A Cape Cod Notebook 3/4/08

listenPresidential Primaries and Primary Feathers

(A Cape Cod Notebook is now available as a podcast).

By Robert Finch

In this week of important presidential primaries, I found myself thinking of an encounter I had las t week with some winter waterfowl. The encounter caused me to reflect on the nature of choice, or rather, on the relationship of human choice to the natural world. It occurred on Eastham's Coast Gua rd Beach, on a bright, sparkling winter?s morning.

As I walked along the inner side of the beach, I saw a large flock of brant pass overhea d. Brant are sort of smaller cousins of Canada geese, quite common here during the winter months. There were more than two hundred birds in this flock, heading north, uttering their frog-like calls. Unlike the Canada geese, who fly in their familiar V-formation, brant flocks fly in no strict design; rather, t hey maintain the kind of shifting cohesiveness of rapidly moving clouds.

The brant flew to the northern end of the marsh and then hovered there, circling one spo t for thirty seconds or more. They moved on around the rim of the marsh several hundred yards to the south, then paused again, hovering, still not landing. Then they moved on again to another spot, hovering again. And so on. I watched them repeat this pattern for ten minutes or more before I fina lly lost sight of them far to the south.

As I watched them, I thought of the brant?s behavior as "indecisive," because, well, tha t's what it looked like. But then, I wondered, how do brant "decide" anything? How, for instance, do they decide , as a flock, whether or where to land? They have no discernible leader, as their larger, Canada goos e cousins do. They don't even seem to have that strict and uniform shifting motion of shorebirds in fl ight that suggests a kind of psychological unity. Instead, they seem, in flight, more like communities of individuals with common tendencies. But then, "who" decides where and how they move in flight? Or does it even make sense to ask such a question of brant?

It occurred to me that their behavior was not so much in fact "indecisive," as that it s uggested indecisiveness. In other words, they provided me a kind of natural, visual, external counterpart to an inner human process - that of being indecisive. This suggested to me that it might have been from watching such sights in nature that we originally derived our concept of the psychological states of 'decisiveness" and "indecisiveness." That is, our minds may have developed certain abstract notions about how we think -decisively or indecisively - through the observation of certain natural phenomena such as the flight of brant. Now I realize this may sound rather abstract and far-fetched, but it?s at least possible that we've fashioned our ideas about human identity - about who we are an d how we think - from natural experience, much as we make lumber from trees.

Of course, it remains a question whether we ourselves actually make conscious decisions in life any more than brant do. Do we really decide things, make conscious and reasoned choices? Or do we simply yield to certain currents of events - shifts in wind or passions - and then try to make up re asons afterwards. Well, whether or not we actually make conscious choices about our lives, it's certain th at we like to think we do. After all, isn't that why we hold elections? And brant, hovering over a marsh, help us believe that we live in a world where decisions are made, or, if not made, are at least contempla ted.