Some quotes on the art of seeing

“Magnified tenfold, the complexity and detail of a single snowflake took me completely by surprise. How could something as small and ordinary as snow be so perfectly beautiful? I couldn’t stop looking. Even now, I remember the sense of possibility, of mystery that accompanied that first glimpse. For the first time, but not the last, I had the sense that there was more to the world than immediately meets the eye. I looked out at the snow falling softly on the branches and rooftops with a new understanding, that every drift was made up of a universe of starry crystals. I was dazzled by what seemed a secret knowledge of snow. The lens and the snowflake were an awakening, the beginning of seeing.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (Oregon State U.P., 2003)


“A Cheyenne elder of my acquaintance once told me that the best way to find something is not to go looking for it. This is a hard concept for a scientist. But he said to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion. The boundaries between my world and the world of another being get pushed back with sudden clarity, an experience both humbling and joyful.

“The sensation of sudden visual awareness is produced in part by the formation of a ‘search image’ in the brain. In a complex visual landscape, the brain initially registers all the incoming data, without critical evaluation . . . Not until [a] pattern is repeated, with feedback from the conscious mind, do we know what we are seeing. It is in this way that animals become skilled detectors of their prey, by differentiating complex visual patterns into the particular configuration that means food.”



“For most travelers the face of the tropical rain forest appears surprisingly monotonous, especially when experienced in the flat light of mid-day. . . Even the most highly trained botanists are humbled by the immense diversity of the Amazonian forests. Confronted with the unknown, they collect specimens and do their best to identify a plant to family or genus. Only later, in the comfort of the herbarium and invariably with the assistance of a colleague specializing in that particular group of plants, will they figure out the species and obtain a complete determination.

“In other words, most botanists working in the Amazon must come to peace with their ignorance. When they look at the forest, their eyes fall first on what is known and then seek what is unknown. [Richard Evans] Schultes was the opposite. He possessed what scientists call the taxonomic eye, an inherent capacity to detect variation at a glance. When he looked at the forest, his eye fell reflexively on what was novel or unusual. And since he was so familiar with the flora, he could be confident that if a plant was new to him, it was new to science. For Schultes such moments of discovery were transcendent. He was once in a small plane that took off from a dirt runway, brushed against the canopy of the forest, and very nearly crashed. A colleague who was with him recalled years later that throughout the entire episode Schultes had sat calmly by a window, oblivious to the screams of terrified passengers. It turned out that he had spotted a tree, a new species of Cecropia, and had scarcely noticed the crisis.”

Wade Davis, One River (Simon and Schuster, 1996)


“To those whose sole need is to get from here to there, superhighways are a boon. In truth, without their aid it is doubtful we could have seen, in a single season, all the varied aspects of winter across the continent. Yet they are part of a present paradox: the more the land is traversed, the less it is seen. Year by year, the jet airlines fly higher, passenger cars on superhighways go faster. One shows the land as a distant map unrolling, the other as a landscape blurring by. Both remove us from contact. I remember Wilbur Shaw, three times winner of the Indianapolis 500-mile race, once saying to me: ‘The faster you go, the farther you have to look ahead.’ I remembered John Muir, in the California mountains, protesting that nothing could be seen at the rate of forty miles a day.

Edwin Way Teale, Wandering Through Winter (Dodd Mead, 1957)


“Knowing the wildflowers, naming all the birds without a gun, these are admirable attainments. But there is always a residue of sadness when we learn the name and lose the wonder of the living thing itself.

“We become specialists and our interests shrink. . . . In all times, the appreciator has had to have his excuses ready. Different times, different excuses. A century ago, it was looking for a moral lesson. Today, it may be a hunt for ecological significance. But, in this speeding modern world, an increasing number of people are realizing that just to stop, just to enjoy nature, has its own significance.”



“Inspired by the writings of such naturalists, I began college with a biology major. But I eventually realized I had little affinity for the kind of science I encountered there, with its emphasis on quantified data, controlled experiments, technological monitoring devices, and theoretical analysis. Because I was unable to comprehend and appreciate this work, I felt incapable of understanding what really mattered about nature. But I found a refuge in anthropology, where the descriptive method had persisted like an orphan child, and where the study of Native cultures revealed traditions of natural history that seemed richer than anything accessible in Western science . . .

“Among the Koyukon people . . . elders like Sarah Stevens and Grandpa William carried their vast and insightful knowledge of the natural world with great humility. I never heard them speak of how much they knew, but of how little, and of how much there was to learn, how difficult it was to understand even the smallest mysteries around them. Anthropologists working among traditional peoples are often told they have learned very little about the culture they’ve come to study, even after their research has gone on for many years. Unfortunately, the rocks, plants, and animals are unable to give the same appraisal to those who study them, although its humbling influence might be of great benefit.”

Richard Nelson, The Island Within (Random House, 1989)

[A] rapidly evolving science recently labeled ‘biomimicry’ studies nature as a source of wisdom that can teach us everything from how to clean up industrial messes to how to create adhesives that hold their grip underwater. Harvard geneticist Dr. Richard Lewontin notes, ‘The one point I think all evolutionary biologists are agreed upon [is that] it is virtually impossible to do a better job than an organism is [already] doing in its own environment.’ . . .

“The unique lens structure of lobster eyes, for example, has inspired the design of a new type of telescope . . . Termite nests in arid regions are being studied because of an ingenious design that allows maximum circulation of air entering from the outside, keeping the nest cool. These nests could conceivably lead us to more efficient air conditioning . . . And the incredibly lightweight yet strong and efficient limbs of insects and other arthropods are helping us improve the designs of everything from industrial cranes to artificial limbs.”

Mark J. Plotkin, Medicine Quest (Viking, 2000)

“Now the umialiks [= skin boat owners] were in taboo. They moved slowly. They were grave. The village was silent. No one talked to the umialiks. No one sang or worked on equipment.

“Four days the umialiks sat. They thought about the whales they would catch. They thought, and they saw them. It was frightening and sacred.

“And now the umialiks told their families to open their caches. ‘Feed the old people, poor people and orphans!’ The umialiks were generous. Their meat stores were opened. The more they gave, the more whales would come and lend their bodies.”

Tom Lowenstein, Ancient Land, Sacred Whale: The Inuit Hunt and its Rituals (FSG, 1993)

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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