Seeing with new eyes continued…

“The question,” as Thoreau once said, “is not what you look at, but what you see.” And we must look for a long time before we can see. Looking is not seeing. Seeing involves interaction, creativity, imagination. We should be changed somehow by what we see, at least as much as the object seen changes before our eyes. In the end, seeing requires a “readiness,” a receptivity to surprise and discovery, a willingness to be taken over by someone or something else. It’s work of a kind, but effortless and exhilarating when it happens unexpectedly.

A member of the Stony Brook Camera Club recently lamented to Doug Williams, Stony Brook’s director, that computers have ruined photography. He pined for the old days in which members were instructed in the efficacy of various lenses, the subtleties of developing film in a darkroom, and the importance of learning how to frame a subject by looking through a pinhole cut into a piece of cardboard. In effect he was saying that we have lost our ability to see, cheapened it in a way, because we can so readily take snap shots, save them to a disk or the cloud, “doctor” them via a series of pre-packaged Photo Shop filters, and post them to the web.

The Camera Club member may be right. However, even if the tools at our disposal have changed, the basic issue is still the same. We assume too much; we see only what we expect. To alter our perspective, a good rule to follow is that no object is too boring, too plain or inconsequential to examine. And a corollary to that is to limit the area being looked at: a square foot or yard, a single spot on the ground or in space, a specific subject or type, especially if unfamiliar. Another strategy is to move far away from what we are looking at, or get really close. To illustrate the power of this last, consider these photos of ordinary objects taken from an airplane and published in the Huffington Post website. Suddenly the mundane becomes spectacular; the obvious becomes a work of art!

Stone wallConsider, too, this image of the stone wall along Stony Brook’s Sensory Trail. Is there anything more satisfying than boulders strewn together loosely into something so solid and enduring? Does anything become more beautiful with age or more elegant as it breaks down? “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Robert Frost says, and to some extent he is right. Nature doesn’t parse the land this way; humans do. But walls like this don’t separate neighbors, don’t keep out or hem in. They are testaments to the past, decorative ribbons along the spine of the landscape, spattered wide with splotches of white mustard and emerald green lichen. With chinks dark and mysterious, they are the kinds of places you want to stick your hands into, but know enough not to. As such, they are humble reminders that not all great works of art hang in a museum.

P1090660Some images seem to defy categorization, are almost too magical and mysterious or unworldly to process. In such cases, it’s best to let go. These monsters that seem to rise out of a blue sheen like ice are neither squid nor some unearthly snakes. Not pinecones or pineapples stretched to their limits. They are corms, tubers that once served as the root system for water lilies, now torn up by swans unable to satisfy their hunger for the waxy white flowers. Native Americans used to bake them like potatoes and eat them for their nutritive value. Today they nourish the imagination and the soul. We shudder at their serpent-like quality and wonder from what depths inside us are cast similar floating flowers.

P1090673We shudder, too, at the catbrier which lines so much of our trail, its thorns nearly ½ an inch long and tipped in blood red as if to give warning to the careless passerby. More talon than brier, these stalwart tangles are the natural world reduced to its essence. Nature does not distinguish between life and death, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, matter and spirit, order and chaos, heaven and hell. One is a manifestation of the other. And so the menacing catbrier is a natural source of food for deer and birds and butterflies, a shield for small animals from larger prey: its tendrils a delicacy akin to asparagus, its extract a medicinal herb and a base for sarsaparilla.

P1090659Similarly this crusty lichen is a carapace for the rotting out tree beneath it. Neither shroud nor bandage, neither fungus nor algae, neither parasite nor host, the lichen typifies the mystery of Nature’s mechanics. Its symbiotic relationship is ever in question, reminding us how, at the most fundamental subatomic level, we cannot even say where or what an electron is. We put an elementary particle under the microscope and we change it. We assign names and positions and values to the stars. Do we change them, too? Is it reasonable, then, to think that what we call reality is merely conjecture?! If so, how bitter… and yet still so sweet!

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Learning to see with new eyes

I went chasing after patterns and shapes this week, shadows and striations of color, images that caught my eye. I found them in abundance. The key, as with all seeing, is to be open to the unexpected, avoid familiar paths, choose misdirection and never make assumptions in advance. Seeing requires paying attention, deliberately re-thinking what is before us, re-naming in some cases, examining and then re-examining what we imagine is there. Ultimately seeing is an act of creation or invention, of self-discovery as much as anything else. If we are not surprised by what we find, we most likely do not see.

When they come to Stony Brook, children and adults of any age would do well to draw or paint or take photos or simply write down in a continuous flow of images what they notice when they look at any object that has captured their attention. Look at anything long enough and it will become something new. They might find that the object “reveals” itself in layers, each a slice of an imagined universe or a connection to something other; a shadow of the familiar, a memory, or a new face to an old friend. If shared, these images compound themselves, one iteration slipping into another, ultimately coalescing into story.

Consider the range of ideas that came to mind as I reflected upon these images that struck me:

Lichen circlesFrom what alien species do these eyes originate? What do they see when they look at us? Do we appear fluid and dynamic, able to shift gracefully from one spot to another, one idea to the next, in contrast to their rigid crystallized lives? Isn’t it stunning how everything from an amoeba to a plant cell or an eye, an exploding star or a universe in formation, takes on the same shape! How the very vast and unimaginable should be a reflection of the very small and infinitesimal! How disorder and chaos would choose to distill into such predictable shapes!

Reflected branchesWhat eerie branches are these that grow not into the sky but into the water, seemingly sucking out the heat from a secret cache of molten gold, volcanic rock, or underground sea of light? If not that, pulling to the surface some hulk of a sunken ship or foundry left by the early settlers who once peopled this place with their industry. Better yet, rather than branches, are they nerve endings at the base of a synapse pulsing with creative energy and life? Are such tendrils at the very core of memory and the idea of who we are? Do love and family, ambition and destiny, fear and hesitancy all travel through the same lines?

White lichenWho throws down dollops of plaster on to rocks forming fig leaves that one day may be used to cover the private parts of Greek statues? Or has an elephant simply stepped upon a cauliflower head and left these remains! This is a salad that one cannot eat without a pick and shovel. Either that or a very bad hair piece for some wizened statue outside the Museum of Fine Arts. Or maybe it’s one of grandma’s doilies preserved forever in case someone needs to set a pitcher or a lamp on this very stone to mark his path to the second spillway.

Shadow on a rockI am reminded of Plato’s cave when I look at the shadows cast upon this mottled stone. We assume so much about the reality of what we see, never thinking that it might simply be the visible husks of some eternal life source that otherwise would blind us. Other universes may see these same shadows with different eyes, but I would hope they still feel the energy of the purple stone encrusted with patches of green and white lichen literally bursting forth like fireworks across the platform they have been given for self-expression. We, too, can bring such color and power and passion, and I hope persistence, to our brief lives.