Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Examined Life

It was another backyard massacre.

But you will just have to take my written word for it this time. There are no photographs. In the interest of documentary journalistic integrity Mars and I chose not to take them.

It was around twelve PM on Día de los Muertos. We had just returned home from our morning chores and decided to take a quick tour of our estate to see if any tricks had been perpetrated against our property by the prior evenings costumed mendicants.

There was no damage to the pumpkins in the area leading up to and around our walk-thru candy window so we started to stroll into our backyard (which given the sideways positioning of our home relative to its lot is actually our upper side yard).

The barbeque was in tact. But just beyond the Weber kettle, in the noontime shadow of an eight-foot tall bush, was a shape that did not belong there -- the identity of which I could not immediately decipher.

I stopped and was in the process of telling Mars to do the same when the unknown image
became clear to my brain.

"It's a hawk."

It was a young, smallish raptor -- dark gray and white. And it was focused intently the dismemberment of a similarly colored pigeon, the plucked feathers of which formed a white, downy altar for the sacrifice.

It saw us and hopped a few feet away leaving its kill at the crime scene. We retreated into the house to get Mars' camera.

The hawk returned before we did and was now struggling to lift its heavier-than-expected prey up off the ground in order to fly away to a less crowded dining area. It managed, with great effort, to get about fifteen yards across the grass and into the moderately sheltered thicket of bushes and short trees that surround our compost bins.

Mars was reluctant to pursue the picture but I asked for the camera and stalked carefully up to the small copse d'compost.

I saw neither hide nor hair of the victor or its victim. But I did notice two instances of rustling brush and bending branches moving away from the woodlot and into our autumn yellow-and-green hosta bed.

It was then that Mars expressed her concern for the frustrated falcon's futile efforts to make a getaway, and her belief that my incipient paparazzi-ing was altering the naturalness of the situation.

It was an argument that I understood quickly and with which I was in complete agreement -- particularly since my continued cinematic activities would do absolutely nothing to (a) help the pigeon who was irredeemably deceased or (b) enhance the harried harrier's gustatory experience.

Over the years we have been on several whale watches and each time I have wondered if we offshore interlopers actually were observing the natural behavior of these large marine mammals, or instead their unnatural learned reactions to being spied on.

In Physics this is known as the "Observer Effect" - " changes that the act of observation will make on the phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner. A commonplace example is checking the pressure in an automobile tire; this is difficult to do without letting out some of the air, thus changing the pressure. This effect can be observed in many domains of physics."

And I would suspect also in whales and falcons.

Psychologists likewise talk about the "Hawthorne Effect" -- "whereby subjects improve or modify an aspect of their behavior being experimentally measured simply in response to the fact that they are being studied, not in response to any particular experimental manipulation.

"The term was coined in 1950 by Henry A. Landsberger when analysing older experiments from 1924-1932 at the Hawthorne Works (a Western Electric factory outside Chicago). Hawthorne Works had commissioned a study to see if its workers would become more productive in higher or lower levels of light. The workers' productivity seemed to improve when changes were made and slumped when the study was concluded. It was suggested that the productivity gain was due to the motivational effect of the interest being shown in them. Thus the term is used to identify any type of short-lived increase in productivity."

But our backyard observation seemed to be having an "Anti-Hawthorne Effect", i.e. stage fright.
So, concerned about upsetting the balance of nature, we put the camera aside and went inside to have our own less violent and but equally carnivorous lunches.

"The unexamined life is not worth living." Plato quotes Socrates as saying at his trial. A true philosopher would rather die than give up philosophy.

"The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the life too closely examined may not be lived at all," rejoined Mark Twain hundreds of years later.

It is a much easier, and a lot more fun, to be the watcher rather than the watch-ee.

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