Seeing into the Gaps

“That the world is old and frayed is no surprise; that the world could ever become new and whole beyond uncertainty was, and is, such a surprise that I find myself referring all subsequent kinds of knowledge to it.”

“The creatures I seek do not want to be seen.”

“I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”

“I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
(Annie Dillard – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)


I have long been preoccupied with seeing, by which I mean not simply sight, but perspective or insight or, on a grand scale, enlightenment. In my writing I return to this theme again and again, I think because I have had moments of seeing and, in some sense, want to confirm them with others and, more generously, hope that I can inspire others to have moments of seeing, too. This last is a result of the teacher in me. I cannot help it.

Along those lines I return as well to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in particular the second chapter, “Seeing,” where Dillard chronicles her life-long efforts to “forget the naturally obvious and construct an artificial obvious” instead. An artificial obvious becomes a way to narrow down things, a technique to cultivate the point of view of an expert in a field, or to imitate the sense of awakening a blind person feels when suddenly his sight is restored.

It may mean, too, the reverse: seeing as a child, or as someone blind, or someone lost, or deprived of any sense but touch. An artificial obvious becomes a means to cast aside expectations and self-consciousness, to let go and lose oneself in the present moment, to see not the fence but the space between the pickets. “Go up into the gaps,” Dillard says. “If you can find them… Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock-more than a maple- a universe.”

Here I’ll dispense with my suggestions for getting into the gaps and focus instead on Marla Cohen’s, Stony Brook’s Education Coordinator. A few months ago Mass Audubon partnered with REI on Black Friday and urged people to “get outside” rather than to roam the malls or troll the internet looking for sales. Marla set up a program of activities that day which received little notice (due to the weather), but which I thought were wonderful nonetheless.


On various trees and posts around the Stony Brook loop, she tied a series of laminated “leaves” with suggestions written on them, ideas for parents or grandparents to try with kids, or people of any age to try on their own. She paired these “leaves” with a scavenger hunt box left outside the Nature Center which gave people a quest for that day, should they have been up for the challenge. It’s the “leaves,” however, that drew my attention since they might well have been a primer in how to construct an artificial obvious.

For anyone interested, I urge you to try any of these or, even better, to create some of your own. The idea is to engage the senses on a new level, to raise consciousness or, more simply, to encourage dialogue. A trip to Stony Brook, or anywhere outside, even inside your own house, becomes a source of inspiration and story when it leads to “seeing” in a new way:


Camera – One person in each pair is the camera, and the other person the photographer. Have the “cameras” close their eyes while the photographers set up each photo by walking with them, turning them, or asking them to crouch to face a particular view. When the photographer taps the camera on the head, the camera opens his or her eyes for three seconds to take tin the picture, then closes them and is brought to a new location. Take turns. What was your favorite “photo”? What did you see?

Sneaky Feet – Have one person move up the trail about 10-15 feet, stand with his or her eyes closed and arms out. The rest of the group tries to sneak up close enough to touch that person’s hand without being heard. If the person with his or her eyes closed points at them first, they must freeze. How close can you get?

Colors – How many different colors and shades of colors can you find along the trails? Make a prediction.

Monogram – Try to find something that begins with each of your initials. The items don’t have to be physical; they can be sounds or smells, too.

Sounds – Close your eyes and count on your fingers how many different sounds you hear during one minute. Was it more or less than you expected? Just for fun, see if you can count to 10 without hearing a bird song.

Shapes – Choose a shape: square, circle, dodecahedron… whatever you like. Can you find something that shape? Try a different shape.

Penny Hunt – How many things can you find that will completely fit on a penny? If you don’t have a penny try something else, like your thumbnail.

Last Picture – Before you leave this place, imagine that you have one picture left in your camera. The “camera” is made by framing pointer fingers and thumbs into a square and looking through it. Which “shot” would you choose for your last picture? Share your “picture” with your friends/family.

Meet a Tree – Close your eyes and let your partner lead you up the trail to a tree he or she likes. Explore the tree without opening your eyes. How does it feel? Can you reach all the way around it? When you are finished exploring, have your partner lead you back to the starting point. Can you find your tree? How do you know it’s your tree?

Animal Walk – Have someone choose a particular animal species to walk like and have everyone imitate you. For example, hop like a rabbit, pretend to soar like a hawk, or get as close as the ground as possible to crawl like an ant.