the systems that support our lives) have on our environment. I know that, in order to keep having enthralling times watching the platypus, there need to be healthy waterways, which means policies that reduce pollution. Seeing the platypus means seeing the health of waterways as a priority.
This mode of vision is not about the swift glance, the quick absorption of stimulation, but about bringing consciousness and attention to our practices of looking, smelling, hearing, and touching. Visual art, of course, has long taught viewers to be conscious of their scopic regimes, to consider the way that artwork compels them to view an object in certain ways or plays with their visual field. This attention to the process of viewing makes us more conscious of the dynamics of our relations.
The effects of changes to our perceptive skills can be long-lasting. Learning to “sit with” experiences that challenge our usual mode of being, without dismissal but with an attitude of respect and curiosity, deepens our capacity to manage difference. We learn to gently apprehend truly alien, utterly different creatures. We allow them to be present.
The perceptive skills developed in watching platypus might just help with human politics — with negotiating human difference. I am no “Pollyanna.” Such new perceptions are not always welcome or comfortable. Learning to meet difference with openness and patience is hard work. However, examining our routine — unconscious — ways of perceiving and relating to the world and being open to change will allow us to appreciate and connect with much more of the world’s splendid diversity both human and non-human. It also makes us more aware of how interconnected we are with our surroundings. This realization brings increased responsibility to care for our expanded life orbit.
I can find platypus on my own now although I prefer to share the experience. They are still shy and elusive as is their nature, so any encounter is always a treasure. Each time they wiggle into view I am reminded that the experience is only possible because I was willing to be shown a new way of looking and to actively learn about different life-ways. We need policies that protect environments, reduce pollution, and support learning about the many different ways we can ethically engage with the natural world.
Jay Johnston is Associate Professor in the Department of Studies in Religion, University of Sydney. An interdisciplinary scholar her academic work is at the interface of philosophy/religion/arts. Among her current projects is an examination of New Nature writing as an ethico-spiritual practice; the longer-term effects of wildlife tourism on wellbeing, creativity and worldview; and the legacy of antiquarian thought on concepts of place, identity and nature in Cornwall and the Scottish Highlands. She has also been obsessed for many years with ‘alternative’ perception and its rendering in academic discourse.
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