A funny thing on the way to the Art Institute last Saturday: while waiting for the train at the 35th/Archer platform, I heard a strange, raucous squawking, which was somewhat familiar and yet unidentifiable in the context. Looking around to a tree across from the tracks, I discovered a pair of round yellow eyes attached to a neon green head peering at me from within the field of green leaves. A green and grey macaw was perched in the tree, staring at me as it casually munched seeds from the leaves. It’s perhaps silly to try recounting the different feelings that flooded my mind at this odd discovery. Of course I felt a sense of joy at the beauty of this creature, and a sense of laughter at curious method of perambulation macaws use. The question of just why this critter was in this tree also inspired me with wonder, but a wonder coupled with panic. Behind this panic was a certain sadness and empathy, knowing the season and knowing that this bird probably hadn't the metabolism or resources to survive the coming winter. And compounding all of this was the discovery that this fellow was not alone, but had a partner; two macaws bandying about a tree on the south side of Chicago in fall. For ten minutes I watched them, until they flew off, two dashes of tropical green and grey across an urban canvas.
Having been on my way to the Art Institute (and dutifully reviewing my Taylor “Learning To Look” for Humanities 1), I couldn’t help thinking of this experience in artistic terms, particularly in the sense of how some artists will dazzle us by tricking our mental expectations with our perceptual experiences. Taylor cites Henri Bergson as “asserting that to see is only an excuse to remember.” While I won’t pretend to understand the fullness of Bergson’s meaning, especially through the filter of Taylor’s interpretation, it does suggest something at the root of certain cognitive dilemmas. Our minds map out models of the world around us to use for future reference and to ease the burden perception places on our neuro-circuitry. Nothing in the schema my brain had developed of the 35th/Archer stop could account for the presence of macaws; in fact most everything in mind suggested the two were largely incommensurable. Yet here they were, their existence defying my mental expectations. Camus tells us “At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.” To this I would add beauty, and behind that beauty the mere wisp of a hint of something beyond the atomistic accident of my encounter. Konstantin Levin said of a life (and I here say of a moment), “In infinite time, in the infinity of matter, in infinite space, a bubble-organism separates itself, this bubble holds out for a while and then bursts…” Last Saturday this bubble was tropical birds at the CTA.
Only a few days later, I passed through the same station. The previous Saturday’s mid-autumn sunshine was replaced by a Wednesday’s dismal late-fall drizzle, and the green leaves of the tree had already turned crimson. There was no sign of the fall macaws; they had moved on to whatever destination, leaving only a scanty memory of another improbable event in an impossible universe.