The robins’ alarm calls rang through the forest long before I reached the section of woods near the Cooper’s Hawk nest. Once I got close, I could hear the smaller birds that had joined the crisis chorus, and headed for the cleared area that seemed to be the focus of all the concern. Since the young hawks were still limiting their range to pretty far up into the canopy, I looked up toward the treetops and into the high branches as I entered the clearing.
Suddenly at the other end of the field, on the ground rather than up in the trees where I’d been looking, a moving tan patch caught my attention. It wasn’t a Cooper’s Hawk everybody was so upset about: it was a coyote! I froze, not wanting to scare it off (but I wasn’t so frozen that I couldn’t quietly but quickly pull up my camera).
Although the West Seattle Blog carries regular coyote reports, in over ten years of hanging around my park a lot—a lot!—I’ve never seen a coyote here.
The coyote moved soundlessly into the thicket. I stayed just where I was for a long time, hoping it might reappear, but no luck. (On my part, anyway; the coyote probably considered himself pretty lucky to have effectively disappeared.) The instant I had seen the coyote, my attention immediately snapped into a different mode, that of sharply heightened awareness focused on one goal: finding that coyote again.
I was fascinated. “Fascination” is actually a technical term used by Stephen Kaplan (who prefers it to William James’s “involuntary attention”) to refer to a type of attention that’s not consciously directed, but that’s effortless. When you’re fascinated, as I was with the coyote, your attention is drawn by its object without any apparent initial choice on your part. Of course, you can choose to refocus your attention somewhere else if you want to, but that takes effort if you’ve become fascinated by something.
Dimensions of fascination
I finally decided to move from where I’d seen the coyote, and circumnavigate the thicket on the chance I could glimpse him from another angle. All my senses were attuned to the shape of the coyote: not only his visual outline, but the particular way sunlight and shade would look on his rich reddish fur, the sparkle his dark eyes might have looking out at me from the shadows.
And I was also listening for his shape. In his case, his sound-shape would be the alarm calls of robins and other birds, the auditory web of worry around him. I tried to track him for a while by mapping where the robins were calling, then finally everyone quieted down. Maybe the coyote went to sleep in some secret pocket in the shrubbery.
Resting through attention
Kaplan credits fascination with providing a kind of resting place for our attention. A complementary form of attention is called by James “directed attention,” in which we try to retain our focus on something. This kind of attention is obviously really important for our survival—we have to be able to forage or shop for dinner, watch out for our children, or for cars or other predators—but it’s tiring after a while.
The experience of fascination allows us to rest while our minds stay active. It’s not just nature that can be fascinating, of course, but nature’s relative lack of human control opens infinite possibilities for fascination that aren’t provided by human-designed entertainment. Maybe that’s why I always feel so rested as well as so alert when I finally come home.
Now every time I go into the park, it’s full of coyote-shaped spaces in a way it never was for me before. And endlessly more fascinating.