Some Philosophical Thoughts on Instinct

There’s something about this time of year, as (in the Northern hemisphere, at least) the Earth starts its tilt away from the Sun: the sunlight moves through the day faster; its angle bathes the greens in golden tones; the nights are cooler, clearer, starry; the morning dew burns into blue-skied sunshine by midday. On afternoon walks, I notice that the branches haven’t yet begun to burst into flames of color, but a few early-yellowing leaves have been blowing off our river birch. They speckle the lawn, not yet piles.

If Spring makes me feel hopeful, and Summer makes me feel centered, Fall makes me feel restless. At worst, this manifests in heightened anxiety and irritability…at best, in inspiration.

I’ve been thinking about this restlessness while watching the backyard animals and wondering if a part of my response to Fall is instinct. So far removed from the wild life, it’s hard to tell…but I’ve been thinking about what an instinct feels like to an animal. From the inside out, is it like an itch? An urge? A creative drive? 

One of the chipmunks that lives behind our garden boxes was spotted taking mouthfuls of leaf litter into its burrow recently. Beyond our ability to notice, his or her fur has already begun growing thicker. Instead of eating seeds in the sunshine, he or she has begun cacheing hazelnuts. I’ve noticed squirrels too, moving more purposefully than playfully this month. 

And the hummingbirds are a rare sight now. Theirs is the first migration I usually notice (by their absence), followed by the monarchs. The thought of just knowing when to go, and how, and where, when you weigh as much as a sheet of paper, is so awe-inspiring.

All this behavior is instinct. And, though we humans are more practiced at drowning it out, as fellow animals, we must have something of it, too, right?

So what’s the deep, wordless, magnetic wisdom our bodies direct us with this time of year? 

Planning Trees

Before we built our house, there were two dead Oak trees on the lot that we had to have cut down. They were in the way of where our house was going to sit and seemed like a magnet for lightning. Even knowing that, having them cut down pained me. Now, a dozen years later, we have about 30 trees of different kinds on our third of an acre (arborvitae, Japanese maples, Cleveland pears, smoke trees, a redbud, a flowering crabapple, a maple, an oak, a hydrangea, and a river birch). And this fall, we’re planning to plant more. 

There are so many reasons to plant trees– you only need one to spur you to action. (Incidentally, even if you do it yourself, it’s easier than you might imagine. I speak from the experience of, when our kids were tiny and our daylight hours were super busy, planting a tree by flashlight around 11pm at night.)

Trees purify the air we breathe, exchanging the carbon dioxide we exhale for the oxygen we inhale, and filtering dust and pollutants. They provide habitat for wildlife, each one nourishing and hosting communities of fungi, lichen, insects, birds, and mammals. They help the watershed by capturing rainfall and releasing it back into the atmosphere through evaporation…instead of letting rainfall run off over roads, eroding them, and picking up pollutants before going into streams, rivers, and lakes. Trees offer shade, cool the air, and reduce wind speeds. They reduce noise pollution, transforming the whoosh of traffic into the whisper of leaves in a breeze. As far as making a positive environmental impact, planting a tree (or ten) is probably the easiest, cheapest, and most environmentally significant thing most of us can do in our lifetime.

It’s also a good health decision. Trees help lower blood pressure and heart rate. They improve stress and anxiety, and help lift depression.

And undeniably, they stimulate our imaginations. When I was little, each tree was a castle I could climb into, play under, daydream in…I remember some favorite trees in as much detail as I do former houses. I even have favorite animated trees (the ones from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro). I still daydream under trees as often as I can (and, honestly, I still climb into one when the opportunity presents itself).

And unapologetically, I hug them.


I’ve been quieter than I’d like to be here lately. Last month, my grandmother died. She lived to be 96 (and a half) years old, and died peacefully at home. Her death was not unexpected, but it was still a loss, and in the weeks since, I’ve been experiencing time in that weird, sometimes-lengthened/sometimes-compressed way you do after a big event or transition. I feel like I need recalibrating.

Being outside usually helps my body snap back into sensing the season/month/day/time correctly, independent of a schedule, but I haven’t been spending as much time outdoors as I’d like either. After my grandmother’s passing, there were the arrangements, the visitation, the funeral, the luncheon…; then, a week-long parade of back-to-school season check-ups and appointments for me and my kids; I developed a skin issue that forced me to stay out of the sun and the prickly heat; then, it rained. I’m getting back to it, but I’m out of my usual rhythms.

My grandmother would not have ever thought of herself as an outdoorsy person, but (like a lot of people) she probably enjoyed nature more than she realized. When she was young, she loved lying in the sunshine and working on her tan; as a wife, mother, and grandmother, she planted flower beds and hosted backyard picnics; when she became home-bound, she loved to hear about my garden and its wildlife, and we set up a feeder outside her living room window so she could watch the birds (and deer, and squirrels) from her favorite chair.

Her favorite bird was the cardinal– I don’t know if because of its personality or its plumage…or just the fact that it is easily identifiable.

The other day, I saw one in the dawn redwood tree and, in spite of feeling out-of-sorts, I felt compelled to follow and photograph it. It kept finding great pockets of light, and it struck me as scrappy and cheery. I don’t believe it was a gift from my grandmother (what do I know?) but I do believe it was a gift, that a reminder of her visited me and recalled her.

A Little Rant on Behalf of the Vulnerable Among Us

Every Fourth of July, I wonder if (American) animals think it’s the end of the world. Imagine what not just one sparkler or firework smells and sounds and looks like to an owl or a deer or a bear or a mouse (or to any farm or domestic animal); imagine thousands popping up in all directions, in no apparent pattern; with little to no warning (unlike, say, storms or forest fires, which at least usually allow some opportunity to run for cover). These traditional celebrations are supposed to inspire pride and patriotism and gratitude for America…but, if you think of them from a different point of view, they’re terrifying.

I tell my kids that the way we treat those who are vulnerable among us says a lot; that you can tell a lot about someone by the way they treat the ill, the foreign-born, the downtrodden, the elderly, children, animals…among many others. That call to compassion and kindness is a challenge for all of us every day, I understand that. But a key to compassion is imagination, and imagination requires some effort.

It’s not just the animals who might feel like it’s the end of the world tonight. Think of veterans with ptsd, people living with anxiety, children with sensory disorders…think of people, if that helps you be kinder to animals (or animals, if it helps you be kinder to people). Does anyone deserve to feel paralyzing panic or a frenetic surge of survival instinct? A terror so great (even if irrational to others) that it triggers your freeze or flight or fight response?

I don’t think this compassion is unpatriotic. Would it be so controversial other days of the year? Other holidays? I love being a (hyphenated) American, but I can celebrate my patriotism in ways other than by burning and blowing stuff up.

Would it be so hard for our towns and cities to transition to quiet fireworks, set off only during certain hours (instead of all weekend long), in designated places (as far away from wildlife as possible)? And for friends and family to celebrate with picnics and stargazing (as an option)?

Some of my family members will be sitting outside watching the display tonight, but some of us will be inside, in the basement, with all the pets. I wish I could extend that offer of freedom from fear to other creatures who might need it.

Stay safe, everyone.

Desire Paths

Reader, here is where I confess that perfectly manicured lawns (and gardens) make me anxious. You will never (ever) find me using pesticide sprays; I will never be accused of over-mowing (on the contrary, sometimes when my husband or son plan to mow the grass, I distract or persuade them out of it).

I love the sight of clover, of grass that’s just tall enough to ripple in the wind like waves (or like fields in Studio Ghibli movies). Even in a tended garden, when I’m outside, I prefer my reminders of humanity to be subtle. And nature, though it has definite elements of symmetry and order, also leans into a fecund sort of untidiness.

And so, the grass over here is often longer (and greener!) than it might be elsewhere in the neighborhood. And recently, I’ve noticed that this has a new practical consequence: in a lawn a bit in need of mowing, the garden wildlife’s desire paths become easier to spot.

I first learned of “desire paths” years ago, when I read Dominique Browning’s book Paths of Desire: The Passions of a Suburban Gardener. Also called “desire lines” (or “free-will ways,” or “pirate paths,” or “social trails”), desire paths form out of the erosion of use and convenience, rather than out of design. Mostly, they have to do with the comings and goings of people.

But in the case of the most likely makers of desire paths in our garden (chipmunks and rabbits and squirrels), they lead between food source and cover. Hungry, then satisfied, their lightweight bodies are just heavy enough to part the sea of grass through innumerable round trips of gathering.

I love seeing these little open-air channels through the lawn. And, in trying to create a better environment to track the garden wildlife in, I love having an excuse not to mow too often.

Plus, existentially, these desire paths give me hope that all the little mundane movements all of us creatures make daily leave a mark in some way.

Graduating Squirrels

It’s graduation season, and over the past few days, we’ve had four young squirrels graduate from their drey to our garden. Their mother (a beautiful, chunky, slightly beleaguered-looking female– as many a good mother is) has been a regular at our feeders for a while and, last week, she introduced her children to our yard.

I haven’t knowingly observed juvenile squirrels before. The first thing that set them apart was that there was a group of them and it was mixed– some males and some females; I’ve seen groups of squirrels (apparently called “scurries”) before, but not mixed. Also, these four were talkative– making lots of chattering, buzzing sounds amongst themselves.

Individually, the young squirrels were bright-eyed and bold, climbing unnecessarily high and practicing branch jumping. Near the feeder though, they were tentative, not quite sure how to stretch so they could reach without slipping. I watched them for hours. Literally, hours (wildlife watching doesn’t seem all that engrossing til you try it).

And I took photos of them, of course. They didn’t mind my being nearby, or my camera; I wonder if their mother taught them I’m a safe human.

It felt like a privilege to get to watch them.

And like perfect timing. I’ve been thinking about a friend of mine who is graduating (and another dear friend, her mother, who is graduating her). I’ve been trying to think of the right words to gift them, to show them how proud I am to know both of them.

But maybe the best thing I can give them is the testimony that I saw them? That I watched them. In the same awed-quiet, delighted way I watch the squirrel family, glimpsing a bit of their inner workings from the outside.

I saw A be scrappy and vulnerable; incisive and funny; kind-hearted. I saw C be constant and unconditional; patient; inspiring and thoughtful. Though different in temperaments, both of them are remarkable. They are two of my favorite humans and their characters are shaped in relationship to each other.

Maybe witness isn’t much as gifts go, but it’s not nothing, noticing. Attention is affection, after all…and our eyes betray our preoccupations and our hearts.

I gave a commencement speech once before, a long time ago, but every year since, I’ve asked myself, if I could, would I add a coda?

It’s a wondrous and woeful world out there. We are all always new in it, through one phase or another. May we all see and watch out for each other.

People-Watching Animals

Recently, I’ve started collecting photos of backyard animals watching me watch them. I don’t mean our eyes meet across the yard as I’m photographing them going about their foraging/nesting/mating/romping activities; I mean I’m catching them chilling somewhere (usually on a branch or on the fence) expressly checking me out.

I spend a fair amount of time outside, sitting with my camera, trying to be quiet and emanate good energy and be aware of my surroundings. Animal watching is something I do for the purpose of education and enjoyment. It’s something I do daily, but as a choice, a hobby.

But if I were an animal, people watching would be a matter of survival. I’d have to be aware of where the humans were and what they were doing; if they were dangerous; if they had anything to eat… As humans encroach on animal habitats, and human-animal interactions become more frequent and common, people-watching becomes even more crucial for animals.

But let’s say an animal feels relatively safe in a backyard, and he has enough to eat and enough experience with the resident humans that he isn’t actively terrified of them…can people watching ever become fun for him? Is there a point at which a particular human can become better than benign?

In other words: am I imagining things or might any of these creatures find watching me entertaining?

And what do I look like to them?

A short list of what I have going for me as a potential people-watching target: my hair is drey-like; my skin coverings (also known as clothes) are often the colors of wildflowers; I sometimes smell like lavender; I emit a great variety of calls; I seem to have an additional arm (my camera) that I point and click at animals, but that’s otherwise harmless; I share food in the form of seeds and nuts (even better, sometimes I massively spill seeds and nuts while filling our feeders); I seem to have an alliance with a passel of dogs; I’m easy to spot; my burrow is large and above ground but I’m often just sitting outside it.

On the list of cons: I’m a person and maybe inherently suspicious.

And it’s because I’m a person that I think it’s important to remind myself that I can be watcher and watched one, that my time outdoors is a dialogue, that so much more than what I’m aware of is out there…that every day, I should open my eyes wider.