An Immense World, How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us.
In a sentence, this book is a sense by sense exploration of how animals sense the world differently than us. Sight, smell, feel, taste, electrosense, magnet-sense, etc. For example, we all know that dogs hear better than us. And that eagles see better than us. But it's not that simple. What the author does is break down every animals world view into a specific "Umwelt" or how they apprehend the world. There are chapters devoted to Smells and Tastes, Light, Pain, Head, Contact and Flow, Surface Vibrations, Sound, Echoes, Electric Fields, Magnetic Fields, Uniting the Senses.
Scallops have little eyes all around the outside of their shells that sense light. Butterflies can taste the things they land on with their feet. Catfish can taste the water around them with their skin. A chameleon's eyes move independently so it can see forward and back - and plenty of animals see different parts of the light spectrum than we do. In fact, many have ultraviolet markings that we can't see - like hummingbirds.
Bats can sense the infrared heat emanating from warm bodies, and of course use echolocation to hunt.
Otters and seals use their whiskers to sense the water-trails of fish and can track prey even when blinded - as can the bumps on an alligator's snout.
Elephants can identify the tread of familiar elephants through the pads of their feet. Whales can communicate using low-pitched infrasonic calls. It's conjectured that in quieter times, they could communicate across entire oceans.
And it's not just that some animals have different seeing or smelling or taste than we do - they have entirely different senses that we don't - like echolocation, and migrating birds can sense the the earth's magnetic fields - and we're not even sure how. Loggerhead turtles can do this, too.
Many insects and birds communicated with sounds we can't hear or - this was an ear-opener - through the vibrations of plants leaves. They can communicate with potential mates, or feel the approach of chewing prey.
Some animals are insensitive to cold so that they can hibernate all winter and the naked mole rat doesn't feel burn from the chemical that makes chilis hot.
This one made me appreciate what it means to share our planet with animals. And made me rethink what it means to be human. That sounds a bit dramatic, and it wasn't like a complete 180 degree change in my thinking - but it reinforced much of what I already felt and taught me many new specifics.
I guess every book changes your life just a little. But this one can change your life for good, and for the good. There isn't a day when I don't think about what I learned from this book and how it opened my senses to a more open and nuanced way of perceiving the world around me. As I ride my bike along Highland, I feel the wind on my skin - the coldness and the breeze. I hear the wind in the trees and birds. If it's dark - as it is at this time of year, I'm ware of the lights and distance sounds of traffic and trains. I think about how those noises affect the animals that I can't see, driving them further into darkness.
I think about it when I'm running or riding my bike in the pre-dawn darkness - when I see the deer, rabbits and the occasional fox gliding silently in the distance.
And finally, I think about it a lot when I'm writing about my time sailing with my father, and all the senses that go into boat racing - sight, sound, feel and most importantly the feel of the boat under me, which is a combination of balance, proprioception and the feel of motion and micro-impacts of wave action and the tug of wind and current – proprioception, I term I've been introduced to by doing yoga with my online teacher, Flo Niedheimer, of Breathe and Flow.
This book taught me about senses I don't have an expanded the imagination. And it made me more thoughtful about the senses that I do have.
I went out to see my mother recently - she has dementia now, and she always had some neurological quirks - left-right problems, and prone to malapropisms. Watch out for the presbyterian in the crosswalk, that kinda stuff. But I was about to take the learning from this book and apply it to the fact that she was able to helm a dragon class racing sailboat for years - because she rode horses. The connection to the sailboat was the same - a feel thing that transcended logic and what we think of as the normal senses.
It was a good moment, to watch her light up.