The Fable of the Gazelle
A story about running and writing
In my last letter, I mentioned hunting the gazelle. This is an image that’s been on my mind since I read Joseph Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success (thanks to Django Wexler for the recommendation), and I think it’s powerful and useful for any drawn-out project, especially an artistic one.
Henrich is an evolutionary biologist, and he studies the question: why humans? Out of all the world’s creatures, why have humans carved out a niche that allows them to shape not only their own lives, but the conditions of all other lives on the planet? What advantage we have over the replacement primate, let alone the replacement metazoan?
The first answer that springs to mind is, maybe we’re just smarter. The funny thing is, it turns out we’re not that much smarter. On problem solving tests, human toddlers barely outperform chimpanzees. We’re not tougher, or stronger, or more flexible. The book argues that we really lap the competition in two areas. First, we’re stunningly good at learning from other humans—we’re much better than any other species at passing knowledge from individual to individual. Second, we’re really, really good at a particular kind of running.
You might think: well, wait a second. Human landspeed tops out at around 28 miles an hour (on a short sprint), and even dogs can hit 30. Horses can do 55, at least according to Google. But the devil’s in the details.
Humans move on two legs, not on four. That gives us all sorts of problems late in life—spines, in general, are evolved to be curtain rods, not flagpoles—but it gives us access to an extremely efficient gait style. Quadrupeds have to push their body forward every step of the way. We can just tip our centers a bit ahead of our feet, and let gravity do the rest—so long as we catch ourselves on the way down.
The quadruped body plan has a drawback, too: when forefeet strike the ground, they push the animal’s lungs together, a bit like the arms of a bellows. This means that a horse, or gazelle, can only inhale at certain points in their gait, and must exhale at others—like a swimmer can only breathe in at certain points in their stroke. So quadrupeds tend to have a few clearly distinguished “gears,” different combinations of gaits and breath patterns that allow them to operate optimally at different speeds.
Humans don’t have that. Our lungs are far away from our legs. We can breathe whenever we want while running. To extend the automotive metaphor, we’re more like a car driven by an electric motor: continuous torque all the way through, no transitions from gear to gear.
And: we’re cool. That is: we’re extremely good at cooling down when we run, compared to other animals. We have a lot of small capillaries close to the surface of our skin, which allow us to radiate heat out into the environment. And we have loads more sweat glands than any other animal, so we cool by evaporation and radiation—we sweat, our capillaries heat up the sweat, the sweat evaporates, and energy leaves the system.
So: we can run at any pace we choose. We can run for a long time, and we recover quickly when we’re tired. What does this mean?
Humans, far back in evolutionary time, seem to have been endurance predators. Here’s how it works: we pick out an animal on the horizon. A gazelle, say. We start running toward it—just a bit faster than it can escape in low gear. The gazelle shifts up to high gear, sprints off over the horizon faster than we can follow. Then it stops, exhausted, waiting to recover.
Well, no problem. We’ve learned (from other hunters) the signs a gazelle leaves, its prints and its spoor and the particular characteristics of its trail. We follow the gazelle, loping at a slow and easy pace. We follow that particular gazelle. And if we’re careful, and we pay attention, and we’re very good at what we do, we find it, still worn out from its last sprint.
Then we run toward it again. Just a bit faster than it can comfortably escape. It jolts into high gear and sprints away as fast as possible, still lathered. And, again, we follow.
We can recover faster, and we can run at a slow pace for longer, and vary our pace to attack. So long as we’re always following the same animal, and prevent it from escaping into the comparative safety of the herd, eventually it won’t be able to run any more. And we, and our families, can eat.
There’s a lot I love about this vision of human hunting. It’s not Tarzan vs. Tabor—it relies on cleverness and endurance more than raw violence. It’s not especially gendered. In deference to the ‘carrier bag’ theory of literature: you can be looking for nuts and berries, then spy a likely target, and go after them in this way.
At the beginning of the work, you see the gazelle on the horizon. The gazelle might be an image. It might be a feeling you want to have, or a feeling you want the audience to have. It might be a tale half-remembered from your childhood, or a bit of pain you’ve never been able to express. Maybe it’s something that turns you on, or turns you off. Maybe it’s a character, or a moment of triumph, or a wicked cool scene you can imagine someone painting on a metal album cover. Maybe it’s a line from a poem, and you’ve forgotten the rest.
Whatever it is, you think it will nourish you, and, you may hope, it will nourish your family, your community, your world. So you move toward it, as fast as you can. And, because it is a living thing, it recedes.
Of course it does. Now you’re alone. But you’re not, quite. You have your practice (your ability to run), your skill (your ability to follow the signs), and your faith (that you really did see the gazelle, that it was there, that it will nourish you if you can find it).
So you proceed. You follow the trail, and compare it to other trails you have seen, or that others have described to you. You know, roughly, the lay of the land—where water might be, where shelter, what paths the gazelle might take as it runs. All these inform the choices you make as you attempt to follow the trail, and may aid you, or impede. Maybe it isn’t a gazelle after all that you’re chasing. Maybe it leaves different signs, or takes different avenues of escape. Maybe its herd is further, or closer, than you thought. Maybe your pace isn’t fast enough. (Maybe you’re not in the genre you thought you were. Maybe you’ve chosen the wrong point of view, or the voice isn’t suited to the project.)
You keep that image in mind, seen once at a great distance.
Eventually, if you’re working with skill, and care, and faith, you see it again. Maybe you get closer this time. Maybe it can’t run away as fast as it did at first. You can see the patterns of its fur, the color of its eyes. You follow.
When you study genre, you study a particular type of animal. When you read broadly, and think deeply, you learn to identify different game, and their patterns and behaviors. By planning with care, you may avoid some unpleasant surprises—but you can’t plan for everything. When the gazelle darts in a way you don’t expect, or when it turns out you’re chasing something altogether different, will you be able to respond smoothly, or will you stick to an outdated plan? On the other hand—if you don’t plan, when you come to a branching point, what principles will guide you? How will you make the right choice?
Many guides promise to show you how to catch what you’re running for, every time. But if the meat is always where you’ve been told to find it—is it really alive? Is it nourishing? Or does it just remind you of nourishment? Even springs run dry. Even fruit trees die, and rot.
You find a sustainable pace. You keep putting one foot in front of the other, because you must. You listen, deeply—to your own muscles and joints and body, to the world around and beneath you. You activate sensors below the conscious mind. You must listen, you must be aware of what your ankles are doing, of tension held in odd places, of repeated words or rhythms or constructions, of habits that warp the project as opposed to those that compound to sustain and elevate it.
And someday, you find yourself at the end.
Or you fail. That does happen. You wander home. You breathe deeply. You share your story, you listen others, you ask for their advice. You sleep and you dream and you let your body learn things that your conscious mind can barely grasp.
And then, one day, full of faith, you go out and do it all again.