“Whoa. Pema. Look.” I thrust my arm so that it pointed through the windshield. We had just crested a familiar rise along the dirt road that winds from our house on the valley floor to the mesa above, a road so familiar that I would notice if a rock was out of place. But these weren’t rocks. Whatever they were, and however many, they were alive. “Pema!”
“I know, I see!” Pema answered excitedly from the back seat.
My foot eased off the gas. “What are they?” I said out loud, fairly certain I was looking at something unusual. But the animals, now two hundred feet and closing, were not easily distinguishable from the road. Wherever they moved, and they were moving, their gray-brown coats were impressively matched to the desert hues. My mind flashed – coyotes. But no, something didn’t match. Then again, in rapid fire: stones, car, steering wheel, daughter, dogs, coyotes. Mountain lion? We continued rolling forward.
Realizing that the animals might soon disappear, I began to grow anxious, so that beyond the basic patterns of observation I now felt the forces of self-doubt crowding my perception. Not good enough, Joe. Faster. My eyes darted around, searching the animals for clues – ears, legs, color, shape – while I countered my self-doubt with yet another voice – Calm yourself. Pay attention. Look. Hardly two seconds had passed since I was lazily driving up the hill to school, and now my mind was already overstuffed with competing thoughts. Acumen is, perhaps, more about what not to pay attention to than what to pay attention to. You are driving a car, Joe, and your daughter is in the backseat.
If you move too close, they will run away. “Yes, Pema?” If you wait too long...
Neither of us said another word. My arm, still pointed through the windshield, retracted in an effort to reshape and iterate the substrate of my mind. You are looking at a visual field. You are operating a vehicle, which continues to roll forward. This is real. Your daughter is behind you, slightly to the right, in the same vehicle. You are both buckled in. The earth before you is one solid object, more or less, made up of stones and crushed stones belonging to a road. There are sage plants and chamisa immediately to the side of the road, and these plants blow in the wind but do not move, bodily, left and right. There are animals in your field of vision, animals that resemble the earth and the plants, but these do move left and right, forward and back. They are not four and not one. It is likely two. Separate them into objects, stay on the road, and ignore everything else. You have approximately three discrete objects to track – earth, animal, animal. It had now been three seconds.
One might laugh at the banality of such statements, or this lengthy account, but something in that moment stuck with me. Surely, much of this layering of reality happened unconsciously, in mere microseconds, but, ignorance in hand, I needed to sculpt this level of certainty from out my field of vision in order to determine, with rapid precision, what to focus on. I knew that I would not have long. Visual processing is a rich and multi-layered process, some of which is conscious and some of which is not, forming a parfait of experience through which my mind was now sorting in rapid order to extract the objects – now two, decidedly two – upon which I needed to direct my focus.
This kind of processing happens instantly in most situations, so that we hardly need be aware of it, but moments like these - staring at uncertain numbers of uncertain creatures - reveal the subtle ways we construct reality by directing our focus, and not simply of one's visual field. Point is, I was not only watching and deciphering the animals. I was watching and deciphering myself. And driving a car. And hoping my daughter would notice the animals. This layering of human experience, while mundane in one sense, absolutely astounds me.
Suddenly, one of the animals turned. It was somewhat larger than the other, and closer. As it turned from left to right, I saw what I thought was perhaps a shoulder blade protrude from the animal’s back, then sink back into the flesh. It was calm (unlike me), and its face peered at us momentarily – squarish, with two perky ears – before the animal completed its rotation and began slowly retreating toward the right side of the road. To my left was a large field with untold acres of sage, mullein and dry grass. In its midst was a large but uninhabited house. To the right, the direction in which the animal calmly fled, was a steep and rocky cliff. This was, in all likelihood, the direction from which it had come.
I watched the legs of the dog-sized animal, now convinced that it was no dog. Or coyote. Its movements were catlike, slow and precise, with the soft, yet hunched power that belies a feline. I could also make out dark spots or stripes on its legs, which were less distinct on its back and sides. Mirror neurons in my own body fired in kind, and even as I continued to pilot the car I felt the movement of my apelike limbs rehearsing that of the animal before me. I pictured my own shoulder blade, rising and falling, and the integrated movement of my spine. A cat. And my goodness, such a big one.
The second animal now turned. It was smaller, though not by much, and as it retreated in the direction of the first I guessed they were a mother-child pair. Maybe a yearling. Meanwhile, we were growing close, quite close. “Pema, I think…” I began to say, then stopped myself as the second cat made its full rotation. There, on the rump, lay the unmistakable sign: a short, bobbed tail.
“Bobcats!” I shouted, “Pema, those are bobcats! Do you see the tail?”
“Yes, Daddy! Yes!” she shouted. Her enthusiasm echoed my own, and now, having properly identified the animals and shared the common knowledge, the emotional content of my mind settled back pleasantly and coasted, like the car, as we watched for two, maybe three, more seconds as the animals slinked into the sagebrush and disappeared.