Presidential 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
cousins do. They don't even seem to have that strict and uniform shifting motion of shorebirds in fl
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
indecisiveness. In other words, they provided me a kind of natural, visual, external counterpart to
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
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
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
afterwards. Well, whether or not we actually make conscious choices about our lives, it's certain th
like to think we do. After all, isn't that why we hold elections? And brant, hovering over a marsh,
us believe that we live in a world where decisions are made, or, if not made, are at least contempla