The Beauty of What Happens When Nothing Happens

10 minute read
Odell is a multidisciplinary artist and author. She is the author of New York Times bestseller How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy and Saving Time: Discovering A Life Beyond The Clock

In a 1973 essay called “Approaches to What?” the French writer Georges Perec coined the term “infraordinary.” Media and the public perception of time, he wrote, focused on the extraordinary—things outside the ordinary, like cataclysmic events and upheavals. The infraordinary was, instead, that layer inside or just beneath the ordinary, and being able to see it involved the challenge of seeing through the habitual. This was no small task, given that invisibility is part of the very nature of habit. “This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia,” Perec writes. “We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space?”

Clearly a person intent on defamiliarizing the familiar, Perec once wrote a 300-page novel without using the letter “e.” For finding the infraordinary, too, he had his particular methods. In An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, he chose the Place Saint Sulpice, a large public plaza near the center of the city, as a place of study. Visiting it from a series of cafes and one outdoor bench multiple times a day for a few days, he sat and listed everything he noticed. The list sounds incantatory, with shades of police blotter:

A postal van.
A child with dog
A man with a newspaper
A man with a large “A” on his sweater
A “Que sais-je?” truck: “La Collection ‘Que sais-je’ a réponse à tout (The ‘Que sais-je’ collection has an answer for everything)”
A spaniel?
A 70
A 96
Funeral wreaths are being brought out of the church.
It is two thirty.
A 63, an 87, an 86, another 86, and a 96 go by.
An old woman shades her eyes with her hand to make out the
number of the bus that’s coming (I can infer from her
disappointed look that she’s waiting for the 70)
They’re bringing out the casket. The funeral chimes start ringing
The hearse leaves, followed by a 204 and a green Mehari. An 87
A 63
The funeral chimes stop
A 96
It is a quarter after three.

In the introduction to this piece, Perec briefly lists the normal points of interest in Place Saint Sulpice, like the district council building, a police station, and “a church on which Le Vau, Gittard, Oppenord, Servandoni, and Chalgrin have all worked.” By virtue of their identifiability, Perec was not interested in these. His intention, he wrote, “was to describe the rest instead: that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.”

What happens when nothing happens. Perec was undoubtedly aware of the irony of this phrase, because it’s never true that nothing happens. Weather, people, cars, and clouds are all things that move. Even if you were to stand on a vast, sterile concrete plaza in the middle of the desert, you would be surrounded by the swirling of air particles, the movement of the sun overhead, a drifting tectonic plate, and the aging of the mind and body you use to perceive these things. In the translator’s afterword a 2010 edition of An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Marc Lowenthal emphasizes the “attempt” in Perec’s title, writing that “time, unarrestable, works against [Perec’s] project. . . . Every bus that passes, every person who walks by, every object, thing, and event—everything that happens and that does not happen ultimately serves no other function than that of so many chronometers, so many signals, methods, and clues for marking time, for eroding permanence.”

Read More: Doing Nothing Can Make You More Productive

For four years in a row, quarter after quarter, I used to give my design students the same in-class assignment, based loosely on Perec’s text. I asked them to go outside the classroom for 15 minutes and write down things they noticed. When they came back to the classroom, we would have a discussion not only about what they had noticed, but why they thought they’d noticed those things. Most of those times, my students were doing this exercise on campus, and they tended to notice human social interactions more than anything else. But when I gave this assignment in April 2020, many of us were not on campus. In most cases, my students were logging in to Zoom from their parents’ or friends’ homes and, for the assignment, either looked out the window or went out into a yard. After they returned to discuss their 15-minute study, we detected a striking theme: Many of them had noticed birds.

Moreover, they noticed that they had never really noticed those birds before—at least, not in those places.

Their observations were perhaps symptomatic of a larger national trend: For people staying at home during the pandemic, birds started to become more noticeable. In “The Birds Are Not on Lockdown, and More People Are Watching Them,The New York Times interviewed Corina Newsome, who pointed out that the beginning of lockdowns happened at the same time as spring migration. She suggested that it might “give us peace and calm to see that even though our rhythm is interrupted, there is a larger rhythm that continues to go on.” The online database eBird was reporting a 37% increase in users posting observations in 2021, with record-breaking observations for a single day in May 2020. Dollar sales of binoculars in June 2020 had increased 22% from the previous year, and in August 2020, Lizzie Mae’s Bird Seed reported a 50% increase in sales of birdseed and birdwatching accessories. Merlin, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s bird identification app, had its largest-ever monthly increase in downloads in April 2020.

Some of this increase in participation is likely attributable to the ongoing effort to make birding feel welcoming to an audience more diverse in age, class, and race. But some of it must also have been because some people were stuck looking out their windows on a regular basis—or at the other side of a camera: Visits to Cornell’s live bird cams had doubled by May. For some already in the habit of watching birds, the pandemic caused a shift from pursuing rare species in natural preserves to appreciating “what happens when nothing happens,” or the minute activities of birds who had always been right nearby. In fact, eBird observation rates for suburban species increased significantly in some areas following stay-at-home orders. In Idaho, the statewide lockdown saw a 66% increase in eBird checklist submissions and a more-than-doubling of reports of “common residential species,” including jays, chickadees, and the brown creeper, “a cryptic species that becomes easier to spot the more time you spend looking out your windows.”

Indeed, the cryptic brown creeper is probably one of the better examples of something revealed by sustained and localized attention. About five inches long and weighing only 0.3 ounces, it has a chocolate-and-white, mottled texture that camouflages it extremely well against tree trunks. What’s more, this bird doesn’t often sit on branches like others do, instead clinging sideways to tree trunks, inching up or down in furtive, jumpy movements. I used to joke to friends that the only way to see a brown creeper was to accidentally point your eyes at a tree trunk at the exact right moment. The first time I saw one—by accident, of course—I momentarily thought I was hallucinating and that a piece of the trunk had broken off and was somehow moving upward. Now that I know how to pick out their tiny song, I can be a little more intentional, at least pointing my eyes in the correct general direction when I hear it. But, as the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds online guide suggests in its description of the species, I still have to wait patiently and “keep [my] eyes peeled for movement.”

Courtesy of Penguin Random House LLC

Most living entities and systems on this planet obviously do not live by the Western human clock (though some, like the crows who memorize a city’s daily garbage truck route, do of course adapt to the timing of human activities). To watch a brown creeper as it inches up and down, peering into crevices and extracting bugs with its little dentist beak, is thus a way of catching a ride out of the grid and toward a time sense so different that it is barely imaginable to us. In Jennifer Ackerman’s book The Bird Way, I learned that the male black manakin, a South American songbird, can do somersaults so fast that a human can see them only in slowed-down video. Some birdsong contains notes that are sung too quickly or are too high-pitched for us to hear. Veeries, a species related to the American robin, can predict hurricanes months in advance and adjust their migration route accordingly, and no one currently knows how. Birds’ own bodies and their movements are an entanglement of time and space: If a loon is in the higher latitudes, it’s summer, and the bird is mostly black with a striking pattern of white stripes. If the same loon is near my studio in Oakland, it’s winter, and the bird is almost unrecognizably different, a dull grayish brown. (The only time I have ever seen a loon with the black-and-white pattern was when I was far enough north, in Washington State.) Thus, if you showed an expert birder an image of certain species mid-molt, they might be able to guess where that bird was on its migratory journey.

Read More: Birdwatching Has Big Mental-Health Benefits. Here’s How to Start

In June 2020, eBird reported that new registrations for yard lists had increased 900%. On eBird, yard lists are a subset of “patch lists,” examples of patches being “your local park, neighborhood walk, [or] favorite lake or sewage plant.” The idea of a patch is instructive. Unlike roads, property lines, and city limits, patches often exist in the domain of the infraordinary, being unofficial spaces delineated only by attention. This attention is in turn responding to the fact that, as Margaret Atwood put it in an interview on birding, “nature is lumpy” in that birds have their own particular neighborhoods. I have my own patches around my neighborhood, like the side of an unkempt parklet where, in the right months, I know I’ll see a Pacific-slope flycatcher. J. Drew Lanham, birder and professor of wildlife at Clemson University, has written achingly of a sparrow-filled patch along a public road in South Carolina that he’d spent “hundreds of hours cruising” before a racist encounter with a local farmer made him think twice. Before that, he’d “sit and just watch and listen—absorbing all the thickety sparrowness.”

A patch is as small as you want to make it. The smallest one I have had is a single branch of a California buckeye tree in a nearby municipal park, a place I visited or passed through hundreds of times during the pandemic. Buckeyes are temporally notable around here: They go dormant in the late summer, their bare branches looking like an electrified brain, and they eventually grow hard, brown, poisonous seed pods the size of peaches. The scent of their white flowers in spring is my favorite smell, and I look forward to it every year.

From the book SAVING TIME: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock by Jenny Odell. Copyright © 2023 by Jennifer Odell. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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