The Art of Seeing

by Paul Brooks

“The art of seeing nature,” wrote the painter John Constable over a century and a half ago, “is a thing almost as much to be acquired as the art of reading the Egyptian hieroglyphs.” Today more of us are looking at the outdoors than ever before in history. We are wondering at it, we are photographing it, we are playing in it. To what extent are we actually “seeing” it?

We all recognize that seeing consists of more than registering certain combinations of light and color on the retina of the eye. A scene, an object, is beautiful or ugly, fascinating or dull, thrilling or frightening depending on the mental lens through which we view it. During most of our history only man-made scenery was considered beautiful; the wilder aspects of nature were to be avoided if not actually feared. In Europe, almost up to Constable’s time, mountains were generally considered useless deformities of the landscape; trees were to be enjoyed in stately parks; even the stars of heaven, according to one seventeenth century writer, would have been more beautiful if arranged in straight lines according to the laws of order and symmetry. In America the frontiersman had no leisure for esthetic appreciation of the wilderness. Breaking the sod for his crops, or girdling the trees he had no time to fell, he could not be expected to see the rolling prairie or virgin forest with the same eyes as the twentieth century traveller on a summer holiday.

Today we can afford to enjoy a landscape with which we are no longer in competition. It is, however, a subtle pleasure, and the quality of our enjoyment is in direct ratio to the sensitiveness of our antennae. Henry Thoreau, who was not unacquainted with the broader beauties of the landscape, also found delight in the erosion patterns of the railroad embankment at Walden Pond. With his camera, Ansel Adams can make an experience out of a dew-drenched leaf as well as out of Yosemite Falls. A naturalist like Edwin Way Teale will see a “grassroots jungle” in a common field. With the insights of poet and biologist, Rachel Carson revealed a magic world between high and low tide at the edge of the sea. The roster is endless but the point is clear. We see only that we are equipped to see. Few of us have such refined equipment as the examples I have mentioned. But we can make the most of what we have.

All sorts of subtle elements go to make up what scientists call the “psychology of perception.” One at any rate is obvious: we see only what interests us at the moment. A connoisseur of wildlife will stop to investigate a white dot on a mountainside that a thousand cars have passed unheeded: as he suspected, it is a mountain goat. A bird-watcher will notice a splash of orange lichen on a rock cliff, evidence perhaps of a nest where birdlime has fertilized the rock. He will wait, and presently a golden eagle will drop down from the sky to its eyrie with a ground squirrel hanging from its talons. A geologist will “‘read the landscape” as a palimpsest on which the history of earth has been written and erased, again and again, yet leaving enough clues to reconstruct the story. In fact any of us can pick up rough fragments of information that make the scene before us infinitely more exciting.

Driving, perhaps, up a steep mountain road, we realize almost with a shock that those vertical, jagged slabs of rock pointing skyward at the road’s edge once lay flat as a pancake beneath the ocean floor, built up layer by layer from silt carried by some long-forgotten river; later heaved upright by the buckling of the earth’s crust. When we skirt the base of a table-like mesa and recognize it as all that wind and water have left of an ancient plain; when we identify a dark line high up on a distant hill as the former shore of a prehistoric lake; when we see these things as a continuing process go on before our eyes, then the landscape suddenly comes alive. Today as yesterday mountains are growing and being worn down, shorelines are rising and falling, rivers are sculpturing the mainland and building new land in the sea. That slope of shale between tree line and craggy peak can be traced back to bits of moisture that seeped into cracks of the virgin rock, froze and expanded, broke off one chip, then another and another, while storms and gravity carried on the relentless work of fragmentation. That discolored spot on a nearby boulder is a coating of lichen, first form of life to get a foothold, imperceptibly dissolving the rock with acid, beginning to make soil to be followed, maybe, by moss, by hardy plants and grasses whose roots continue the process, some day perhaps to become a dense forest.

What sort of forest it will became depends on such factors as soil conditions, climate, altitude. To the student of landscape, the evolution of a forest is as fascinating as that of the soil from which it sprang. The variety is virtually limitless, from dripping rainforest where the sun seldom reaches the ground to the cactus “forests” of the parched desert, from mature willows in the arctic tundra a few inches high to three-hundred-foot redwoods. The same species will take dramatically different forms: we scarcely recognize that gnarled, shrub-like evergreen on a windswept ridge as the same arrow-straight fir that we identified down in the valley. Nor does size always indicate age: the mat-like cedar we literally walked over on the mountain top may be far older than the towering hardwoods below.

A forest, moreover, is constantly changing its composition, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes with dramatic speed as some knowledge of geology helps us to read the distant past, so even a rudimentary idea of forest succession will lead us deeper into the deep woods. Here the time scale is one the mind can grasp; we are dealing not with hundreds of millions of years but with centuries and even human generations. Examine carefully any bit of forest and you will see the principles of succession at work. Here light means life, and the struggle is no less fierce for being quiet and bloodless. Thousands of seeds will be sown, hundreds of seedlings will sprout, for the one tree that finds sun and space enough to grow to maturity. Some species of trees, however, are “shade-tolerant” and this is where succession comes in. Notice, for example, the young fir and spruce growing up beneath a forest of sun-loving birch and poplar, which cast too deep a shade for their own offspring to survive. In time this will become a spruce-fir forest, the “climax forest” in this particular region. Then someday will come storm or fire or disease; quick-growing birch and poplar will shoot up under the open sky and take over for the next generation. Or notice the blanket of hemlock thriving in the decaying duff beneath a stand of centuries-old Douglas-fir. Not a true fir, the Douglas-fir needs sun and mineral soil to regenerate itself. When an ancient tree falls, the hemlocks are waiting to fill the gap; eventually, if the area is undisturbed, we have a hemlock forest. The sequences are complex, but even a little knowledge of them will add a fourth dimension, the dimension of time, to any walk in the woods.

Taste in natural scenery, like taste in the arts, is a personal matter and subject to cultivation. In both there are wide areas of agreements. I doubt whether many people would find a Constable landscape or Yosemite Valley ugly. But put a man from the Berkshires on the Texas plains where the highest point for twenty miles around is the railroad overpass, put your plainsman in a New England mountain intervale — the chances are they will suffer from agoraphobia and claustrophobia respectively until their perceptions have adjusted to a new set of visual values. A man brought up in a country of green fields and clear streams may be repelled by his first sight of a desert. Not until he has actually camped among the cacti, perhaps seen the Mojave in sudden flower after rain or climbed the red rocks of Canyonlands does he overcome a latent sense of hostility and recognize the desert’s prickly virtues. Here is an opposite type of “forest” where every growing thing is ingeniously designed to preserve water and minimize absorption of sunlight. And here are the prime examples of natural sculpture through process of erosion, by water and by wind. The shapes and colors, sharp across vast distances in the clear dry air, have a raw and elemental beauty no other type of landscape affords.

Utterly different is the subtle charm of an old and mellow mountain range like the Appalachians: soft in outline, half-hidden in the mist, rich beyond belief in the variety of life on its deeply wooded slopes. “Mountains with no mist and clouds,” wrote the Sung painter Kuo Hai, “are like a springtime with no flowers and grass.” Tame at first sight compared to snow- clad peaks or desert canyons, such green mountains yield their secrets slowly. The distant view is only the beginning.

Whatever the context the contemplation of nature clearly has an impact on man beyond the purely visual. Here we feel is some statement of the truth, if only we have the wisdom to read it. To the Chinese painter landscape is a veil through which one may glimpse a loftier reality. So Shelley gazed up at Mont Blanc: “I look on high; / Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled / The veil of life and death?” For Emerson, the flowers, the animals, the mountains reflected the wisdom of his best hour. In the presence of nature a “wild delight” ran through him: “I am glad to the brink of fear.”

In a world where so much comes to us at second hand, wild nature gives us a chance to make our own response: humility, perhaps, as we stare down the stratified walls of a canyon and see man’s place in the scale of time; loneliness as we lie out in the desert under the stars; surprise as we come upon a hidden mountain lake or meet a wide-antlered elk at the turn of the trail; terror, almost, when we hear the roar of a flash flood or watch storm waves lashing a rocky coast. We sense the sheer drive of life in the salmon leaping the falls, its exuberance in the short summer burst of alpine flowers at snowline or in the bloom of the desert after rain. We see the beauty of the transitory as we become aware of the cycle of the day and the cycle ,of the year. For the art of seeing nature is in essence the art of awareness. How much we see depends on what we bring to the encounter.

A Note on the Text:

Source: Typescript (Paul Books Collection); first published in Lincoln by Lincoln: Reflections on a Massachusetts at 250, compiled by Mary Ann Hales (Lincoln: The Cottage Press, 2004) pp. 248-251.