Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Meeting Nature with New Eyes

You and I are mostly blind. I don’t mean that our eyes don’t work, only that we fail to register most of what we see. It is as if we lived in a library and knew the titles of all the books and exactly where each one was located, but never opened one of them to read what was inside.

As I sit in a lovely campground in the southern Sierra Nevada, I am surrounded by pines, cedars, oaks and a host of wildflowers – in full spring color. Last night as the sun was about to set, I watched a bobcat amble silently across a path. I love coming here for several reasons. I love the wild things, the clean air and the peacefulness that is here. I have also come to learn new things and to enhance my understanding of the Creation.  

I have been to this same location and watched as young children discovered the rocks and pinecones for the first time. Children have an ability to entertain themselves in a way that we adults struggle to understand. Somewhere along the path of becoming adults, we often fall into a conscious rut of superficial awareness that separates us from the excitement of discovery.

I have had the good fortune of escaping from this rut many times in my life. And I have learned that there are a few things – call them tricks if you like – that can enhance awareness and make seeing the world just as exciting for us adults as it is for children. If discovering nature is a guaranteed pleasure for them, why should it be any different for us? There is no chance that you have experienced all the magical moments that nature has to offer. There is only the chance that you will fail to get out of the rut of your own apathy.

I recently read a remarkable account of the German philosopher Gustav Theodor Fechner. Fechner was born in 1801 to a poor family and his father died when he was only a child. The young Fechner showed promise though and developed an interest in medicine. He managed to support himself in his studies by translating physics and chemistry textbooks. He was clearly a gifted lad.

He also had a passion for conducting experiments and often used himself as his own guinea pig. Some of these efforts proved to be quite harmful, especially the many observations he made of the images left in the mind after looking at bright objects – especially the sun. These studies left him nearly blind for three years as well as exhausted and depressed. After he regained his sight, he wrote a description of what he experienced. It is the best account I know of describing what it is like to see nature with new eyes. He wrote:

“… I stepped out for the first time from my darkened chamber and into the garden with no bandage on my eyes. It seemed to me like a glimpse beyond the boundary of human experience. Every flower beamed upon me with a peculiar clarity, as though into the outer light it was casting its own. To me the whole garden seemed transfigured, as though it were not I but nature that had just risen up again. And I thought: So nothing is needed but to open the eyes afresh, and with that, old nature is made young again. Indeed, one will hardly believe how new and vivid is the nature which meets the man who comes to meet it with new eyes.”

This sort of change in how we see the world was experienced by my wife Kathy and me a number of years ago. It wasn’t an encounter with nature but with an old piece of furniture but the principle, I think, is similar.

I had been given an old television set that didn’t work from a friend of the family. It was well built and the frame was made of solid wood riding on small but sturdy wheels. My plan was to remove the glass, metal and other electronic portions – retaining the frame – and make a moveable bookshelf for my den. I worked hard on the project and finally painted it an anemic white, since that was the only paint I had on hand at the time. The color wasn’t important to me. I just needed it to hold some of my taxonomy texts.

Kathy wasn’t very impressed with it but didn’t complain too much since it was in my part of the house – the part that she has come to tolerate by ignoring (what else can a long-suffering spouse do when married to a naturalist?).

For my part, I pretty much ignored the improvised bookshelf too. It was doing its job, and I didn’t give it much thought. Then one day while I was away, Kathy invited her friend and interior decorator over for a visit and to discuss remodeling options. In their zeal, they ended up in my den and Kathy’s friend fell immediately in love with my little bookshelf.

She told Kathy that she would love to buy it and re-paint it. Apparently, in her eyes, there was a lot of potential in the old television frame. Later in the day, Kathy told me about the visit and we both laughed. She wanted to know if I would sell it. Of course my answer was no. To this day, we both appreciate the unusual piece of furniture a lot more.

There are natural treasures all around us that we know nothing about. Even as a trained naturalist, I pass by uncounted species that I do not recognize. The world is just too rich and diverse for one person to understand it in all its variety. I know a thing or two about some of the insects, birds, plants and mammals but I am still ignorant about many groups that I haven’t taken the time to learn about yet.

What would happen if I happened upon a rare, or uncommonly seen, kind of grass while wandering around in the deserts of the Southwest? The simple answer would be, not much. I might not even give it a passing notice. I just don’t know enough about grass diversity to recognize a grassy treasure when I see one.

A year ago, while driving through the coastal ranges of Southern California, I spotted a handful of California condors roosting on an old oak snag not far from the road. There was a small turn-off not far away, and I quickly pulled off the road to have a closer look. This was only the second time I had ever seen condors. They are not as rare in certain parts of the Golden State as they used to be but they are far from common. I was thrilled to see them. I was also disappointed that a few cars drove past while I was admiring the birds and they didn’t have a clue about the remarkable scene so near at hand.

The erstwhile (and often neglected) British author Colin Wilson spent much of his life researching and writing about our human mental energies. He was convinced that most of us live our lives under the control of our automatic selves. This “self” he often called the “robot” or that portion of our lives that gets bogged down with fatigue and anxiety. It is the passive habitual part of our existence that can drain our passions and leave us so unhappy.

On the contrary, bringing our vital energy back can be managed readily enough if we can learn to recognize its source. Religion is, of course, an important example if we are serious about it. But so are many other things if we care enough to give them our attention. In fact Wilson is convinced that vital attention (emphasis mine) is one of the key elements in gaining and maintaining mental health. And it often gets overlooked. One of his clearest examples is Victor Frankl’s well-known psychology (best outlined in the books From Death Camp to Existentialism and Man’s Search for Meaning). Remember that it was Frankl’s observation that those victims of Holocaust death camps that maintained a goal or a meaning to live managed to stay alive more often than others who lacked this vital energy or attention.

In his book New Pathways in Psychology, Wilson gives the example of the novelist Margaret Lane who, after having had a positive experience giving birth, soon found herself lacking energy and having a hard time being involved in her tasks. Then, as she learned about the tragedies of the atomic bombing of Japan, she fell into a schizophrenic depression that lasted a long time.

This state of mind began to change when Margaret and her husband made a trip to a country cottage that they wanted to rent. The new surroundings must have been a mental salve because she began to feel better. And whereas she had formerly looked upon plants (and especially grass) with a kind of inorganic disregard, she now began seeing them differently. She noticed a bluebell flower in the grass and its vividness surprised her. Then other plants also began to look real again. At this point she “burst into tears as she realized that the long emotional freeze-up was over.”

Many years ago, in a Sunday-School class, I heard the story of naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921) who was troubled by the lack of natural awareness in so many people. Walking through a park one day, Burroughs heard the song of a bird that captivated him. Noticing that no-one else seemed to be paying any attention to the sound he pulled a coin from his pocket and flipped it onto the ground. It made a distinct metallic ring, but the sound wasn’t any louder than the song of the bird. But to his annoyance many people noticed the sound of the coin even as they continued to be oblivious to the song of the bird.

Sadly, human nature hasn’t changed very much since then. This is particularly sad because there is so much enjoyment and healing that can come from discovering nature again and again. One final example from my long-suffering wife Kathy should be proof enough if you are not already convinced.

Some time ago, she decided to attend a class on the wildflowers of Cedar Breaks National Monument above Cedar City, Utah where we live. She took notes and shared them with me since I wasn’t able to attend. In the following days, we looked up many of the plants and committed some of them to memory.

Then a few days later, we were able to go camping fairly close to Cedar Breaks and Kathy was thrilled. It was July and several plant species were in full bloom, including many that she had just recently learned. She was so excited that she insisted that we make plans to return to the same spot in coming weeks. In short, she has now fallen in love with a place that would have meant little to her just a few months ago. And what has made all the difference? In a word, it is awareness and attention to the natural world. It really does work wonders.


For an abbreviated account of Fechner’s story see Colin Wilson’s Mysteries (Part Three, Chapter 3, The Mechanisms of Enlightenment) published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1978. The actual statement of Fechner is from Walter Lowrie’s (ed.) Religion of a Scientist: Selections from Fechner (1946). The account of Margaret Lane is on pages 248 and 249 in Wilson’s New Pathways in Psychology, Maslow & the Post-Freudian Revolution (Taplinger Publishing Company, New York. 1972). The story of John Burroughs and the singing bird was recounted by Boyd K. Packer in his talk Prayers and Answers, delivered in October Conference 1979.

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