Saturday, July 13

The Crestone Eagle is a nonprofit monthly newspaper serving Crestone and the San Luis Valley

Reader Bee: An Immense World

By Karina Wetherbee

As humans, we like to think we have the world figured out, with our keen senses, sophisticated minds, and a seemingly boundless array of technology at our fingertips. Another common assumption is that all other species with whom we share this planet must have less complex ways of sensing and perceiving the landscape. 

Ed Yong’s 2022 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, An Immense World, turns this notion on its head and reveals a plethora of truly surprising and diverse examples of animals whose Umwelt, or “perceptual world”, is worthy of study, appreciation, and most importantly, preservation.

Yong’s remarkable book delves, sense by sense, into the world perspectives of many animals, from those as companionable to us as dogs, to countless others as alien as assassin bugs, manatees or scallops. But the complexities of the sensory variations are described in very accessible language, all while circumventing as much of a human viewpoint as possible. 

By premising his biological analysis with the understanding that humans experience the world very differently from other species, he reminds the reader that “there is light in darkness, noise in silence, richness in nothingness,” and that by examining the mystery of it all, our appreciation and awe of the complexities of the natural world can only increase.

Dog owners will come away from the book with a greater appreciation of the world just beyond the noses of their pups, and Yong hopes they will be inspired to let their dogs linger, seemingly aimless, as they follow the narrative tumult of odors around them, as doing otherwise is “suppressing an essential part of their caninehood.” 

Though dogs are the obvious example of an animal with a powerful sense of smell, Yang pivots towards less overt ones, such as sea birds, who use smell for navigation and searching out food.

Seeking prey and seeking shelter from predators are two major motivations for the evolution of senses throughout the animal kingdom, and Yong lays out one fascinating example after another, touching on the familiar senses of smell, sight, sound, and touch, as well as augmenting these jumping-off points with more complex and sophisticated sensory concepts such as sonar, infrared, vibration-sensing, magnetic reception and electrical fields.

Seemingly innocuous animals fill the pages of the book, and each example is offered up as another striking color in the palette of a beautifully diverse and fragile tapestry of splendid distinction. 

Yong uses this wondrous sampling of beings and their Umvelts in an effort to inspire appreciation and the potential for action. 

“Instead of stepping into the Umwelten of other animals, we have forced them to live in ours by barraging them with stimuli of our own making. We have filled the night with light, the silence with noise, and the soil and water with unfamiliar molecules.” 

He asks that readers step outside, into their own backyards, and really look, really smell, really listen and really consider the fragile web of creatures who share the world with us, for “with every creature that vanishes, we lose a way of making sense of the world,” and the consequences of those losses could be devastating.

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