Active Sensing, Tawny the Magpie, and Ryan HeavyHead

I often speak of what I refer to as tactical opportunism. This phrase describes both a practice and a mode of attentional awareness with which we may discover and acquire uncommon intelligence, protections, skills, abilities and other benefits… by remaining intimately aware at all times of both unexpected threats and new or previously unimagined opportunities in every moment and situation.

As a practice (or perhaps a mode of being), it consistently yields unexpected rewards when it is oriented toward intimate relation with living places and nonhuman beings. It was absolutely crucial to our distant ancestors who existed in a state of identity (distributed selfhood) with endlessly diverse natural signals and relationships. It is a mode of heuristic optimism which is, at best, poorly understood by most humans who prefer to worry or mourn when relationships or situations depart from habitually familiar forms or expectations.

In nature, nearly all creatures must remain in such a state at all times in order to survive. This means that they avoid merely rule-based or habitual behaviors in favor of what we might call ‘active sensing’. In human culture, lulled by habit and buried in pollution, noise and technology… we rarely develop even the slightest experience of this form of crucial sensing intimacy

This practice of active sensing coupled with ‘tactical opportunism’ are two of the bases of both advanced martial arts, and… advanced relational, intellectual, emotional, communicative and purposive arts.

Here, Ryan HeavyHead describes the behavior of a magppie that is well-known not only to him, but to his family (which includes a live-in magpie named Derrick).

“Contrary to the opinions expressed two days ago by my dear friend Johnathon, who suggested that Tawny magpie would visit my home only out of habit… She has not done so since, despite the freezing temperatures. Rather, she has departed from Coffee and Corvids in a northeast direction, moving to a site somewhere downstream from me, and in the coulees. This strongly suggests there is a carcass that she knows of in that direction, and that it is a better resource than my beetle grubs. In this kind of cold, she cannot afford to follow a habitual round. She must know where the food sources are, and she must weigh these options and chose what is most likely to provide her with the energy she needs to survive. What she does do habitually is pay attention to everything going on within her limited territory. I hope to develop this kind of habit to the high degree that she has in here mere two and a half years of life”

— Ryan Heavyhead

There is more than a simple lesson here. The fact is that human beings, when symbiosing (intimately relating as unities) closely with ‘wild’ creatures and places… invariably acquire nonhuman senses and intelligence. It is impossible not to. Ryan, in his relationship with wild places and creatures, is not merely demonstrating some kind of ‘ritualized’ remembrance of the unity of beings (and living places) ceremoniously; something actually shocking to ordinary observers is happening: he is directly informing, participating in, and receiving forms and purposive aspects of nonhuman intelligence in ways that ‘ordinary modern humans’ are not only completely oblivious to… they are entirely excluded from.

Not one or two forms, either. Unprecedented forms that expand and morph over time into new opportunities for relation, insight, prediction, protection, mutuality, wonder… and learning.

What it comes down to is this: there is no way to protect or enhance human life outside of or beyond nature. ‘Protecting’ ourselves… means direct and mutually protective participation in and AS nature. For, indeed, we are a single being… in many diverse forms, purposes, and ways … but one of us has forgotten this. And it is not the magpies.

It is us.
Note: “Coffee and Corvids” refers to a morning feeding ritual where Ryan HeavyHead and his wife bring coffee (and grubs or other bird-treats) to a nearby park where they partake in breakfast with wild birds, including a variety of magpies, many of which are intimate familiars… whom they know and relate with as distinct and intelligent individuals.


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