The View from Above

In times of falling apart, it sometimes pays to shift our attention to see the world from a wider perspective. Writer and philosopher Mark Bessoudo is inspired by an ancient Stoic practice and the fastest bird on Earth living among the towers of modern Toronto.
is a London-based Canadian writer, researcher and engineer whose work explores issues at the intersection of philosophy, urbanism and ecology. His work has appeared in numerous publications including The Possible, a magazine dedicated to the ideas shaping the built environment, where he serves as editorial consultant. He was winner of the New Philosopher Writers’ Award in 2016 and runner-up in 2021.
The unidentified flying object darted across my field of view. I bounced from my desk and walked to the window. From the 23rd floor of the midtown Toronto office building, I watched as the small dark mass shot across the overcast sky, its elevation steadily rising into the horizon before making a wide arc. Suddenly, the UFO shifted into a high-speed nosedive toward the city below. Agile aerial manoeuvres made with intention. Predatorial. 

That’s when the unidentifiable became identifiable: a peregrine falcon. 

With the ability to reach speeds of over 300 kilometres per hour – the fastest member of the animal kingdom – it’s no wonder the peregrine has long captivated people across cultures and throughout history, from Viking chiefs to Russian tsars, Mongol khans to English monarchs. 

Faced with the ecological pressures of a brave new world shaped by urbanisation, however, peregrines have come to symbolise something different: adaptation and resilience. While they evolved to live among cliff edges and quarry faces, high vantage points to look for potential predators and prey, this rugged terrain has given way to a new landscape of straight lines and right angles, smooth glass and flat concrete. 

But this is a species that, like all others still in existence, has rebelled against extinction by adapting to the world as it is – not the world they want.

This new landscape of tall buildings forms deep canyons that mimic their natural habitat, so it isn’t uncommon for peregrines to be spotted circling the skies of cities around the world.  In Melbourne, Montreal, and Moscow, they hunt pigeons at dawn, high above oblivious city-dwellers. In London, they can be found nesting atop some of the city’s most iconic structures: Tate Modern, Houses of Parliament, Salisbury Cathedral and Battersea Power Station. In Chicago, they’ve been designated the city’s official bird. 

*

Gazing at the falcon soaring above the skyline, I recalled a recent headline: ‘Birds of prey patrol the skies above Mexico City airport’. At Benito Juárez International Airport peregrines have been trained to scare away swallows, kestrels, kites and other birds whose presence near jumbo jets could lead to potentially catastrophic ‘bird strikes’. 

I thought about the irony of peregrines being used in this way: here we have a species that has been trained, or rather co-opted, to behave in a way that further perpetuates the very urbanisation that has led to the demise of their natural habitats in the first place. 

Are we so different? It’s easy to think of humans as masters of our environment in a way that other animals are not, immune from being co-opted by our circumstances. And to a certain extent we are – our ability to create a world that we want, to shape it to suit our needs and desires, is the hallmark of our species’ evolutionary success. Despite this, however, we are still just animals at the mercy of external forces, both natural (viruses, weather, geology, pollination) and manmade (climate change, pollution, colony collapse disorder), and our lives and emotions are intimately connected with the fate of our home environment.

 Like the peregrine, our home environment is being transformed; but unlike the peregrine, this transformation can make us feel remote and alien, resulting in a sort of existential melancholy; a feeling of homesickness without ever having left home. The Australian philosopher of sustainability Glenn Albrecht calls this ‘solastalgia,’ from the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root -algia (pain).

The term was originally coined to capture the emotional response to changes in a particular place or local environment: residents of small towns in eastern Australia experiencing the detrimental effects of a recent coal mining boom; Inuit communities in northern Canada facing down the impacts of rising temperatures; refugees in New Orleans returning to destroyed homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. 

But thanks to increasing globalisation and our growing ecological awareness, it’s becoming easier to think of the entire Earth as ‘home’ (after all, the prefix ‘eco-’ comes from the Greek word ‘oikos’, meaning ‘house’). In 2009, the American Psychological Association even addressed the emotional costs of global ecological decline in a report titled ‘Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change’. What they appear to have been describing was solastalgia, but on a planetary scale.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard first introduced the idea of existential anxiety, or angst, in The Concept of Anxiety. He described anxiety as a feeling of paralysing possibilities, as the boundlessness of one’s individual existence. But he also acknowledged that it is vital, a sign of life. By working with this feeling, Kierkegaard contended – to be anxious, but in the right way – we can come to understand our freedom.  

Kierkegaard described anxiety as a feeling of paralysing possibilities, as the boundlessness of one’s individual existence.

To illustrate this point, Kierkegaard used as an example a man standing on the edge of a tall building or cliff. This hypothetical man experiences anxiety, not just of accidentally falling into the yawning abyss below, but in the terrifying realisation that he has the capacity – the impulse even – to intentionally throw himself off the edge. That we have the freedom to do something, even the most terrifying of possibilities, triggers immense feelings of dread. Anxiety is the ‘dizziness of freedom.’

It is from this metaphorical cliff, in the face of all life’s possibilities, that we stand aware of our freedom, of our capacity to jump if we so choose. Instead, most choose ambivalence. The idea of freedom may be attractive, but the demands it imposes on us are too great. And so we run from it, push it away, deny its existence. We live as if the world and our situation in it were permanent and immune to change. We ‘grasp at finiteness.’ 

This may help to alleviate the anxiety, Kierkegaard says, but it comes at the cost of personal growth and development. It is an artificial remedy. Living an authentic life requires contending with the uncertainties latent within an ever-changing world.

*

Eduardo Bessoudo, the author’s uncle, with his falcon, Mexico.

To the casual observer, falconry may seem like a one-sided endeavour, with one controlling the other. A more generous interpretation might contend that it represents mere mutualism, each benefitting the other in a transactional selfish manner, but without much deeper meaning.  

But the art of falconry is much more sophisticated than that. Over time, with the proper training and attention, the falcon becomes attuned to the falconer, and vice versa. They behave as extensions of the other. They become inextricably linked.

Falconry first arrived in the Americas with the conquest of New Spain in the sixteenth century, where it remained a pastime among the aristocratic nobility until the end of the seventeenth century. It wasn’t until four centuries later, in the 1950s and ‘60s, that it began to re-emerge in the area (now Mexico) through the efforts of a small band of enthusiasts. 

My uncle, Eduardo, was among this group of pioneers. As a young teenager in the ‘60s, he would often roam the markets in downtown Mexico City to see if they had any falcons or hawks for sale. The Sonora market is where he bought his first hawk. He brought it home, kept it in a small central courtyard and, ever the autodidact, taught himself how to train it simply by reading books on the subject. He was hooked.  

Soon afterward, Eduardo and his friends acquired several other birds – red-tailed hawks, Harris’s hawks and peregrine falcons – which they trained and used for hunting rabbits along the southern part of the Ajusco-Chichinautzin Mountain Range that surrounds Mexico City, establishing one of the first records of hunting by means of falconry in that area. 

Over the next two decades, Eduardo’s expertise grew. He trained and nurtured hawks and falcons, studying them as they migrated across the Texas border, speaking at conferences in Germany and Czechoslovakia and helping to establish various falconry conservation associations in Mexico. By the mid-1980s word of his expertise had spread to the Saudi royal family and he was invited to Riyadh so that he could show off his most prized falcons.  Despite earning multiple degrees in a number of related scientific fields, including doctorates in Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science, he never allowed the constraints of rationality to obscure his adventurous and carefree worldview.

*

Rationality, to the Stoics of Ancient Greece, was the best way to cultivate a better understanding of our place within an ever-changing world. Centuries before Kierkegaard, they were grappling with similar questions of how to overcome negative emotions like anxiety to live a life that is more authentic and in sync with a living cosmos. According to Stoicism, we form negative and unhelpful habits of mind, and ultimately suffer, because we hold false beliefs, judgments and assumptions about the state of the world. We are stuck in ways of thinking that are far too finite, individual and egocentric. But by using reason to reassess our beliefs, Stoics claim, we can find wisdom. By reflecting on the world from a much broader perspective — in both space and time — we could get a reality check.

By reflecting on the world from a much broader perspective — in both space and time — we could get a reality check.

To help encourage this cosmic perspective, the Stoics employed a meditation known as ‘The View from Above.’ It’s a visualisation technique meant to help us see ourselves in a context relevant to others, to the wider world and to all of existence – to neutrally observe the comings and goings of the world, rather than being caught up in them. 

‘Take a view from above,’ instructs the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius in Meditations. ‘Look at the thousands of flocks and herds, the thousands of human ceremonies, every sort of voyage in storm or calm, the range of creation, combination, and extinction.’

Taking a view from above may be a spiritual technique, but it has practical application. (It can even be helpful to apply a contemporary lens here, by using a modern understanding of science – biogeochemistry, evolution, cosmology – topics of which Aurelius and the people of his time were understandably ignorant of.)

Try this:  visualise yourself – your body and how it’s situated in your immediate surroundings. Picture your home and the people you may live with, their feelings and how you interact with them. Then ‘zoom out’ and imagine yourself in your home situated in your town or city, how everyone who lives around you has a unique life that you may know little about, how you pass by them on the street or in shops. Broaden your perspective further, zooming out to consider the wider region you are situated in. Think beyond humans and human artefacts: the flow of rivers, the shifting of sand, the nutrients in the soils and the seas oscillating with the seasons, the wind, the thermal flux as day moves to night.  Zoom out further still and visualise your country and then the entire planet. Think about all the people and other living beings that exist and have ever existed. Think of the diversity of cultures and social patterns and processes that have emerged over time. The conflicts, alliances, cities, theories, politics. Think about the slow creeping movement of the continents over millions of years. Visualise the world’s oceans, not as five distinct bodies, but as one interconnected Global Ocean. Imagine the natural selection of selfish genes within that ocean and upon those continents. Zoom out to consider the corner our planet occupies in an even bigger solar system and galaxy. Finally, zoom out and imagine all of existence in the wider Universe – past, present and future. 

‘Constantly reflect on how swiftly all that exists and is coming to be is swept past us and disappears from sight,’ Aurelius continues. ‘And ever at our side is the immeasurable span of the past and the yawning gulf of the future, into which all things vanish away.’

Practise this exercise enough and not only will your perspective begin to shift, but you’ll start to recognize this shift in perspective in others. In Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, Dark Mountain co-founder Paul Kingsnorth reminds readers that for the vast majority of its existence, ‘’nature’ here on Earth consisted only of single-celled organisms. The brief period of climatic stability in which human civilisations have evolved is just that: a brief period. It is not any kind of norm, for there is no norm.’  From the cosmic perspective, the climate crisis is not a crisis at all – it’s just another shift. Nothing survives forever, not even the state of the planet to which we have adapted. 

*

Stoicism’s emphasis on conscious reasoning and rationality as the path towards wisdom, flourishing and virtue is true to a certain extent, but it’s also incomplete. It doesn’t account for the possibility that some emotions and passions are inherently positive, or that even negative emotions can be channelled in the right way for positive ends. 

Kierkegaard, remember, recommended that in order to live a more authentic life we need not deny existential anxiety, but rather work with it in the right way. Solastalgia, then, could be accepted as an expression of care and used in the right way towards restoring our mental, cultural and biophysical environments. 

I have enough self-awareness to know that I can at times be guilty of using Stoicism to avoid confronting emotions – what the philosopher Jules Evans calls ‘Stoic bullshitting’. But I also acknowledge that one cannot live forever inside the citadel of the intellect. Like the falcon, I slowly found myself living in an urban environment. But rather than the buildings coming to me, I was beckoned towards them. For school and then work, I moved to progressively larger cities; from small towns and cities in Atlantic Canada, then to Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, and ultimately to London. It wasn’t my long-term plan, it just happened. I adapted easily to city life, even thrived in it. 

Like the falcon, I slowly found myself living in an urban environment. But rather than the buildings coming to me, I was beckoned towards them

But even though I studied environmental engineering and work in the environmental industry as an urban sustainability consultant, I lost part of my emotional connection to the living world in the process. That connection, once visceral and non-rational, had become almost entirely intellectual and rational. Beneficial environmental outcomes had become reduced to pixels on a screen and numbers in a spreadsheet. 

We can pretend that these are the things that animate us, but long before it appeals to our heads, the living world appeals to our hearts. Just acknowledging this does something that no amount of carbon accounting or corporate sustainability reports ever could: it engages the emotions as well as the intellect.

This integration of the rational with the non-rational is what I imagine my uncle Eduardo to have embodied. He died suddenly at the age of 37 when I was only seven years old, so I never got a chance to have a mature conversation with him about it. But through family stories, photographs and research I can piece together an image of a deeply intelligent man with an adventurous spirit who fearlessly engaged with the world as it was. Rather than being paralysed by freedom and life’s possibilities, he embraced them.  

I continued to see peregrines beyond the window of my office, their silhouettes steadily gliding across the horizon, dive bombing towards their unsuspecting prey like a lightning bolt with feathers, or simply surveying the surrounding area from the rooftop of the neighbouring tower. 

It was situations like this that made me wonder what Eduardo would have had to say about the major environmental issues we face today. What would have been his response to the impacts we are inflicting on the living world? Would he have been solastalgic, expressing an emotional concern to care for the environments that sustained his curiosities and his livelihood? Or would he have adopted a more rationalistic approach, accepting change as a necessary consequence of living in an ever-changing world?  

More likely, he would have integrated the two ways of thinking in just the same way that he flowed through life by effortlessly combining his intellect with his instincts. Under the right conditions, the rational and the emotional are inextricably linked – like the falcon soaring high, taking a view from above of the falconer rooted in the landscape below.

Falconer and falcon, Eduardo Bessoudo

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 19

Our spring 2021 collection of prose, poetry and art revolves around the theme of death, loss and renewal

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