I am some 60 minutes into my run in local woods on a way-too-warm day, and as first fatigue announces itself, I’ve turned my mind to the will and focus needed to step smoothly, to ease along. I’m working to cohere at one of those times when the day’s running project wants to collapse, its wheels bouncing away, its resolve losing air. My eyes are set steadily on the trail 10 feet ahead, reading it for stones and good landings. Perhaps it is only that I am running and caged by my own will, but suddenly I sense other motion along the left peripheral edge of vision; adrenaline juices my system, and before I can think, I’ve already upped my speed—I am ready for flight.
All of this is over in under a second. As my next step falls, the low-slung, tawny shape on my left—ready cougar? crouching wolf?—resolves to rock; my chemistry settles. I run on at my deliberate and deliberative pace through what must be one of safest stretches of woodland in the world.
Still, as I run I begin to recall other moments when unexpected shapes on the periphery of vision have brought on similar spikes of startle-juice, when I’ve been suddenly ready to go, or to have a go. And this gets me wondering about the gallery of threats hung deep in the halls of our biology, the pictures passed down along the long evolutionary chain of ancestors so that we might survive in our wanderings out of Africa, or out from town. There must be a series of shapes associated with threat that I take with me every time I run in the woods or mountains… or along the veldt.
A few years ago I recall reading an article that proposed a positive reinforcement that has kept whatever genetic structure is behind what we call attention deficit disorder, or ADHD, alive in us. As a teacher, I’d long wondered about the roots of this scattering of attention, often at its height just when we ask daily for focus… on this passage of reading, for instance… or on these reductive equations. You, we say to students, must master these words or figures; focus; put everything else aside and pass the test set before you. And they try. They want, after all, to succeed. They really do.
But, the article’s theory said, perhaps evolution’s wiring has another idea, and it can be found in a word I’ve just used, “aside.” Once, deep in our prehistory, perhaps when we were all still tribing around in Africa, it became clear that both our curious natures and the need to find the resources of open territory would lead us out from our original home. But moving out of Africa would be no easy journey. It would be walking and running in a dangerous world, one where threat—that sabertooth tiger, for example—might be right along side the trail to be taken.
Who then would lead us outward? Theory proposed that we would be/were led by scouts and shamans, who were often selected for their ability to see what most missed, especially along the margins of vision. Those who could see aside, who could spot the peripheral rustle in the brush or conjure some vision of the way, would have been among our celebrated. And they, as leaders, would have gotten the best food, the best mates; their genes would have been selected for the next generations and passed on. And so, the side-glancers are still with us.
For me, this theory made intuitive sense, because I am host to such dispersed attention. Always quick to see what’s off to the side, I sometimes miss what is squarely before me. But, given a mountain lion’s habit of taking prey from behind, I do have an evolutionary leg up on fellow citizens who bring to bear laser-like focus on what’s ahead.
A lot of you run in actual lion territory. Here, in Maine and among the ground-down molars of our New England mountains, we have no lions, officially. But a year ago, a lion showed up three miles north of our border with Canada, and a few years before that, a lion was killed crossing a Connecticut parkway. They can’t be far away. And so like you, if you are a Boulder, Colorado runner or Sierra Nevada ascender, when I step onto my trails for a run, I try for the mix of dispersed attention and focus that will take me out… and bring me home.
Even if it animates some of the very stones I run by.
Reading recommendation: If you, a woods and mountain runner, would conjure lions or awareness of them, David Baron’s excellent 2004 book, The Beast in the Garden, about lions and people in the Boulder area is a great, albeit occasionally shivery, read. Baron’s command of narrative and detail brings the sometimes volatile mix of lions and us alive.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Do you tend toward scattering or focusing your attention during your everyday life?
- And how about when you run? Do you sometimes find yourself scanning the landscape around you? Or are you more inclined to focus upon the scene immediately in front of you?