Really looking

Verlyn Klinkeborg’s New York Times pieces on "The Rural Life" are a delightful source of reflection. For instance this on Really looking (2 Sep 10)

One day I can hear the faint rustle of autumn coming. The next day I can’t. One evening summer leaks away into the cool night sky, and the next morning it’s back again. But there is headway. Birdsong has gone, replaced by the whining bagpiping of the insect creation. I look out across the pasture as dusk begins and see a shining galaxy of airborne bugs. How would it be, I wonder, to have an awareness of the actual number of insects on this farm?

I ask myself a version of that question every day: "Have you ever really looked at … ?" You can fill in the blank yourself. But every day I feel blinded by familiarity. I open the hive, which is filled with honey, and the particularity of the honeybees, even their community, somehow escapes me, if only because I’ve been living with honeybees a good part of my life. I remember the phrase, "keep your eyes peeled," and maybe that’s what I need, a good peeling.

Again and again, I find myself trying to really look at what I’m seeing. It happened the other afternoon, high on a nearby mountain. A dragonfly had settled on the denuded tip of a pine bough. It clung, still as only a dragonfly can be. Then it flicked upward and caught a midge and settled on the bough again, adjusting precisely into the wind. I see the dragonflies quivering through the insect clouds above my pasture, too. I always notice that there’s no such thing as really looking.

What I want to be seeing is invisible anyway: the prehistoric depth of time embodied in the form of those dragonflies, the pressure of life itself, the web of relations that bind us all together. I find myself trying to witness the moment when the accident of life becomes a continued purpose. But this is a small farm, and, being human, I keep coming up against the limits of what a human can see.

This morning I found a spider resting—or perhaps hunting—on the leaf of an oakleaf hydrangea, the axis of the spider’s abdomen perfectly aligned with the axis of the leaf. What I noticed was the symmetry of their placement, the way spider and leaf resembled each other. What I wanted to notice was the spider’s intent. If I could, I would have asked it, "What are you doing?" Or, better yet, "Who are you?" But all I could do was look—and notice that I was looking—and make the best of the sight I’d seen.