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I worked outdoors in Wisconsin one summer, maintaining filtration pipes that were laid out over an 80-acre pasture. My only companion during work hours was a house cat I named Fred, who had recently been abandoned to the fields. My circumstances were such that I could not take him in, and, because of the long warm summer ahead of us, I thought it best to encourage his independence and left him to fend for himself.
For the first few days, Fred remained within the security of the compound. He didn’t hunt for food, and soon his sleek and well-groomed coat began to lose its luster. But by the end of the week, he had made his first few clumsy attempts at hunting. He re-established his grooming habits and ventured further into the fields. In no time, he had honed his instincts to meet the demands of his new way of life. It became my daily ritual to watch him hunt.
Whenever he reached the manicured lawn of the field station, Fred would suddenly stop short and fix his attention toward the fields. I would gaze out over the same general area, but all I ever noticed was the tangle of vegetation—nothing that would seem to warrant his attention. Yet he would begin to stalk, stepping gingerly over dried leaves and twigs. He would stalk far out into the field before pouncing, and he would always return with his catch. He would even offer me a mouse on occasion, trotting proudly into the compound and dropping it at my feet.
I was intrigued by Fred’s ability to detect the presence of mice from such a great distance. I had also been curious about the nature of hunger and wondered whether it might be playing a role in Fred’s ability to hunt, so I decided to experience hunger for a short while myself—to feel some of its physical effects without suffering through the more prolonged feelings of weakness and pain.
I reduced my diet to juice and an occasional piece of fruit, eliminating all other food. As the days passed, my hunger increased and, with it, an enhanced sensitivity to my surroundings. Sounds that had barely been audible were now amplified, from the drone of a tractor three fields away to the rustling of leaves and grass at my feet. The smell of earth, wildflowers and moist decay became pronounced. Colors seemed more vivid, and I began to notice details in the landscape that I hadn’t noticed before. It was as if Nature had turned up its volume, exaggerated its movements and illuminated the colors of the landscape.
About one week into my fast, Fred was meandering past when he suddenly stopped and fixed his gaze out over the field. As I had done time and fruitless time again, I followed his line of sight with my own. But this time I easily caught sight of a tuft of grass that, alone, quivered against the undulating movement of the grass around it. It was being disturbed by the presence of a mouse at the base of its stalk! Fred retrieved it within minutes, and although this satisfied his hunger, mine went unanswered for a few more days. But from that moment on, the fields, which had once appeared tranquil, came alive. They grew to proportions of sensory overkill as my tactile perceptions sharpened and my hunger increased. It was not until I reintroduced solid food into my diet that these sensations subsided to within the usual realm of my senses. That sensitivity still ebbs and flows around mealtimes, as it does with everyone, but never with the intensity of those days in the field.
I ended the fast as I had started it—out of personal choice—and I try to show my appreciation by eating food appropriate for my well-being and not eating so much as to the point of dullness, for that seems to take the edge off life. Just as a little bit of hunger creates a sense of keenness, satiation dulls the senses and ushers in a sense of complacency. And these times invite our undivided attention.