Here’s an unpublished thing I wrote as I started to write What I Don’t Know About Animals, a non-fiction book about animals and the way people imagine them, but which I didn’t put into the book.
In the wild…orangs have not provided ethologists with the glamorous behaviours that, say, Jane Goodall’s chimps have given her. I found no reports of orangs doing anything like the equivalent of fashioning special sticks to fish for termites, for instance. Orang observers instead report such exciting phenomena as the “fruit stare” which some people say is a function of the difficulty orangutans have foraging for food in the wild. Orangutans need to develop the fruit stare because trees can be coy about when, where, and how much they fruit, and the fruit is often hidden in the canopy of leaves. The fruit stare is an expression of reverie, but it is a reverie directed outward rather than inward – “like thinking with your eyes,’ naturalist Sy Montgomery has said. ‘That’s why they are so spaced-out.”
Vickie Hearne, Can an Ape Tell a Joke, Harper’s Magazine, Nov. 1993
The first lesson: finding. Actually, the only lesson: what you do when you find what you want is another lesson entirely, and not one that will be taught. Finding is a question of looking, my child. Of looking in the right way. That’s looking not to see, do you see, but to allow what you want to present itself to your vision. Vision is not the right word. It supposes the possibility of a lack of vision. There can be no lack of vision, otherwise how would you see anything, and without seeing anything…well, obviously what you can’t see doesn’t exist. To put it simply. Middle-distance staring better expresses it.
The trick of forest-dwelling is to reinvent the forest every day. Oh, for sure, the tree trunks hold firm and the branches can be grasped, in a quotidian sort of way, once you’ve grasped that some branches can be grasped better than others. But the fact of the matter is that every dawn, as the light troubles your eyelids open, it is necessary to re-make this solidity and reliability. It’s done by staring. Stare the trees straight, gaze the branches – the right ones – into weight-bearing. It takes time to build the forest. Start with the structure, the pathways, the upright, the horizontal. Make sure of them and then let them be. They are stared enough into existence. Brachiating is a leap of faith. Trust me.
Foliage is the hardest thing to stare. It takes the most gazing, the longest look. Foliage is where the living is done: the dream leafscape that creates the light – dim and dappled – and the damp greygreen air. Foliage is canopy and carpet, the key, the muddle from which what we want emerges. That is the point, remember? Finding what we want. First you have to stare the muddle into existence and then you have to look into the muddle for…well, for everything. Stare, then look, look and then stare. For those without understanding, it all looks like the same look. But the staring we do is not for staring at. Looking at looking is a mug’s game. The looking is inside the stare. The making behind the eyes. Look, you’ll see.
Don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t just happen. We’re not talking magic. Millennia of effort have gone into developing the gaze behind the stare, and every day the stare has to be reinvented before the forest can be brought into being. It’s a job of work. It’s what we do for a living, my child. Without us, no forest would imagined into existence, and without the forest there would be nothing to look for, nothing to want, no wanting. We are dedicated to desire, to finding what we want with our behind-the-scenes gaze, to marking the days between sunrise and sunset with the creation and perception of our desires. And all you have to do is stare, that easy look into the muddle, effortless, persistent, until out of the chaos of branch and leaf what we want emerges and you simply extend your long, sinewy arm, stretch your fingers towards it, and pluck it. Once you get the hang of it, you can do it with your eyes closed, my child.
2nd February 2009