The Space Between Things

A crow perches in the maple tree outside my second-story office window.  It has a twig in its beak. A scrub jay lands nearby, eyeing the twig. The crow hops toward the jay, flapping its wings aggressively. The jay, outsized and outgunned, squawks and flies away. The crow, victorious, caws three times, then launches into the air and sails across the street, over the top of a house, and disappears into the deep green arms of a large Douglas fir.

This short battle is waged over a thing — a twig, most likely for building another thing, a nest. But what strikes me in this moment is how much we focus on things, as if they are everything, and how little attention we pay to the space between things, despite the fact that space is the majority of what fills our field of vision.

Case in point — looking around my office, I see lots of things: desk, computer, keyboard, chair, bookshelves, index cards, a jar of pens, piles of printed manuscript, a red and yellow scarf knitted for me by a friend. These things have utility and meaning, and so I focus on them, value them.

But when I get out the measuring tape and calculate the cubic footage those things fill, it only totals 123. My office is 1,184 cubic feet in volume. Space outnumbers things by a ratio of nearly 9 to 1.

I go outside and try to measure the thing-to-space ratio of my backyard. It’s fruitless, of course. Things are fewer and farther between, and space goes up and on forever.

How odd, then that we love things so much. We collect things. We crave things. We fill our life with things. We are willing to fight, even die for things. And yet our lives literally depend on the space between those things. It is filled with what we call air, and within that air is oxygen. Which, of course, is essential. And no matter how hard we try to contain it, to call it ours, it just laughs, swirls into a breeze, and moves on — across borders, around the world. It is shared.

Back upstairs in my office, I see that the crow is again perched in the maple outside my window. It has another twig in its beak.