A Well-Frog’s View

“A frog in a well knows nothing of the ocean.”
─ Japanese Proverb

Hello, BloggingBrights Readers!

Like you, I am new to this blog site and am excited about exploring the possibilities it has to offer.

I blog from Saratoga Springs, Utah, a U.S. city of about 17,000 residents stretched across and beyond the northeast tip of Utah Lake.  Ever since my New York sister-in-law told me she had never noticed Utah on her map before I moved here, I have been careful to resist becoming the proverbial frog in the well that is content to see its little patch of blue sky while completely unaware of the vast ocean beyond.  Through travel, family and social activities, reading and such, I strive to maintain a perspective that extends beyond my geo-cultural boundaries.  But after spending twenty years here, I am a naturalized local now, so wherever my perspective might reach out to, it has its starting point in Utah.

Aren’t we all well-frogs in some way or another?  I learned about the biological notion of Umwelt in an animal behavior class in college.  An Umwelt (“OOM-velt”) is the world that is perceived and experienced by an organism.  A classic example used to explain this notion is the Umwelt of the tick.  In searching for its next blood meal, a tick perceives the world through a limited number of faculties:  light sensitivity through its skin; butyric acid sensitivity through its olfactory organ; heat sensitivity; and touch sensitivity.

Using its limited array of sensors, a tick blindly climbs a blade of grass or a stick toward a light source, and when it gets as far as it can go, waits till it smells butyric acid, which all mammals give off.  Sensing the smell, the tick lets go of its perch and falls onto the passing mammal below, then feels its way through its prey’s hairs to reach the skin.  The tick bores through the skin until it senses the warmth of blood and begins to suck.  In this very simplistic scenario, the Umwelt of the tick is defined—and confined—to a world of light and dark, the smell of butyric acid, the feel of hair and skin, and the temperature of blood.  Colors, sounds, emotions, knowledge—such things do not exist for the tick.

Humans can perceive a vastly more expansive world, but like ticks, our Umwelt is still confined to what we experience through our senses.  Other organisms have Umwelts that more or less overlap ours yet may extend in some areas far beyond our sense capacities.  So an Umwelt map of a German Shepherd would be smaller than ours in color perception while the world it hears would be about three times bigger, and its olfactory world would be 1,000 times bigger!

The notion of Umwelts reminds us of the limits of the world we perceive while also highlighting our capabilities:  perhaps uniquely among Earth’s organisms, humans can extend the range of our natural senses by the use of tools, and apply rational thought to interpret the new experiences gained through our enhanced sensors.  So we may indeed be well-frogs with confined Umwelts, but we have within us the ability to leap out and grasp much grander worlds.  I sincerely hope the BloggingBrights may be one of the tools that will help get us there.

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