Ever haunted by the nature of consciousness, I stare at the nailed planks of a structure I had no part in building. The workers knew they were building it for thousands of people they’d never meet. I’m an anonymous parent, surrounded by other anonymous parents, watching to make sure our kids don’t exit the playground. In shockingly little time, had I not written about it, this moment would be washed away forever.
The playground is at the Nashville Zoo, a place I’ve spent more time at this summer than I would’ve ever predicted. But when your family has a membership and two boys in constant need of diversion, the zoo (and I can only speak for Nashville’s) becomes a sort of paradise. There’s more shade than one should reasonably expect from an outdoor attraction, with the exception of the Botswana area, where a lack of shade feels appropriate–think open grassland, where a Southern White rhino can plod heavily downhill to give you a good long look at itself, reminding you he has a bulk that television just can’t communicate; this is exactly the experience I had on a recent trip.
One thing our zoo has done so well is create a feeling of otherworldliness: you enter through the bamboo gates and walk over a rushing stream in a completely forested area; soon the trees open up on the right to an enclave of bright blue macaws; they chatter and squawk along the branches, using their beaks like a third foot to navigate from one limb to another. These parrots are big–a solid two feet tall, perhaps? A zoo attendant tells me that macaws can bite through a nail, and I quickly understand what they could do to a human finger.
The macaws are the first of many creatures where, standing before them, I’ll drift into unanticipated arenas of thought. I think about the passage of time and the transitoriness of so many moments; I think about my own status as an animal, one that, like a Sumatran tiger or an Andean bear, has a limited space to occupy and a limited time to occupy it.
I also think about consciousness, and how we humans have it in abundance, whereas the animals I’m staring at have it hardly at all. Sometimes I envy their ability to inhabit their world, to be settled in it, yet I wouldn’t trade my own insecurities for that kind of resignation. Consciousness is so strange, such a mystery–often weird, never stable for long. But without it, we wouldn’t have any art, or science, or anything else that makes life worth living.