Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pikes, Minnows, and Parks (and a Lesson, Oh My)

"The hardest thing to see is what is in front of our eyes." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

During a visit to see my mom on Long Island the other week, my younger son and I stumbled across a beautiful park - no more than a stone's throw away from the house I grew up in - that I never knew existed! Well, I knew of the place, and of its beauty, but not of the park's presence. And therein lies an important lesson that owes its origin to pikes and minnows.

Years ago, I read of an experiment in which some biologists used cameras to record the actions of a large northern pike inside of an aquarium filled with small minnows. Initially, the pike did exactly what one would expect a pike to do under those circumstances; namely, it enjoyed a feast of a lifetime, since it was surrounded by its favorite food.

But then the researchers placed a glass barrier between the pike and the smaller fish. Each time the pike attempted to grab a minnow, it struck its head on the glass. After many repeated failures, it simply stopped trying altogether. The researchers waited until after the pike was clearly hungry and removed the barrier, thus allowing the minnows to swim toward the pike. What did the pike do? Absolutely nothing! Having "learned" that feeding on the minnows was anything but productive (indeed, even painful), the pike blissfully ignored an aquarium-full of food source. It eventually died from starvation. Despite being immersed in a field of nourishment, it believed none was attainable.

And so we come to our newly "discovered" park... I have known about this place ever since I was about 10 or so (i.e., 41 years ago!). My family and I must have driven past it dozens of times a year. My attention was always drawn to a picturesque little "house" (well, I always thought it was a house, which I now know is an old unused mill, which appears in the image above) overlooking a pond with lovely water lilies. The property itself was on a tiny cliff overlooking a harbor, and surrounded by gorgeous trees.

I very clearly remember wanting to take pictures of the "property" when I started doing photography (when I was around 15), but never got around it; too "embarrassed" (as a youth) to act my resolve to ask the owners for permission. What I did not know - having inadvertently taught myself an incorrect truth (as the pike taught itself that its food was inaccessible) - is that this was a public park! Having gone through so many days in my youth during which I would wake up resolved to "go knock on the door of that house to ask for permission to take pictures," only to wind up empty-handed for whatever reason (laziness, shyness, forgetfulness, ...), my brain eventually defined the house and its property as a private residence, simply because (a) I had never thought of it in any other way, and (b) I never bothered to find out what it really was. The house was on private property, and that was that. And so, years and years would pass, with endless trips up and down the road that house still sits on; periodically, in passing, I would tell my mom, my kids, my wife (anyone in the car with me), "You know, one day..."

On this particular trip, I once again firmly resolved to... going so far as to deliberately pack an extra photography business card to present to the owners. Finally - finally! - I set aside some time to actually walk up to the door and ring the bell. And after 41 years of "knowing," I finally learned that I could have explored this property any time I wanted. Embarassing? Oh yes! And I truly have no explanation why this time proved different. Why did I go now, but not last year, or the year before that? Why not indeed?! Apart from some wonderful pictures (that I ought to have started taking 35 years ago), this experience has also taught me a lesson worth applying to all of my other "learned" truths as well. What am I blind to because I "know" I see it so well?


Joy Mystic said...

"What am I blind to because I know I see it so well."

This is the door to true learning and knowing that we truly know little if nothing. We see what our minds want to see and then take this for the truth. ~ Thanks Andy for sharing the story, the pikes experiment, and the lovely picture.

Karla said...

Thank you for the insight and the wonderful story about the starving pike. Might I suggest an idea that might also relate to your going to the place now, whereas before you were caught up in your assumptions and reluctance. You are now of the 50-ish age. There is something that comes to us during that decade, and in my mind it has to do with feeling more empowered, more able/willing to do and try things we were unable to do before.

Anonymous said...

Lovely story Andy. Judging by that fine photo, you'll be going back to that park.

I go to a local 54 acre nature preserve/park on a regular basis. The park is exactly one mile from my home. I passed that park for 22 years without ever venturing in. Then one day about a year and a half ago I grabbed a camera and set out on foot.

Wow, I'm hooked and go there often. I usually go in the morning during the week and most times have the park to myself. I love it.