It’s a book-lover’s curse: no matter how impractically enormous my supply of not-yet-read books is, I find it impossible to go to a thrift store and not peruse the shelves of cheap books. So, that’s what I was doing, when this caught my eye:
I mean, how could it not? “Island” is an intriguing title, and, thanks to Brave New World, Huxley is an author I have always *intended* to read more of. But, those facts aside, just look at that artwork! I can hardly imagine a spine of a paperback book more beautiful than that!
Obviously, I couldn’t just leave this book on the shelf, and as I pulled it out I was greeted with this stunning image:
A charming bird constructed out of flowers, leaves, and twigs?! And titled Island?! And Aldus Huxley?! I didn’t even have to read the caption on the back—the book was coming home with me.
I know you’re never supposed to judge a book by its cover…but, in this case, I’m so glad I did.
Huxley’s Island is a novel, but barely. It’s more of a philosophical thought experiment about a Utopian society created on an island that, after taking the “best” of Eastern, Western, and Indigenous ideals, has cut off most ties with the rest of the world. The plot, as it is, mainly consists of the main character (a young, affluent, and disenchanted British man who is ship-wrecked and finds himself on the shore of the Island) conversing with a series of other characters and learning about their society. This is definitely a book that is meant to be read thoughtfully rather than hurriedly.
Distracted by more action-packed novels (Island makes for terrible bed-time reading!), I plodded my way through it, oh so slowly. Yet, I truly enjoyed the glimpse into Huxley’s Utopia (yes, really—the Island is no Brave New World!). And, as it turns out, a lot of the ideas Huxley presents in the book resonate quite strongly with me.
Particularly this one:
The book both begins and ends with the word “attention,” spoken—or should I say squawked?—by a rather unlikely source: a myna bird!
On the Island, mynas have been trained, as a public service, to call out the imperatives: “Attention,” and “Here and now.”
To quote the conversation between the main character and an Island child:
(P12) “Why does [the myna] say those things?”
“Because somebody taught him,” she answered patiently. What an ass! Her tone seemed to imply.
“But why did they teach him those things? Why ‘Attention’? Why ‘Here and now’?”
“Well…” She searched for the right words in which to explain the self-evident to this strange imbecile. “That’s what you always forget, isn’t it? I mean, you forget to pay attention to what’s happening. And that’s the same as not being here and now”
“And the mynahs fly about reminding you—is that it?”
She nodded. That, of course, was it.”
To quote a second conversation, this time between the main character and an Island adult:
(P19) “Attention,” the articulate oboe was calling. “Attention.”
“Attention to what?” he asked, in the hope of eliciting a more enlightening answer than the one he had received from Mary Sorojini
“To attention,” said Dr. MacPhail.
“Attention to attention?”
Of course. It really is that simple. In this world of round-the-clock media, cell phones, internet, depressingly overwhelming world crises and politics, random never-ending responsibilities, lives ending unexpectedly…it’s so easy to forget that there are also infinitely many beautiful every-day moments that zip by us, whether we take the time to acknowledge and appreciate them or not…It almost is a pity that, here in the decidedly non-Utopic Real World (which is somehow not very different today than when Huxley published Island, in 1962), we don’t have trained birds on hand to remind us to pay attention and be present in the here and now. Yet, we do have birds…
Birds are ubiquitous. No matter if you’re in the woods, a backyard, or a city, anywhere in the world, if you pause and look, you won’t have to wait long before you see a bird. Yes, the common city house sparrows, pigeons and starlings in their shades of gray, brown, and black, are often overlooked, but even they are beautiful! Have you ever taken the time to look at a starling with freshly molted feathers? The fresh white feather tips (which fairly quickly wear away as the feathers abrade) give a polka-dot appearance, on a backdrop of iridescent black. I get it, starlings are non-native and obnoxious, but they are also, aesthetically, quite stunning. Birds are familiar, because they are absolutely everywhere. But, if you start truly looking at their intricate feathers, scale legs, and toothless beaks, they are utterly foreign, and mesmerizing to watch. In short, even if they can’t verbally remind us to pay attention to the here and now, the presence of birds in our lives is the perfect reminder to take a moment to simply BE.
Mindfulness is definitely having a moment right now. Knitting. Coloring books. Meditation in schools. Why not birding? I hadn’t thought about it mindful birding per se before reading Huxley’s Island, but the concept felt so “of course,” as if I had known it all along, just not explicitly. (and OF COURSE, I’m certain I’m not the first to make the connection; I’m going to hold off on Googling “mindfulness + birding for now, but I’ll see what the great wide web has to say on the topic soon!)
I have never been particularly hooked by the competitiveness of birding , and, while I can definitely enjoy the naming and cataloging of species, I get as much enjoyment watching old friends (chickadees! Cardinals! Even Blue Jays! Our every-day species are precious!) as I do seeing new “life birds.” When I think back to some of my most meaningful birdy encounters, the ones that stand out are those moments when time dropped away entirely. When that happens, it’s just me and the bird, then, suddenly, it’s just the bird, and the “me” that’s constantly naming and narrating my way through life is swiftly silenced by the reality of the exquisite creature in front of me. This happened in Costa Rica, when I went birding by myself and came upon one of these (oh the cuteness!). It also happened in Texas, when I stood still for several minutes, watching a female Golden-Cheeked Warbler carrying a caterpillar, then discovered that the fledgling she ultimately fed was perched just a couple of feet from my face. It happened again in Michigan, when I stopped to for a bird survey; the mosquitoes swarmed thickly, but there were so many warblers flitting about that I could pay attention to nothing else. Attention. Here and now. And it turns out that the here and now, even my here and my now, has very little to do with Me.
It’s a refreshing feeling to step outside of yourself and into the here and now. Energizing.
I’d like you to join me in a challenge. Next time you see a bird when you’re out and about, or even just looking out your window, I want you to stop whatever you’re doing, stop whatever you’re thinking, and pay attention. It doesn’t matter if you have no idea what kind of bird you’re looking at. Look and see as if you’ve never looked at or seen a bird before. Take in the colors. The shape of the body. The texture of the feathers. The movements. The sounds. For just a moment—however long that moment may last—be present. Here and now. Attention.
As one of the characters in the island stated so eloquently: “Birds aren’t words…Birds are real. Just as real as they sky.”