“Identification is only the front door to naturalism and I have the feeling of having remained at the doorstep. All my life, I’ve made lists. I identified, bird after bird, by the hundreds, by the thousands, learning along the way some facts about their biology. But what do I really know about the life of the animals I observe, beyond their simple name? Very little. Just take a look at the Capercaillie.
It is 9:30 p.m. that day when I hear heavy beating of wings in the branches. With the naked eye, through the camouflage net, I detect this male in the upper part of a pine. He comes to spend the night near what I assume will be his dancing ground tomorrow.
Already a week that I suffered from this brutal return of winter, with the conviction that I can still discover the courtship of the Western Capercaillie. But animals also suffer. All the migrotary birds have left, Moose are sinking in the snow up to their belly and I discover in my tracks those of the Lynx and the Fox. The packed snow facilitates their movement. In the meantime, the Capercaillie have become an enigma to be solved. In the hide sixteen hours a day waiting for them, I spend the rest of my time looking for signs of their passage, but they are becoming increasingly rare. The birds no longer come down to the ground.
Tonight, my predictions are good and I’m thrilled to finally be able to observe him for a long time and close. I have high hopes for tomorrow. While he normally spends the night in the middle of a branch to facilitate his take off in the event of a predator, here he presses himself more and more against the trunk to protect himself from this icy northern wind.
The next day, I wake up at three o’clock, first light of day. He did not move. 3:49 he wakes up, stretches. 3:58, he begins to sing. He will not go down and will spend a few hours displaying from his branche under the snow which is falling more heavily, this same snow which reduced this beginning of spring to absence and silence, and which will end up getting the better of the grouse for a while. No more traces, no more song, no more courtship. Everything is put on hold.
I, who thought I had finally understood their routine by marrying their rhythm and habits, am back to square one. And the following weeks will be a succession of certainties that the tomorrows will sweep away. I won’t attend the much-desired grand courtship and will return with far more questions than answers. I could blame the snow of course but that would be too simple and a bit hypocritical because the real reason is elsewhere.
I thought I knew enough but I didn’t. The books, the specialists, the weeks here reading their lives in the tracks left in the snow, none of that was enough. A lifetime would barely be enough to intimately understand the life of these few Capercaillies. So what about the species? I only followed a few individuals who this year, here, behave in a somewhat original way. But these individuals are different from other individuals. And the grouse here don’t behave like the ones over there. And those over there, differently from those in another region, country or climate. It’s infinite. What I have observed is only a small glimpse.
The very word “Capercaillie” has become kind of too simple, a foreign concept, out of step with what it describes. And words are indeed nothing but concepts. These are very practical labels that allow us to talk about it, to think about it, but it’s very partial. Our ideas are only rough molds of reality into which it never fully fits. We prune it, we simplify it, we twist it but it resists. What we leave behind is then nothing trivial. Because we have reality on one side and the image we have of it on the other. Between the two, our ignorance.
In nature as in our daily lives, it takes a pretension that we do not suspect to believe we have understood a subject, a person, by the simple fact of naming it. Just simple words, but which drag in their wake the heavy burden of ideas associated with them, as well as a good deal of prejudice. And this, even before really experiencing what they describe. Mundane but prejudicial attitude. To remain on the threshold of knowledge, to just name without making the effort to understand, one remains ignorant with the illusion of knowing. The impact seems very slight when we talk about observing the capercaillie, but what about when it comes to understanding someone, an idea, a society, to make a decision? To name is not to know.
Reality is always more complex than our words, than our ideas. Any more than I know anything about a bird by identifying it, do I know anything about someone by knowing their name or their occupation or their habits, relationships, gender, beliefs, possessions… Words that hide the forest for the trees.
There seems to be a huge gap between the lessons of a hide in nature and the morals of life that can be drawn from it. However, it is a simple difference of degree, not of kind. Reality remains irreducible to our concepts, our imperfect mould. The gap between the two is filled not by pondering more but by rubbing shoulders with reality, observing, listening, making the effort to take the time to understand. It will take other pages to continue this reflection, but the basic idea is the one that Robert Hainard had so rightly identified: all inner wealth passes through a conformation to reality and not by wanting to conform the world to us, to our ideas.”
Watercolor from fild sketch, 19 x 28 cm
26th April – 21:30 – Sweden