Originally published at Covenant, February 8, 2017.
I love squirrel hunting, and I go as often as I can. Ironically, I haven’t killed a squirrel in years. That doesn’t matter to me. If I killed one, I would eat it gratefully. But what I like most about squirrel hunting is being in the hardwood forests where squirrels live. In my part of the world, hardwood forests lie mostly along riparian corridors, and my favorite place to go is just such a corridor of oaks and pecans and cottonwoods running along a clear, limestone-bottomed creek. I occasionally see squirrels there, and somewhat less occasionally will shoot at one. But what I really love is settling in at the base of a stately red oak and just looking and listening.
Getting to my spot requires some effort. As you come to the edge of the woods, there is a little ravine to cross, and an old barbed-wire fence. The brush is thick along the edge of the woods, and there are plenty of briars and vines that reach out to grab shirts and snatch hats. During the fall and winter, the ground is littered with leaves that rustle and crunch under foot. I like to think that I can move silently through the woods, like a Caddo warrior, but that isn’t true. I am an uncommonly large, city-dwelling white boy, and I can’t get to my spot by the creek without a good deal of blunder and clatter and imprecation.
If you want to see wildlife in the wild, blunder and clatter and imprecation are not your allies. The Lord said to Noah, “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea” (Gen. 9:2). I have confirmed this by experience. If you want to see wildlife, it is best that they not know you are there.
With that in mind, I wear earth-toned clothes, and once I have blundered into my spot, I get as comfortable and as quiet as I can. I sit still and wait. At first there will be only the sound of the wind in the trees and the water over the rock, but after half an hour or so, animals will reemerge from their hiding places. Birds perch and chirp, voles scuttle in the leaf litter. If I’m lucky, something higher up the chain of being will manifest itself — a deer, a turkey … or a squirrel.
I once listened to a lecture by an outdoors professional about how to move through the woods. He laid out the dynamic in terms of concentric circles surrounding a person moving through the woods. If, like me, you are a blunderer, then the circle closest to you is the “circle of perception,” the immediate vicinity that you see and engage with as you clamber over fallen logs and curse the briars attempting to filch your hat. Beyond that circle of perception, and extending very far beyond what you can perceive, is a “circle of disturbance,” the area within which the fear of you and the dread of you has fallen upon the animal kingdom. And the disturbance ripples outward beyond what you immediately create, as disturbed animals in turn disturb others.
A few years ago, Christopher Solomon reported in The New York Times:
Studies in recent years by many researchers … have shown that animals such as birds, mammals and even fish recognize the alarm signals of other species. Some can even eavesdrop on one another across classes. Red-breasted nuthatches listen to chickadees. Dozens of birds listen to tufted titmice, who act like the forest’s crossing guards. Squirrels and chipmunks eavesdrop on birds, sometimes adding their own thoughts. In Africa, vervet monkeys recognize predator alarm calls by superb starlings. (“When Birds Squawk, Other Species Seem to Listen,” May 18, 2015)
Animal “language” is far more nuanced than we knew, and can distinguish between various kinds of threats and their locations and the like. “Don’t get eaten by that lurching human who has just twisted his ankle!” peeps the warbler to the chipmunk. As it were.
The thing to realize is that the size of one’s circle of disturbance is inversely proportional to the size of one’s circle of perception. If you are only aware of what is immediately around you — the root on which you have just twisted your ankle — then you will be more apt to frighten animals you don’t see with your ruckus. But as your attention extends further out, you naturally slow down and move more quietly, and the area within which your movements elicit attention (and alarm) shrinks back toward yourself.
There is a spiritual lesson in all of this. God is the archetype of stillness and silence, and this divine stillness and silence is manifested most fully within this world on the cross — the still silence of our crucified Lord who sees all and disturbs none. It is then no coincidence that “before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13).
When our attention is focused narrowly on ourselves and the things and people in our immediate vicinity, we wind up blundering heedlessly through life, creating a great deal of psychic commotion, and a large circle of spiritual disturbance. But by slowing down, becoming still and quiet, and by allowing our attention to range further afield, encompassing all things, and ultimately expanding beyond the horizon of all things and reaching out to him “who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6), we will discover real stillness, the divine peace that passes all understanding.
Which is to say that our spiritual circle of disturbance will have shrunk to nothing, engulfed by Calvary when it is set up in our hearts.