I visited St. Luke’s campus of Exeter University a couple of days ago. I’ve been there many many times before, but this time it felt different. There are always Herring Gulls wandering around on the grass or perched up on the tops of the roofs, and they’re always squawking and shrieking. But this time their calls just felt different somehow. I must be attuned to how they call, but without having consciously understood the sounds and rhythms. Because this time it was definitely different, and I picked up on it instantly. So I watched them. They were not sitting still and shrieking confidently, as if marking out their own space. They were flying around quickly and nervously, quickly scanning behind themselves, looking around furtively. They looked uncomfortable.
I couldn’t stop and watch the gulls because I had come to sit the viva for my PhD. So I went in to the college and, to cut a long story very short, sat my viva. While the jury sat out on my viva, I went outside again to get some air and have a wander. I walked from one side of the campus to the other, to go to the little shop (not a big campus!) to buy an apple. And then I saw something that made a lot of sense. A man was walking with a falcon on his arm. I have photographed Peregrine falcons before, in the wild, but have never really seen a falcon close-up before. So I stopped to talk with the man, entranced by his bird. He explained that his falcon was a Gyr Saker Falcon, and that he was just unsettling the Herring Gulls. A bit of an understatement there, as the shrieks from the gulls told me that every Herring Gull within half a mile or so was terrified.
That’s kind of the end of my story. I spent five minutes or so talking with the falconer and having a close look at his falcon. He explained how their beaks work (they break necks), how the talons work (they can break necks too). We exchanged some stories. I’ve spent maybe 100 hours watching the Exeter Peregrines! (Peregrines nesting in a church in Exeter), so I told him about having watched the falcons dive on Herring Gulls – which I’ve photographed!
But the end of my story is probably that I didn’t link my initial feelings (of the gulls being uncomfortable) with my later experience (seeing the falcon), until later on in the day. The viva had taken my full attention, so the stuff with gulls was just background. It goes to show that my feelings were true, because I did feel that there was something amiss with the gulls. If I hadn’t have seen the falcon later on I would never have pieced together the whole story. I would probably have forgotten that the gulls sounded strange, and I would have just let it go.
I don’t think people credit their feelings strongly enough. Or, at least, a lot of people don’t credit their feelings much. But we’re designed to live in a landscape inhabited by the warning calls of animals and birds. We’re designed to pick up on these slight nuances of calls, because these sounds and smells warn us of dangers. We’ve evolved to be predated upon.
My second thought, my theory point, is that to think, to theorize, is so often to piece experiences together afterwards. It’s to work backwards – to think ‘what happened then?’ Because at the time, you might sense something (such as different sounds – feelings of fear) and act on it. You only have time to understand it later on, if you even get the chance. If I hadn’t have actually seen the falcon, for example, I never would have known why the gulls seemed different. I think that theorizing is so often to work back from experiences, and yet many theorists don’t give enough credit to this process. Doing my PhD, for example, I was expected to set research questions and then respond to them, as if that’s a valid way of thinking and theorizing. WTF? Life isn’t experienced as research questions.
A fascinating and appalling addendum to this story is the story of a woman who was almost mauled to death by a Grizzly bear. She had a feeling that something was very wrong, just before she was attacked. Maybe she heard warning calls from other animals, or she could sense the smell of a kill etc. Whatever, she regretted not heeding her feelings:
As they passed into a dense pine forest, Patricia had a sense of foreboding. Something was not right. Trevor called her paranoid, and they resumed their climb. It was a popular trail. There seemed no reason for concern. Yet as they came into view of a waterfall, Patricia stopped again. An awful smell hit her, but Trevor dismissed it. A bighorn sheep had died just off the trail and though she didn’t know it, she could smell its decomposing body. Patricia worried aloud about bears, but Trevor’s enthusiasm won out and they pressed on up the trail.