Trusting our Umwelt in Times of Despair

Kevin John Fong
6 min readJun 28, 2022

How relying on our own bespoke slivers of reality will see us through.

Photo: Tsuyoshi Takeuchi

I sat in my backyard taking in some sun and relishing a quiet moment on Sunday afternoon. Two butterflies appeared, dancing high above me. I sat up to observe them for a few minutes, taking delight in how they would come very close together for a time, then drift apart, I watched as a gust of wind swept one away, lifting it over my neighbor’s three-story home.

With one butterfly gone and one lingering, I felt a tinge of sadness. Would these butterflies ever find one another and dance again? And even as these thoughts formed, a second gust of wind carried the remaining butterfly over the same roof. What odds that they might ever find each other? Or would these same winds persist and buffet these fragile creatures toward some harsher fate? I peered into the blue sky for a few minutes more, wondering and hoping.

Then the pair reappeared, swooping down the side of my neighbor’s home and back into my yard, resuming their dance right above me. And there I had my answer: In an unforgiving world these creatures found each other, lost each other, risked everything they had, and found each other again.

In his book — An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us — Pulitzer-prize winning science writer Ed Yong explains that while larger creatures like humans have developed particular sensory organs (e.g. eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, and tongues for tasting), smaller creatures like butterflies feel all of their senses with their entire bodies. A fly can taste an apple through its feet, and some species of lizards smell both through their noses and their bellies. Butterflies use their entire bodies to sense changes in the air currents.

Dr. Yong refers to this condition as an umwelt — a word coined by German Biologist Jakob von Uexkull (1864–1944). “Umwelt comes from the German for ‘environment,’” Dr. Yong writes. “But von Uexküll wasn’t using it to mean physical environment. He meant the sensory environment, the unique set of smells, sights, sounds, and textures that each animal has access to — their own bespoke sliver of reality.”

Beyond the five senses, Dr. Yong also refers to echolocation (bats, whales), and electromagnetics (seals, jellyfish). Many beings draw upon an umwelt that contains six, seven, and more senses required in order to survive and thrive.

And it was in these reflections that I received an insight into current circumstances:

Like those butterflies, I must rely on my own umwelt to navigate through harsh environments. For example, upon hearing the news of the SCOTUS decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, I called upon my sense of healing to post the following bits of good news, in an attempt to provide a salve to our wounds of Friday’s news. On the same day -

· “For the first time in the state’s history, there were no incarcerated girls in Hawaii. The Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility said it’s been that way for nearly a month, after years of work to replace handcuffs with healing.”

· “Dick’s Sporting Goods said it would provide up to $4,000 in travel reimbursement for employees who live in states that restrict abortion access and that the policy would apply to any spouse or dependent covered by the company’s medical plan.”

Maybe I meant to soothe my own pain by focusing on the silver linings amidst the dark clouds. Perhaps it was my inherent tendency to import joy into difficult situations. A handful of folks responded to my posts with upbeat emojis. But most of my other friends and colleagues appeared caught in an updraft that scattered and buffeted them. Just as with my moment with two butterflies, these friends may have had no indication that they could ever regroup and recover.

Later that day, I facilitated a community healing circle for a group of folks — Black, White, Latinx, and Asian — who had not yet met in-person, but had built a community of trust through our circles over the past few months.

We talked about the state of our hearts, and while the participants represented all points on the political spectrum, there was a collective sadness in the air — even from those who oppose abortion. “I wish there was a way that we could have come to a place where folks didn’t feel like they won or lost,” one pro-life advocate said. “While I am a devout Christian who believes in the sanctity of life, I don’t want people to suffer needlessly.”

I asked each person share a “blue-sky moment” that they had experienced in the past week. Carmen shared that her young grandchild successfully recovered from a delicate heart surgery. John told us about a 2-hour conversation he had with a young person, and how that conversation helped them pull through a tough time. Gail talked about how she supported a group of people who were on a 500-mile journey to bring awareness on an issue that she cared about. Donna shared how she had recently helped a neighbor purchase some groceries, only to find out that a week before, this neighbor had tried to take her own life.

Gail mentioned how each of our blue-sky moments were like medicine beads that she strung together to wear as a reminder that hope and joy will always pull us through our toughest times. “We not only bring medicine and magic — we are the medicine and magic,” she said.

Ed Yong writes about how seals use their whiskers to follow pathways in the water. “Every being that swims leaves a trail in the water, like a set of footprints,” Dr. Yong said. “Seals have receptors in their whiskers that allow them to ‘see’ these trails. Thus, they can find a school of fish, members of their own pod, or even you if you are swimming in shared water.”

We must trust our umvelt in times of despair. Perhaps we have our own special receptors that can detect pathways to each other. These pathways may be our sixth and seventh senses of love and kindness that guide us to those currents of compassion that bring us together. As we closed our circle, I asked the participants — all of whom were strangers to each other before we came together three months ago — why they joined the circle, and what keeps them coming back.

To a person, they said that they were searching for some place that would provide a sense of sanctuary, an oasis, in this storm called life. “I didn’t have a clear picture of what I was looking for,” said Donna, “but I would know it in my heart once I felt it. And this circle is it.”

We closed the circle as we always do, with the sweet song “I Wonder” by Yasmin Williams. Smiles, heart emojis, and waves covered the screen as each of us departed, and the winds carried us away. I am thankful for the knowledge that — if we ever feel cast adrift by the winds of our times — we can call upon our own bespoke slivers of reality to find each other, and dance once again.

Questions for Reflection and Consideration

1. What are 2–3 blue-sky moments you have experienced in the past few days? Who can you share those blue-sky moments with?

2. Reflect on a time when you used your sixth or seventh sense to guide you to a place that brought you the respite and medicine you needed. What were the conditions that caused that to happen?

3. Who is your community, however you define it? What do you do to stay connected to your community?

--

--

Kevin John Fong

A cultural translator and racial healing practitioner, Kevin works to weave people and possibilities to cultivate communities of belonging — www.kahakulei.com