I grew up on the east coast of the US, where I imbibed the prejudice that Los Angeles is the ultimate horror of a man-made concrete landscape devoid of nature. But when I moved there, in 1966, I discovered that LA is actually the American city with the largest area of wilderness within city boundaries. I live and take daily bird walks in a wooded dead-end canyon just one mile from the college campus where I teach. I have recorded 144 bird species here, while mammals include coyotes, mountain lions and deer.
Today was a red-letter birding day for me. On the reservoir at the head of my canyon, I was astonished to see a flock of 24 white pelicans: the first time I’ve observed them in my 36 years living here. The pelicans shared the reservoir with 12 species of ducks, four grebes, four herons and three gulls, plus loons, cormorants, coots, and kingfishers.
There’s a lot that I still don’t understand about the birds on my street. Land birds are more diverse here in the summer breeding season than in winter but water birds on the reservoir are more diverse in winter. Why are there so few water birds here in the summer, although the fish, insects and aquatic plants on which they feed are present year-round? Why have my street’s populations of starlings and mockingbirds, two bird species that are very successful in coexisting with humans, crashed in recent decades? Why have crows, which only flew over my canyon without alighting from 1976 to 2003, now begun breeding here?
There is so much else that we still don’t understand about the natural world. That’s true not only for rare species in the ocean’s depths or the rainforest’s canopy but also for the most familiar species in our biggest cities. That’s why, when we humans monkey around with our environment, we so often end up with insoluble messes.
My attitude towards taking showers has been heavily influenced by my decades of studying birds and living in the jungles of New Guinea. Among the many things that impress me about New Guineans, is that they never camp out, not even for a single night, underneath a dead tree, even if it’s a robust one likely to remain standing for dozens more years. If you have the habit of sleeping under dead trees, whose probability of falling on you that particular night is only one in a thousand but you hope to spend thousands of nights in your life sleeping in the jungle, you will eventually be killed prematurely by a falling tree. More generally, New Guineans have learnt from experience which are the real dangers in their lifestyle and they remain constantly alert to those dangers.
We Europeans and Americans don’t think clearly about dangers. We obsess about terrorists and nuclear radiation, which kill few of us, although it’s spectacular when they do kill us. We don’t take seriously the real risks in our lifestyle, which include driving or riding in cars and – especially for those of us over age 70, like me – slipping and falling. Just read a newspaper’s obituary columns and count how many of the people eulogised died as the result of a fall. I don’t mean a fall while climbing the Eiger’s north face, but “just” a fall in the shower or on a sidewalk.
Hence, whenever I take a shower each morning, I reflect: “This is the most dangerous thing that I’ll do today.” Our shower at home is a slippery marble floor. I’m also vigilant about going downstairs, about walking on wet pavements and about walking in dimly lit unfamiliar rooms. My chances of falling in the shower today were low. But I hope to live long enough to take thousands more showers. If I am to succeed in that hope, I must reduce the per-shower odds of falling to much less than one in a thousand.
Today I took the first piano lesson of my adult life, 59 years after my previous lesson, aged 16. I’ve continued to play piano ever since but never felt motivated to resume lessons. But my violinist friend Sue and I have been practising Beethoven’s last violin and piano sonata together, and thinking of performing it for friends. Sue suggested that we get coached by her friend Alan, a professional pianist.
Besides my desire to play Beethoven better, I was curious to see how Alan would deal with the interpersonal challenge. My wife Marie is a clinical psychologist who sees couples in conjoint therapy, often when one of the couple – whom Marie has been seeing individually – brings his/her partner. For a psychotherapist, it’s a challenge to explore difficult issues with a couple when the therapist knows one person well but the other not at all. How could Alan quickly establish a relationship with me, whom he had never met and who is a pianist like Alan – though musically less insightful than Sue – while retaining the confidence of Sue, who plays an instrument (the violin) that Alan himself doesn’t play?
Alan began by asking us to play the sonata’s first movement. As we played, it was painfully obvious that we weren’t at the professional level of his usual students. Nevertheless, when we had finished the movement, Alan managed to find encouraging and honest words of praise: “It’s obvious that you two have worked hard on this.” He offered a suggestion for both of us: “You could each listen to each other more.” That was a polite way of saying that each of us was still too focused on the difficulties of his or her own part to pay attention to the collaboration that is the essence of chamber music.
Next, Alan offered a suggestion for me alone. (My wife would say that “I, as the couple’s member new to Alan, required some relationship-building before Sue did.”) The suggestion was specific and detailed: in a measure where my right hand was simultaneously playing an upper series of notes with my fourth and fifth fingers and a lower series with my thumb and second finger, I could bring out the melody by stressing the upper fingers – but only in the first three beats of the measure. That possibility was an eye-opener that I hadn’t thought of. Alan then offered an equally specific suggestion to Sue, about where in a run of notes to reverse her bow’s direction. How did he, a non-violinist, know enough to be able to suggest that technique to Sue, an experienced violinist?
As the lesson went on, Alan moved back and forth between suggestions for both of us together, and for each of us individually. The suggestions that he made were all within our capabilities. There was never a hint of impatience with our (especially my) limited skills. After an hour-and-a-half, we had still discussed only the first three pages of a sonata that is 31 pages long. Alan concluded, “You can generalise what we’ve discussed, and think of similar issues throughout the rest of the sonata.”
By the lesson’s end, I had discovered how to get more beauty out of that sonata. As a teacher myself, I reflected that I had just had the privilege of learning from a great teacher. And – as the husband of a clinical psychologist, I realised that I had also experienced a masterpiece of conjoint “musical psychotherapy” and relationship-building.
‘The World Until Yesterday’ by Jared Diamond (Allen Lane, £20) is out now