“We think we have looked at a thing sharply until we are asked for its specific features.”
“We hear and apprehend only what we already half know,” Thoreau wrote as he considered what it takes to see unblinded by preconception. “The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras sang a century later from the pages of her symphonic reckoning with what makes life worth living.
Partway in time between these two uncommon seers, another — the great naturalist (or “naturist,” as he described himself) John Burroughs (April 3, 1837–March 29, 1921) took up the subject in the title essay of Sharp Eyes and Other Essays (public library | free ebook), published in the final years of his long and lush life.
In a delightful take on the notion of seeing with new eyes, Burroughs considers what it means to be a seer — a person of uncommon vision into the realms of reality to which we spend our ordinary days blind, but which are always there for the seeing if we know how to look:
I find it amusing to observe how each eye reinforces and seconds the other. This is why I often wonder what effect one might have if one were to open eye after eye until there are twelve or more. He would see what? Perhaps not the invisible — not the odours of flowers nor the fever germs in the air — not the infinitely small of the microscope nor the infinitely distant of the telescope. It would not require more eyes as an eye with different lenses, but would this not allow him to see with enhanced power within his natural vision limits? Some people seem to be able to see better than others. Their vision is so clear and sharp that it penetrates through the fog and obscure where others fail like a wasted or impent bullet.
He observes that uncommon seers like Thoreau and Audubon — uncommon seers like himself, we can safely say with posterity’s clarity of hindsight — always seem to have more than two eyes open: “not outward eyes, but inward.” He writes:
We open another eye whenever we see beyond the first general features or outlines of things — whenever we grasp the special details and characteristic markings that this mask covers.
In a sentiment the poetic physicist Richard Feynman would echo a generation later in his wonderful ode to a flower, Burroughs notes that “science confers new powers of vision” by revealing new layers and details of nature “as if new and keener eyes were added.” It is a power we can train in our ordinary way of seeing, just by changing how we look:
A habit of observation can be described as a habit of steady, deliberate gazing. The rarest and most distinctive things are not found by casual looking, but rather by steady eye movement. To see the details, you must focus intently on the object and keep your eyes focused.
An epoch before Susan Sontag held up as the writer’s primary task and talent that of being “a professional observer,” Burroughs adds:
The naturalist is required to do this as well as the poet or artist. The sharp eye notes specific points and differences, — it seizes upon and preserves the individuality of the thing.
We believe we know the details of a thing until they ask us to. I thought I knew exactly the form of the leaf of the tulip-tree, until one day a lady asked me to draw the outline of one… Most of the facts of Nature, especially in the life of the birds and animals, are well screened. The play doesn’t seem to be there because we aren’t paying enough attention.
Complement with Georgia O’Keeffe on the art of seeing, then revisit Burroughs on how to live with our human fragility and his lovely manifesto for spirituality in the age of science.
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