May 31st, 2020
Words by Julia Murray · Artwork by Allie Yacina
With the days stripped of nearly all their familiar architecture, I’ve found myself using animal livestreams to build a new rhythm
On a recent afternoon, I arrived at the nest of a peregrine falcon and her three young chicks just in time to witness them breaking for lunch. The chicks’ beaks were already wet with blood, and they jostled against each other for a piece of the kill (which looked, to my untrained eyes, like a pigeon). The mature falcon, named Annie by the scientists observing her nest high inside the clock tower at UC Berkeley, tore at the body and fed each chick by the mouth. When the meat was gone, the chicks collapsed by Annie’s talons, their downy bodies forming a soft grey pile not unlike a clump of dryer lint. I cleaned my room, ate dinner, talked on the phone, and kept an eye on the birds as they went about their day within the four walls of a YouTube livestream. I didn’t do much, and neither did they.
Since the pandemic arrived in the U.S., I’ve found myself returning to Annie’s nest day after day with the sweet, neurotic devotion of someone newly in love checking their texts. The video is one of several wildlife livestreams I’ve been watching during weeks of lockdown. These are not glossy wildlife documentaries. Instead, used as tools for conservationists, animal livestreams are mundane, slow, and value close attention. Through the grainy view transmitted by a discreetly placed camera, we can see inside nests and feeding stations to observe the behaviors of animals over prolonged periods of time. For enthusiasts, the streams are a pleasure. I’ve spent the better part of an hour watching a bald eagle feed salmon meat to her chicken-sized eaglets, and stared at clumps of seaweed twisting and drifting through murky water like plastic bags caught in a windstorm, all in a patient attempt to spot the dark silhouette of an orca whale gliding by. When the coronavirus shutdowns began, I became an essential worker at one job (a local radio station), was furloughed at the other (a retail store), and although in so many ways I’ve been spared the pandemic’s worst consequences, I am completely at a loss for how to navigate the scale of fear and loss that this era has produced with such remarkable efficiency. Animals, in their blessed ignorance, are accomplices in temporary escape.
Humans have long studied animal behavior as a means of survival. Only in recent decades, with the advent of digital technologies, has it become a kind of luxury. David Attenborough, the famous naturalist, began his documentary career nearly seventy years ago armed with khaki shorts and a machete, trouncing around the world catching pythons and Komodo dragons for a black and white telecast called “Zoom Quest”. Decades later, he would provide viewers with a similar virgin wonder for the exotic as the commentator for the BBC’s sprawling “Planet Earth” series and its ambitious, high definition follow ups. The filmmaking feats that the “Planet Earth” series pioneered have come to define our expectations for how the nature documentary—and, by extension, nature itself— should act. In a blooming world of time-lapses and quick cuts, animal life unfolds as an orgy of sex and action, playing like a greatest hits tape of the world’s life cycles.
I have watched these documentaries for years. They filled me with awe when I first saw them, and segments like this gorgeously shot nightmare of a single iguana attempting to outrun an army of bloodthirsty snakes have become canon for bored stoners. But during the pandemic, as death rates and hopeless news updates light up my phone, I’ve found myself exhausted by scale and gravity and instead pulled toward experiences that feel mercifully small. I’ve thought often about Jenny Odell’s book “How To Do Nothing”, which implores us to reassert our right to “nothing”—a complicated, richly meaningful state of being—by harnessing our attention away from destructive digital practices. “Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive,” she writes.
Humans are messy, but when algorithms are brought in to make us coherent and clean in a digital marketplace, we become stripped of something crucial. To undermine this theft, Odell writes: “We must fiercely protect our human animality against all technologies that actively ignore and disdain the body, the bodies of other beings, and the body of the landscape that we inhabit.” But in this pandemic, our animality has betrayed us. One fated interaction between human and landscape spawned this virus and now bodies around us pose a mortal threat. Now, many of us spend our time trying to approximate physical presence through stilted Zoom calls. The results are often stale, if not outright sad. Finding new ways to experience who we are through technology feels as uneasy as it does necessary. For me, wildlife streams offer a clue.
With the days stripped of nearly all their familiar architecture, I’ve found myself using the streams to build a new rhythm. When I’m on my phone deep into the night clicking in and out of news stories, flowing between two merging states of boredom and incomprehensible grief, I’ll remind myself to look at a bird. The fruit station in El Valle de Antón, Panama—4,000 miles south of where I lie in my bed, just two hours ahead of me in time—is dark and empty, the forest swelling with the sounds of nocturnal insects. Night is when us diurnals are meant to hand the world over. If this isn’t enough to lull me to sleep, I’ll tap over to late afternoon in New Zealand, where a royal albatross chick that looks like an animated marshmallow puff spends its days chilling out on grassy bluffs, overlooking rolling green hills and the sea.
One evening, while I was on my phone watching this particular chick, a brown rabbit darted across the screen and paused. Bird and rabbit stared at each other, and then the rabbit was gone, bounding off through a patch of tall grass. The moment was so surprising, so inadvertent and brief, that I found myself flooded with gratitude that I was there—that for one illusory moment, it felt not only like the rabbit and the chick in the field but me, too. In this pandemic, chance has become a vector for fear, disease, and mistrust. It is useful to be reminded that on occasion, it can also create a kind of magic.
Allie Yacina is a designer and illustrator living in Portland, OR, with her partner Jeff and her cat Stevie Nicks.