For the past month I’ve been observing broods of Canada geese on my walks along the Ruston Way Waterfront in Tacoma, Washington. The groups of goslings are always with two or four adults (sometimes more) and spend most of their time eating or resting. Occasionally I’ve observed the goslings, always flanked by adult geese, swimming for short distances along the shoreline and in streams created from stormwater runoff. I’ve noticed that their current travel range spans from the dock near the Lobster Shop restaurant to the thin expanse of grass just past the Holman Building. As I reach those points in my walk, I carefully scan the shoreline and lawn in the hopes of seeing the geese.
It has been interesting to see how quickly the goslings have matured. I’ve watched them grow in size and seen their feathers shift in color from a downy yellow to brown. I’ve also noticed how the adult geese are highly attuned to pedestrians and dogs. The park’s lawns, it turns out, give the birds open views of potential predators and are also a source of food.
As I watch the goslings I think about the concept of umwelt in relation to these Canada geese.
Umwelt is the “surroundings,” or “an organisms self-centered, subjective world, which represents only a small tranche of all available worlds” (de Wall as quoted in Rothman, 2015, p. 73). I was recently introduced to the concept of “umwelt”, or the perceived world, while reading the book Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon. There is a human umwelt, an eagle umwelt, a salmon umwelt, and a Canada geese umwelt. There is a unique umwelt for every living thing.
The Canada geese use and engage the Ruston Way Waterfront very differently than how I explore it as a human—they eat lawn grass and eel grass, swim, fly, and search for food amongst the rocks on the shore. The geese also engage the multiple layered surroundings of the waterfront—I’ve seen them in the sky, in the water, on the rocky shore, on the lawn, and even on the concrete pathway and dock. The “surroundings” in this location are complex with many different features. I wonder if sky, water, shore, lawn, and concrete are each a unique subjective world for the Canada geese—perhaps one organism might experience multiple umwelts.
Yoon (2009) argues that the human quest to name and classify the vast biodiversity on earth distances us from, rather than connects us to, the living things in our nearby surroundings. Because each organism has a unique umwelt it is very, very challenging for any organism to experience the environment from another organism’s perspective. For example, humans perceive the environment very differently from birds, worms, fish, and all other living things. Our senses, perceptions, and experiences give us access to some aspects of the environment, but not to other aspects.
I recently read a New Yorker article about two humans who tried to live as other animals (Rothman, 2015). One lived as a goat and the other lived as a fox and a badger. Their engagement, to experience another umwelt, moved beyond observing, ordering, and classifying, to actively engaging the tensions of human/non-human, predator/prey, body/soul, and stagnation/transformation. These two humans were in search of a lived-window into another life.
My walks and reading this month have supported me to consider the many different realities that exist in one environment. While I will never fully understand the umwelt of Canada geese, I can work to re-consider my surroundings from the multiple perspectives of the organisms that also make those same surroundings home. Engaging these multiple perspectives is at odds with the scientific effort to develop one coherent system of classification (Yoon, 2009). Classification “is the work of deciding and declaring what the world around us is and what our place is in it. To see and recognize living things—food, predators, friends, the structure of a forest, the sense of a meadow—is to ground yourself—to recognize reality” (p. 186).
It is awe inspiring to think about how many different and unique realities are lived and experienced on the Ruston Way Waterfront. As other humans and I stop to observe the geese perhaps we each hope for a glimpse into another life, another umvelt. I wonder: What do the geese experience that I do not? What do I experience that they do not? What do we have in common as we experience living?
Rothman, J. (May 30, 2016). The metamorphosis: What is it like to be an animal? The New Yorker, 70-74.
Yoon, C. K. (2009). Naming nature: The clash between instinct and science. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.