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  • Writer's pictureMadeline Shann

The Canine Gaze

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

As you can probably tell I am new to photography. I don’t have a natural knack for it, and no technical or artistic context really about what I should be going for. I can see things with my eyes and think “hey, that’s nice! I will try and catch that in my camera!” But I don’t know how to arrange things, I don’t know about light and movement, I don’t anticipate, and really I have not the first idea about what all these settings do.

But I took my camera out, and walked around the park. The weather was utterly beautiful. Real dream weather for the season, and the colours were absolutely gorgeous. The park had turned itself into an autumn wonderland.

And it’s incredible what happens when carrying the camera. Suddenly the concentration of looking, seeking, it’s such a lovely way to be present. It reminded me a little bit of the story The Dog Beneath the Skin from Oliver Sacks’ book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, where a man develops hyperosmia, an incredibly powerful sense of smell, and finding himself sensitive to much more information about the world, finds life suddenly more detailed and fascinating: “It was like a visit to another world, a world of pure perception, rich, alive, self-sufficient, and full”.

As walker’s dogs ran excitedly through the grass, through the leaves, around tree trunks, investigating, checking, reading the detailed micro-stories of every single thing in their path, that’s also how I felt.

I love walking through the park or through the woods with friends, but as I blast my brain with screens and fill it with information more and more, I’ve developed a habit of slipping into soft focus, of being easily distracted. Talking without listening, listening without looking, looking without seeing, thinking about work and my social life and petty concerns and other minutiae which occupy so much front-brain space.

I’ll stop for an obviously gorgeous vista, or get excited about a jay or a kestrel, and these things are fantastic, of course, but there is so much more to being here, around other living beings than just the showstoppers.

With my camera for a dog’s nose, I was energised, focused, overjoyed. The thrill of looking, chasing, discovering. What’s this? Is it interesting? What about over here? What’s it like by the water? What if I get up really close? What if I go upside down? And suddenly the world is new and there is so much information, and detail, and nuance, and it feels as though you are shrinking, getting such close perspective on these tiny things, a patch of moss becoming a lush green rolling field, a toadstool becomes towering architecture, making mountains out of molehills.

Coming back into this process of creative investigation, outside, after what feels like a lifetime of doing all of the admin and none of the artwork, feels amazing, feeling my brain poke out its antannae and swivel them around, feeling ideas start growing, and forking in different directions, and branching out and out and out.

It makes me think of how robbed we are, and how we rob ourselves, when we downplay the importance of creativity for creativity’s sake. It also made me think of the chapter in Feral I’m reading, about how children in the UK are able to play outdoors so little now. Such a key time, when your imagination is at its most potent, when you are so close to the ground, when you are discovering things for the first time. To not be there, paying attention to detail, investigating, getting up-close and personal, playing, at such a crucial part of your development. Maybe the effects haven’t been noticeable right away, but I think they are there and I expect them to be profound, and I just hope not irreversible. It’s difficult, I find, to get back to that sense of play, of embedding and immersion into the habitat, as if we belong there, which of course we do.

I’m taller now, more unwieldy. There’s a certain type of play you stop being able to do as an adult. That shared and completely immersive world-building. Its a magic state we strive to get to in devising in theatre, and improvising in dance. But it is virtually impossible to strip out all the context of adulthood. It’s challenging to embrace this without faking it, I find. Or at least, feeling like you’re faking it. “Wilfully Zany” as Daniel Kitson once put it, in his show Its The Fireworks Talking, about feeling the genuine urge to hug a sculpture on the beach, and hesitating because he knew how it would look.

True engagement is unthinking. (Unthinking is hard. Absent-minded, distracted, all these I can do!)

This removal of children from nature has come at the worst possible time, as it is more crucial than ever that we feel, really feel just how truly intertwined our fate and the fate of the rest of the living world are. That we are a part of each other.

There’s no need to overly-romanticise, the generations before mine, even prehistoric people, didn’t let a closer relationship with the living planet stop them wiping out entire species of megafauna, cutting down vast swaths of forest, but who knows what might have been different if the planetary alarm had fallen on the ears of people who could already tell how much was lost, how much had changed and how quickly, what damage costs. If they felt that the “environment” was not a wishy-washy bleeding-heart liberal luxury, but something that belonged to them, and that they in turn belonged to.

It becomes so clear how much of this enchantment is unlearned, how so much of our emotional investment and sense of value in our environment is lost through just a serious lapse in concentration, a lack of attention. For me certainly an addiction to tiny, acute hits of dopamine from silly, empty calorie newness - a new message, a new interaction, a “like” - and the constant tugs of stresses, tasks, threats, the bureaucratic necessities of existing legally in the modern world, has crowded out the attention span I have for the subtler, but much deeper and more existential and sustaining love and concern for being a part of the natural world.

And this is not to cast aspersions on communication and social connection - both of which are deep and real joys, as well as being key to our survival and harm reduction going forward into the anthropocene, but it seems to me that we have to figure out how to access and amplify our biophilia, to make it feel acute, and serious, to make it an overwhelming part of our joys, dreams and desires. It is worth noting that this will happen anyway, when it’s too late, when it’s gone.

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