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In which John, at his son's request, examines the red-eyed tree frog and what its camouflage can tell us about ourselves.

This video was inspired by my son and by the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which is brilliant and might change your life:

Also, if you like this kind of thing, you might like my podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed, in which I try to pay very close attention to very specific things. A new episode comes out Thursday. iTunes: or soundcloud: or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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John:Hey Henry, what should I make my video about tomorrow.
Henry: Red Eyed Tree Frogs.

Alright! Good morning, Hank. It's Tuesday so I've been listening a lot to this podcast, "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text" in which two scholars of religion read Harry Potter as a sacred text. Regardless of how you feel about religion or Harry Potter this podcast is just brilliant. Actually, I guess it does help to be interested in Harry Potter. I've always thought those books lend themselves to critical reading, but until listening to this podcast, I had no idea how deep they could be.

So I really believe as I wrote in 'Turtles All the Way Down' that beauty is mostly a matter of attention. Like, what you love matters, but how you love it matters so much more. And listening to 'Harry Potter and the Sacred Text' has reminded me that paying sustained, careful attention to almost anything can be tremendously rewarding.

So okay, let's try it with the red eyed tree frog. Which is a tree dwelling, two inch long frog with about a 5 year life span that's native to central America and southern Mexico. They eat mostly insects and are eaten by a wide variety of animals including snakes, owls, bats and sometimes alligators.

So there are two things I find really fascinating about red eyed tree frogs. First, they close their eyes when eating because the retraction of their eyes helps them to push food down their throats. Basically they use their eyes to help them eat which is a nice reminder of just how cobbled together life is.

We're all working within the confines of our physiology to muddle through. Whether that means briefly rendering ourselves blind in order to aid in digestion or using exposure therapy to retrain an overly active fight-or-flight response. The other thing I find fascinating about red eyed tree frogs is, of course, the fact that they're super weird looking and have huge red eyes. Like their scientific name comes from Greek words meaning 'beautiful tree nymph' but I would describe them more as 'bug-eyed frog demons.'

Experts disagree about the point of their unusual coloration. But we know that during the day red eyed tree frogs mostly sit on leaves with their eyes closed and their blue striped legs tucked underneath them, fairly close to perfect camouflage. And then if they sense a predator their red eyes flash open and they stare at the predator before trying to jump away.

Now it may be that this response is designed to startle predators, God knows it would scare me, but the red eyes might also be about something else. Like if the last thing a predator sees before eating you, or failing to eat you because you jumped away, are red eyes and blue stripes the next time it's looking for you, or for a frog like you, it's going to look for that bright contrast of red eyes and blue stripes not for a well camouflaged green lump. 

So what makes the red eyed tree frog stand out is also what makes it hard to find. And that seems to me resonant with so much of human life like for instance I'm attracted to information that is novel and surprising even though that kind of information is often not the most useful or accurate.

Or when looking for inspiration I often expect thunderclaps or epiphanies or blinding light awakenings. When in truth the insight or comfort I need is often subtler and comes from looking closely and quietly. Like any predator I listen to what is loud and look at what is bright and that can make it easy to distract me or mislead me. 

In short if you're only looking for red eyes you'll usually miss the red eyed tree frog. Hank I'll see you on Friday.  

P.S. If you're interested in this kind of thing it's how I'm trying to look at the world in my new podcast "The Anthropocene Reviewed." There's a new episode out on Thursday you can find out more in the doobly doo below, or you can find out more about "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text" which is so so good.