You and Me and the River
I parked the van on a lip of pavement nestled between the river and the road. A portion of the field that ran along the water belonged to the wildlife reserve, though the entire field is hay, recently mowed by the neighboring farmer. The dog loved the place; I felt guilty if I didn’t bring her there to run off leash weekly. I rolled open the van door and the dog shot out, her snout already filled with stories of unknown things. She galloped ahead and I made my way behind, mincing through the prickly half stalks of hay toward the water. I found a relatively soft place to sit and the dog tossed herself into the river reeds and mud, immediately unseen.
I didn’t mean to have a profound experience. The scene was mundane — dog wallowing in river mud, hot sun baking the grass and the soil hiding beneath it, farmers repairing a tractor at the far edge of the field, small as ants. I was relieved to think that to them I was also tiny and inconsequential. They would register me only as human, the dog as dog. What was profound was how little was required of me — there was nothing to say, nothing to achieve or consider. I only had to wait while my dog had her due play, and then we would leave. There were no witnesses and with no witnesses I like myself the most.
When you see someone see you, you begin to sort yourself into the categories they’ve created to put you in. It’s a good instinct — to know where you stand with others. But we’re social creatures and the interpretation of others’ can quickly fill in any insecurities or naivete you may hold unless you persistently, consciously oppose those opinions. Or you can get on top of this weird dance by acting out a story, “Look at how friendly and meek I am,” or “Don’t mess with me.” Either way, society requires performance — of role, gender, class, etc. — or of assertion of one’s identity against the judgements of others. For those on an awkward border between identities, awareness of appearance/interpretation is constant.
I don’t hate myself, but I do hate the disingenuous dance I do with almost every person I interact with. Like most people who identify as LGBTQ, my appearance doesn’t easily fit into archetypal social categories. Perhaps, it would be less confusing for people if I appeared more ambiguous. But my face and body are categorically, extremely feminine. I could chop off my hair and wear androgynous clothing but that performance would only comfort a few people, and wouldn’t change the dance I have to do. It wouldn’t make me hate the dance any less.
In nature, this awareness is easily forgotten. How quickly do we lose the impulse to cover our mouths when we yawn when we’re alone? Our self-consciousness is replaced by a new set of priorities centering around a more basic self-preservation — our bodies are vessels for consciousness and we seek to sustain them. In contrast, the city is an aggressively human environment. We are constantly seen, though not necessarily recognized, and our sense of self can quickly be unmoored by the strange and insular schematics of human society.
When I first moved to New York I was, like everyone who moves to New York, terrified. I spent the first four months of my time there unemployed, spending most of my time whittling away my savings sitting in coffee shops. One day, seated in front of a large plate glass window inside a small vegan cafe in SoHo, I was surprised to see that every person who walked by the cafe — hundreds and hundreds of people — looked up at me as they passed. In a city in which direct eye contact is taboo and personal space is lusted after, this was shocking. I relished the rare opportunity to look strangers full in the face, one after the other, for hours.
Eventually, (and this probably occurred to you) I realized that they weren’t looking at me; they were looking at a reflection of themselves in the window. Every person passing that window succumbed to the impulse to see themselves, to witness themselves. We assume that a primary benefit of living among other humans is having witnesses to our own existence; to an extent, that’s true. However, the scale of most societies, more keenly felt because of our connections to — our witnessing of — each other on social media, leaves us seen yet unacknowledged (unless your appearance or celebrity is truly exceptional, and even then what is been acknowledged is merely your appearance or celebrity status). This amount of reflexive, superficial feedback can aggressively warp our sense of self and leave us unmoored by a sense of often fictional rejection. Our method of connection in such situations can be to perform ourselves, perform status, to be palatable and easily categorized, so that we may feel that we are really seen. But if what is seen is a performance, then we remain without witnesses. It takes enormous bravery to present oneself without performance and to let others’ confusion and rejection slide off you. I’m not so brave.
In the city, I sustained myself on bits of life that pushed their way through the artificial environment — ants, rats, cockroaches, window boxes on high up floors feeding on rare shafts of light, ragweed growing out of concrete, the perpetually addled pigeons and the hawks that fed on them, the round family of raccoons that pilgrimaged each night to the Cooper Hewitt to eat out of the trash cans. When a coyote was spotted wandering through the Upper West Side, I privately rejoiced (it escaped from the police unharmed, presumably making its way back over the Henry Hudson bridge). Driving home upstate, I would step out of the car into the cool, vibrant air and suddenly, nothing that I filled my life with mattered. My life was lived in these tiny moments when perspective shifted from myself to something greater.
Not to say that nature nullifies self. It only offers necessary perspective in determining what self is. We don’t exist in a vacuum — seeing ourselves in relation to other things is necessary in understanding ourselves. If we see ourselves in relation to only one type of thing — other humans — our identity is foreshortened. Moving as individuals through natural spaces, however, puts us in touch with how relatively inconsequential human values are.
In the hayfield, my dog sailed toward and then past me, checking in only briefly, her little body soaring through grasses, mud, and water. She moved from sensation to scent to investigation and back again, exploring all the little worlds contained in the bank of the brook. She existed in what she saw, I saw her, no one saw me. The sun was bright and merciless and for then I was content. I needed nothing, my language was for myself and for her, I did not exist.