Although I traveled extensively as a child—hitting forty-nine states, all but one of the Canadian provinces, and every American country as far south as Nicaragua, all before I was ten—I gained my love of nature, learned how to think, name, and categorize, gained the tangible basis upon which symbolic meanings were to be posited, and for that matter discovered who I was mainly in the window-wells and backyard of my home, and beyond that in a pasture, and beyond that in an irrigation ditch. I learned far more from the toads and salamanders who lived in the window-wells than I did from all the vacations, all the hikes, all the backpacking, all the four-wheeling, and yes, all the visits to natural history museums and zoos (both of which seemed even at the time to be neither more nor less than mausoleums, one bona fide, the other only slightly premature). I learned from the grasses, ants, and grasshoppers in the pasture, the snakes and crawdads in the irrigation ditch. The lessons and encounters weren’t all that extraordinary. And that is precisely the point. We were just neighbors.
I can hear your voice already, somewhat incredulous, “Don’t go to a zoo?” you ask, “Just go outside? That’s boring.”
Good, I respond. Boredom, like confusion, can be a good state. So long as you’re not being manipulated, confusion merely means you’re thinking about something you’ve never before thought of. You’re lost, and you’ve yet to find your way. Similarly, so long as you’re not artificially confined, boredom simply means you’ve not yet found what you want to do. You’re lost, just as with confusion, and you’ve yet to find your way. As such, boredom, like confusion, can be an important preparatory step toward new understanding or action, so long as the process isn’t prematurely aborted—that is, so long as you have the courage and patience to not bail out too early. If you’re bored and you don’t like the feeling, you’ll soon enough find something to do. Or maybe someone will find you to say hello. In fact, I don’t think it’s too much to say that boredom plus freedom often leads to creativity.
Joseph Campbell said I think something similar, though in a far more scholarly way: “And absolutely indispensable for any such development is that separation from the demands of the day which all educators—until recently—understood to be the first requirement for anything approaching a spiritual life.” Separation from the demands of the day equals leisure equals time to get bored equals time to pass through being bored to come to understand what you want to do.
Boredom—when one is not confined (I am explicitly excluding human and nonhuman prisoners)—can also be simply a slowing down. We are so accustomed, from zoos, from nature programs, from television in general and even more generally from the speed of this culture, to things happening on command. I send an email and I want it to arrive in Bangkok right now. I turn on the television and I want to see a movie right now. But snakes and spiders run on their own time, a slower time. If you see a spider on a nature program, you’re pretty much guaranteed she will kill something—or rather, someone—during her few moments of screen time. But just right now I’m looking at spiders on my wall and ceiling. The spiders are sitting, sitting, sitting. They sit for hours, sometimes days. I often wonder what they’re thinking. I’ll probably never know. I certainly won’t know unless they tell me. And even if they tell me I won’t perceive it unless I’m paying attention, and unless I’ve learned at least a little of their language. And that, once again, is precisely the point.
Hummingbirds and whirligig beetles, too, run on different time. Theirs seems a faster time, as they’re always moving, spinning, doing something. They always seem breathless, or maybe it’s just that watching them makes me lose my own breath. And what are the hummingbirds thinking as they swoop above my head, chirping? What are the whirligig beetles contemplating as they dance? It’s the same answer as with the spiders, and the same crucial point.
As children know, boredom is a non-issue anyway. The one time as a child I came in from the pasture to complain to my mom I was bored, she said, “Good. Why don’t you clean the dirty dishes in the sink? After that the garden needs weeding, and after that….” It worked. I never again complained of boredom.
Now I can hear your voice again. This time you say, “That’s all very good for you, Mr. Hayseed Goatroper Country Boy, but what about those of us who live in cities? Your idea doesn’t do shit—something else you’re probably familiar with—for us.”
I responded to this question while sitting on the grass in between Highway 101 and the McDonald’s parking lot. I wanted to go to the outdoor place in this town that was the least hospitable to life and see what I would see. It was a tough choice. Wal-Mart or McDonald’s, which is more toxic?
I drove in to town, stopping by the post office. At first all I noticed was the large number of apes, this being five days before Christmas. They were of the genus Homo, species sapiens sapiens (the second sapiens added by taxonomists to make sure we get the joke). Some consider them a class of animal entirely separate from all others, called, I believe, Homo supremus supremus supremus maximus but more accurately labeled Homo domesticus. It’s always been clear to me, however, that they are simply Homo sapiens [sic], apes wearing clothes, and in this case standing in line to mail Christmas presents.
But then a fly landed on my backpack, and stayed with me all through the line. Even when I pulled my checkbook from the pack the fly didn’t leave, but walked away from my hand. From the post office I went to the bank. More apes there, but the fly still hung out on my pack. I went back to my truck, and on to the McDonald’s parking lot.
I have to admit that when I got here things looked pretty bleak, even boring. More apes, of course, but they’re so common that sometimes I don’t even notice them anymore. The only interesting thing I saw at first was a circle A for anarchy on a concrete wall, but that’s just another human symbol. I plopped down on the grass near some weeds waving in the winter wind, and considered giving up my project before it started. I didn’t think anyone would be here. But soon I noticed the tiniest red flower on a short and slender green stalk, and the shoots of other plants preparing for next spring. No animals, though. Then suddenly a giant bumblebee crawled from beneath the weeds, made her way under and over twigs to the edge of the grass, began flying, circled the weeds two or three times, and took off to the east, over the top of the McDonald’s. Something clicked inside, and I was able to see and hear the animals all around. Spiders hunkered in the grass, I heard ravens over the sounds of cars and trucks on 101, and I saw a crippled seagull standing on one leg in the parking lot. His other foot was curled and useless. Sparrows hopped beneath cars.
Life is everywhere, even in cities. Even in cities we can see creatures who are still wild and free, who can remind us that not all creatures are slaves. There are parks, there are alleyways, there are vacant lots, there are streams, rivers, and ponds, there are birds, there are insects. This culture has polluted and harmed so much land that it sometimes becomes easy to think of unspoiled places as sacred and polluted places as sacrifice zones. But the truth is that all places are sacred. Beneath the pavement life is still there, waiting for us to remember. Or if we fail to remember, waiting for us to die off. In either case, life persists, even in seemingly barren places. Never forget that.
“But,” I hear you again, “bumblebees and seagulls are boring. My child wants exciting animals.”
I’m not sure how watching an insane bear or a drowsy lion or a tiger who paces and paces on concrete is more exciting than seeing wild creatures flying, hopping, crawling: doing what wild creatures do. Why are the animals at home so much less worthy? Is it because these others are from far away, and therefore become “a symbolic representation of the conquest of all distant and exotic lands”? Is it because the local animals are not in cages, and therefore not under our control?
I’ve known people—and perhaps this pertains to the same point—who took their children to zoos to see animals, and then came home and poisoned pigeons. I’ve also known people who bought their children glassed-in ant-farms, then stopped at the hardware store to buy some Raid.
Perhaps taking children to zoos to see the shells of bears when bears once walked free on this same land is to yet again teach them the wrong lesson. Perhaps if children wish to see grizzly bears we should tell them the truth: “This culture massacres them and destroys their habitat. You cannot see grizzly bears because members of this culture choose this way of life over the health of their landbase.” Perhaps this would be a good time to teach your child about the consequences of destructive behaviors: if you extirpate species, you won’t be able to enter into relationships with them. Perhaps this would be a good time to teach your children they can’t have it all: you can’t dispossess, terrorize, and destroy wild animals and expect them to welcome you. Perhaps this would be a good time to teach your children that the world and its inhabitants weren’t made for humans to exploit.