Heinz von Foerster Festschrift

Natural Magic on Rattlesnake Hill

I have not had the good fortune of knowing Heinz for many years, nor have circumstances enabled us to get to know one another as well as I might have liked—if I were the sort of person to dwell on what is not the case. I prefer to think that I am fortunate as it is, for I have met Heinz, and have now visited him on several occasions. Most recently I visited Heinz and Mai on Rattlesnake Hill in October, 2000.

There were two other visitors on this occasion, Monika and Cheryl. We had tea, and Heinz gave us each a reprint. Mine was the "Introduction to Natural Magic" and our conversation turned to the relationship between magic and science. Heinz showed us the 20 volume opus, "Die natürliche Magie", which he refers to in his paper. These books were leather bound, with yellowing pages, printed in the old German font that few read with ease nowadays - no wonder, their author, J.C. Wiegleb lived in the 18th century and his opus was published in 1789. What is incredible that this work has remained a source of information and inspiration for over 200 years!

After Heinz retired from tea we continued our conversation and were further entertained by the raccoons who came by the dining room window, soliciting food, as they often do. When I had some moments entirely to myself I sat down on the floor, right by the window, and looked directly into the luminous eyes of a raccoon who approached with its bit of bread, nibbling at it, sensing the nature of the food with its paws, while at the same time gazing at me.

We were invited to stay for dinner, which included the famous and delicious cream of green chili soup from Duarte’s, and of course, more wonderful conversation. It was a delight to see Heinz enjoying our company while enjoying being enjoyed. He told us stories with an exuberance that spoke of the nature of his soul, his way of being in the world. I am inspired.

After dinner Heinz again retired and we women talked a little while longer. Eventually I excused myself since I had to drive to the airport, return my rental car, take a shuttle to the terminal, take another shuttle to San Francisco, and then make my way to the empty apartment of a friend where I could sleep till my flight home the next day. Given it was now late evening this seemed like an uncomfortable undertaking and I wished that my bed were closer. I thanked my companions, left my best wishes for the sleeping host, and took my departure.

As I drove down the hill slowly in the rental car which felt too large for the steep driveway, suddenly a raccoon, "my" raccoon, darted out from the bushes and stood in front of the car. I assumed it was blinded by the bright headlights, and I stopped, waiting for it to leave. Instead, it began to approach the car, so I could no longer see where it was … but ah! I could see its shadow! A perfectly etched raccoon shadow, with pert furry tail sticking straight up, a little hunkered back, and a pointy face. The shadow played in front of the car for a few moments, and I became quite entranced as it elongated first in one way and then another, in a kind of shape-shifting.

Then the raccoon backed up and gazed up at me, or so it seemed, and began to leave, crossing the road. I sighed, and resumed my undesired trip. But again I had to stop, because the raccoon again looked "at me" over its shoulder, and once more scrambled back into the path of the car. Again it wove back and forth across the driveway, in an odd sort of dance alternating between shadow presence and furry beast. I was becoming concerned that the headlights were not only blinding it, but also confusing it, and my attention was entirely gone from my own situation. As before, the raccoon paused, looked at me, and then scampered off to the left, way off the road onto a grassy slope, and sat there gazing at me while I slowly rolled down the hill, passed it, and left.

When I got to the bottom, where the driveway meets the road, I paused, because a thought struck me. What if I were to accept the raccoon as an omen? What if it were trying to tell me something? What did that something mean? It seemed to me the raccoon had been weaving a spell of enchantment with its intricate dance. And it did so twice, as if its first try had not succeeded. What should I be knowing, or doing now? Ah, it was about my route: for some mysterious reason I should be going a different way than I had intended, or there would have been no point for an omen just now. Should I turn left or right? I felt unsure. Had I been planning to go left and hence should I now go right? No, that did not feel right. I imagined a path — right here, then left at the highway, and felt relief. That was it! So I did that.

It was not until I had gone several miles south along Highway 1 that I realized the airport was the other way. Then I laughed with delight for it dawned on me that I did not need to go and do all that which I did not want to do, I could go back and spend one more night with my friend Barb in Santa Cruz, she would welcome me, and I would have a comfortable night and do all those other things the next day. Sure enough, Barb was surprised and pleased, and we had an unexpectedly productive visit.

So now I reflect on this occasion of "natural magic".

Was the raccoon a spiritual guide? Was it an omen? Did it "know" something I did not know, and did it do what it did with the intent of enchanting me? The first of these questions I can answer, but the last one I cannot, not so it would make sense in the context that I posed it in. That is the way of questions; they determine the domain in which the answer must reside -- and sometimes the answer which would satisfy the motive behind the question happens in a different domain.

So in answer to the first two questions - the raccoon was a guide and an omen to the extent that I accepted it as such. In how I live it, it is. If I believe it is an omen, I see that which pertains to my belief, and it is an omen. Since I am aware of my participation in this, I can’t live such a belief in a naïve way. However, I can live it in a way that encompasses my awareness and contradicts neither a belief system where omens and spiritual guides are "real", nor a belief system where so called "scientific rationality" prevails. I accept the legitimacy of the various lineages of networks of explanations which we humans evolve through living them, while recognizing that each has different consequences which I, or the people immersed in these networks, may or may not desire.

What matters to me is that I act in trust of my circumstances. If I let the raccoon, or any other part of the living biosphere (which by its nature is coherent as a system of systems) be my evocation to acting also in coherence with a multidimensional and multi-domained manner of living, in acceptance of where I am, then I can accept the raccoon as an evocation, as an omen, which modulates my behavior. That is, I can accept it as an evocation to participate in the present dynamic of living in a way that could be commented on as good and proper, or sometimes, as wise. As far as I understand, the aboriginal shamanic praxis does not endow animal omens with more than this.

As to my third question, of course the raccoon knows much that I cannot know as I do not live "raccooning", and I cannot even know what it is that I do not know. When one is blind, one is blind to knowing that something even exists, unless one is told, or simply accepts this as a general phenomenon. I myself do not feel uncomfortable in all that I cannot know, for all living beings exist in a manner such that they know that which is relevant to their living. For humans this means a lot.

And my final question, about the raccoon’s intent, is the one I cannot answer because it is posed with an implicit form of answer that I do not want to engage with. But I can say that I think the notion of intentionality requires languaging as a manner of living. And I think events just happen as spontaneous arisings in the crisscrossing flows of living. When we are surprised by them, we may comment on their improbability.

Yet, it is not just the matter of one raccoon’s awareness that lurks in that question. The question of intentionality often rests on the question of the existence of a "directing force", or some "greater being", some awareness beyond human awareness which might, for example, direct the behavior of an innocent raccoon. Though I know people who believe in supernatural phenomena or omniscient beings, some who make a virtue of their belief, some who give this a name, and some who declare it un-namable, I prefer not to claim a belief. I prefer to leave the possibility inherent in the unknown as a mystery. Quite independently of any evidence, or argument, I do not want to foreclose the possibility that there is something I do not know which happens at a scale larger than that in which I, and the other living beings on this earth, live.

Again I have comfort, or trust, in that which I do not know. The unknown domain will arise, if it arises as a unity, in a manner that does not direct or control its constituent parts; only lets them be so they can be well. This would be analogous to what I observe in other natural systems. For example, we do not enslave or control our constituent parts, we arise as complex beings through the spontaneously conserved relationship between autonomous cells, a relationship which also creates the conditions that conserve the living of these cells.

Further, I think that a greater emergent unity could only develop self-aware sentience in relationship with others of like kind. Human languaging, and the possibility of the recursion in language through which selfhood and awareness of selfhood arise, has come about through relationship, through the pleasure of a path of recurrent coordinations of coordination. I think similar dynamics would have to happen in order for any collection of unities, no matter how immense, to develop self-awareness.

Finally, if there is a larger, emergent domain, my proper behavior remains in the domains in which I live, modulated by all the relational domains I participate in, whether or not I am aware of doing so. This does not mean that we cannot sense things which we cannot consciously refer to. In recognizing the presence of that which I know, but do not know I know, I wish to remain open to the influence of that which I do not believe in, as I think that "believing in" something generally restricts vision. And this is where I come back to magic, and what I have learned about magic from Heinz.

In a 1979 article written on the occasion of Heinz’ retirement, Humberto Maturana comments that a magician such as Heinz consciously exists in many realities simultaneously. This is akin to saying that as a languaging being, one accepts and is aware of many non-intersecting relational domains, each of which is internally consistent, and each of which entails a different and legitimate network of explanations. We are commonly told that the skill of the magician consists in misdirection, and we usually take this as meaning a direction of attention to the wrong thing. I think the most effective misdirection consists of enchanting an audience to the wrong framework of explanation, that is to a relational domain that does not generate the phenomenon which is observed.

But there is more, and it is closely linked to the raccoon as omen. In the same article I referred to, Humberto tells the story of how Heinz used to perform magic tricks which appeared supernatural to his audience. He would set up several situations in his house prior to the arrival of guests, and then would keep these in mind so that if the circumstances became right, he could play them out. For example he could invite a skeptical guest to "invent" the location of a hidden playing card, much to that guest’s astonishment. In explaining how this takes place Heinz alludes to the many relational domains that we living systems participate in, unaware that we are doing so. Throughout the evening the attentive guest would have been influenced by all the subtle dynamics inherent in Heinz’s behavior as Heinz remained oriented to the hidden card. When given a chance to act on this connection, unencumbered by any expectation, the guest could do so in a manner that had to do with his or her participation in more dimensions than he or she was consciously aware of. It is in this sense that my raccoon and Heinz’ magic trick are both forms of what I could call natural magic.

Now, at home, I have read Heinz’ paper which introduces Wiegleb’s natural magic, and see that so much that we now considered technology or science was at one time seen as magical. What have we mastered by taking the magic out of these domains? Perhaps we were more open to understanding the dimensionality our existence before we followed the path of proof and certainty that modern science, in its popular form, has become.

Of course there is another way of looking at all that happened to me that evening. I already knew, though I was not consciously aware that I knew, all the elements in my little raccoon story. I knew I could go visit Barb instead of going to San Francisco, I knew that Half Moon Bay and the route to the airport was north, I knew that I could keep the rental car till the morning ... so I could also say that I had already decided unconsciously what I would do, and the raccoon became a rationale for my actions that I use, in retrospect, to explain to myself the progress of what I did.

Just the same, I enjoy my raccoon story - and thinking of it as an animal omen feels friendly, feels as if I am somehow nearer to it, and to the biosphere. And in living this, and telling my story, it feels like I am somehow nearer to Heinz, and all that mystery of what his life has been, and what his living may yet evoke in the world. This I like.

Pille Bunnell

Heinz von Foerster Festschrift