Dispensing with Labels to See Better
There is a difference between orienting ourselves to our
environment and seeing our environment. Much of the time we just orient
ourselves. We move from one room of our house to another without really seeing.
We fail Ito notice the pattern of the carpet, the color of the chairs, the
doorway. Outside we walk by the same storefronts, day after day, and seldom stop
to give the in a close inspection. We become careless with how we see.
Tom Brown was lecturing at his wilderness survival workshop
when he noticed a red fox dart between two buildings outside, hundreds of yards
away. It happened in a split second, unexpected. Tom caught the quick motion of
the animal because he was taking in more than the small room filled with
students. He had trained himself to be aware of this kind of movement and color,
no matter where he was or what he was doing.
"Real seeing" is seeing like a child. He is
unburdened with labels. He has no conception of exactly how things are or should
be, and he openly explores his surroundings. I remember watching in awe as a
two-year-old, standing in his crib, reached out and tried to touch a ribbon of
light that granted across the wall. Again and, again he tried to grasp this new
form in his hands. Most of us, I'm sure, would have failed to even see this band
That other people in different cultures see uniquely is no
surprise. When the Nunamiut Eskimo hunts, he slips into a state of supreme
concentration highly attentive to detail. His survival depends upon not only
seeing an animal's tracks, but their depth, shape, age. He studies the bend of
grass along the trail, bits of animal hair scattered about, the movement of
ravens in the distance.
Sometimes, it is difficult to see what is directly in front of
us. We cannot discriminate nearly as well as the Nunamiut. As a photographer, I
have had numerous occasions to project my slides to a roomful of people. Many of
the images are so tightly cropped that surrounding elements are not visible. The
students are introduced to colors, I shapes and textures of ordinary objects.
They seldom recognize them. When I explain that they have been looking at three
ice cubes or the slice of an onion, they are often startled. Something so
commonplace having those colors, those patterns, such beauty. A surprise!
It is this kind of surprise that we can each offer to
ourselves no matter where we are -- in our home, our neighborhood, a forest or
desert, or any strange environment. We can learn to see like the Nunamiut
Eskimos, like Tom Brown, like children. We can train ourselves to dispense with
labels and open our eyes to the newness of our surroundings.
For each of us there is the challenge of walking through a
woods that is filled not with pines, firs, hemlocks, but with exquisite hues,
shapes, movement. When we can walk through a forest discovering these things, we
will have readied ourselves for each drop of a leaf, crack of a twig, or
overturned stone. We will have stopped orienting ourselves and be truly seeing.