artificial intelligence

The Pheasants are Messing With You (and the Coyotes, Too)

Check out this ring-necked pheasant sneaking away from me through the sagebrush and wild roses. What a guy.

But what an environment! We know pheasants mostly by their habit of bolting at 20,000 kilometres an hour right underfoot and stopping an innocent walker’s heart right then and there, sheesh.

Well, whew.  That’s a trick. Most of the time, the pheasants are tip-toeing through the sagebrush, and we don’t see them. Tip-toers, that’s pheasants for you. Snow, of course, makes them stand out, which is why it’s a darned good thing the sagebrush and grass melt all that snow, provide fresh greens through the winter, lots of good seeds, and cover a-plenty.

It’s also one reason that coyotes thread in intricate patterns through the bushes at night, following scent trails, and one reason the coyotes don’t get all of these big Chinese birds: once a trail has crossed itself a zillion times, you’re liable to get confused. Pheasant tracks in the sagebrush are like these saskatoons in this gully. Eventually, you just walk around.

Yes, the coyote den is right at the top of this draw. Let the deer come to you, ha ha ha ha.

That’s the thing: the sagebrush turns winter into a field of mixed seasons by catching the sun and radiating with it. It’s the thing about sagebrushes. They do this tricky trick in the summer too, because, here’s the thing: they don’t want heat. Sagebrushes are built to dissipate heat. That’s how they can live in it. For creatures that like to live in it, right out in its solar blows, sagebrushes provide shade, in summer, underneath their radiant umbrellas, and warmth in winter, underneath the little artificial suns they build around themselves. For coyotes, those arch opportunists, it provides so many opportunities that they just get overloaded and howl with it. Then the dogs in the valley all start to howl, the humans in the valley yell at the dogs, and nobody gets any decent sleep, except the pheasants, who live in a stitched quilt of the sagebrush’s own making. This trick-of-the-sagebrush is pretty cool: one environment that works two ways, depending upon the tilt of the earth towards, or away from, the sun. You could say that in all this landscape, known for some bizarre reason as a desert…interjection, does this look like a desert?…

… well, hunh, anyway, in all of this landscape known for its sunny sun, one of its most dominant species, big sagebrush, turns the sun off and on at will, like night and day.

That actually makes sense, because it’s not the sun here that makes heat so much as the depth of the valley in contrast to the height of the mountains to the west: air that has dried itself out by being pushed over the peaks falls down into the trenches in the plateau to the east, all tattered and torn, drops a few shreds of water that didn’t get squeezed out in the glaciers up top, and pulls it back out. It’s that anti-pressure of the sun drawing water out of your skin that makes you hot here, more than anything else.

This intricate balance, perfectly matched to the climate, is what is called, in German, an Umwelt, a surrounding world (in which “surrounding” is an active, present force). The meaning here is that the world, the Welt, is within the power of “um”, or surrounding. The two meanings don’t follow in succession, as they would with an adjective and a noun. It’s not, in other words, a “surrounding world”. It’s “um”, around. Anything within it, whether that is a big sage or a ring-necked pheasant, is within this force, and is created and maintained by it, because it is this force.

Pheasant, sneaking around when you’re not looking. That’s the point: to make you look somewhere else. You can even hide right behind the sun.

The English term “environment,” on the other hand, is a term of separation: separate from the creature within it. That level of analysis is not part of the system-as-it-is. There is, however, a secondary German word, an Umfeld, that comes into play here. This is a term that was coined a century and a half ago, or so, to describe the social field in which a human character operates. It is, again, “um”, but with a field around it, rather than an entire world. The field intended here can be of two kinds: an agricultural field, on which animals are set out to graze and from which crops are brought in to a centralized farmyard; and an indeterminate, hypothetical resonance of energies, in which energies take on possibilities according to circumstances. That second definition sounds very contemporary, and it should. It has become centred in psychology and is one of the anchors of the concept of the individual, and, especially of individual health within an almost limitless array of possible social possibilities. But consider this:

The deer (or pheasant, or coyote or bear or magpie or human) within the almost infinite possibilities provided by the sagebrush is living in that field. It is as social as the small herd of deer above, and as intimately intertwined. In fact, in this completely engaged field, this energy completely present in itself, into which all creatures must fit in or die, it is the concept of “environment” that is the greatest artifice. When the land is looked at as a social presence, the separation that creates the distinction between creature and surround is a form of artificial intelligence. It is powerful, of course, and useful for hunting behaviour, but it’s not the way of gathering behaviour. To gather plants is to follow the energies of the field. If you try to hunt them you will go nuts and plant an orchard that looks like this:

There they can stay in place, damn them. There you can drive a tractor at last. Not that you need a tractor in an Umfeld, but, hey, tractors are fun for hunters: a kind of artificial body that replaces an Umwelt with speed and strength, or appears to. So, the next time you lose your heart to a pheasant in a panic because you’ve accidentally unravelled its maze and it has to tangle you up again …

… remember that the world is messing with you, and it knows exactly what it is doing.


Tomorrow, more on Umfelds and the psychology of the grass.


6 replies »

  1. Don’t shoot me! I miss having wild pheasants around. My dog and I were pheasant specialists way back when. Did you hear the foxes bark as they are “running”–breeding season–lately? Sometimes we can smell them if we’re downwind. Coyotes, alas, replace foxes, but wolves replace coyotes where both are present. . . at least in our area.


    • I saw a couple wolves a few years back, but that’s it. I used to see foxes in the Cariboo, but have never seen any here. They were very clever and used to sit beside the trail and watch my dog and I go by. That big wolf-akita never noticed them. To them, I think it was a fun game. I always congratulated them on their smarts and wished them a good day. There was a magical fox in Iceland, too. But here, nope. Too bad. Coyotes galore.



  2. I’m happy to think that “the world is messing with you, and it knows exactly what it is doing.” I enjoyed your discussion of Umweld, a term I had just a little, little familiarity with, and Umfeld, which I’d never heard of. How astounding that you caught the pheasant in flight with your camera! It’s a privilege to see them.


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