(Copyright © 2009)

Based in Kaiserslautern, Germany between Korean and Vietnamese Wars, I served as a still photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps 1956-1957. With an ear for the local idiom SP-Kaiserslautern-1957 (having studied German for two years), I was sometimes mistaken for a native speaker and, off-duty, did my best to look like one. With 30 days of leave a year, I traveled around France, Italy, Holland, and much of the wine-growing region west of the Rhine River. On foot, I roamed the hills around Kaiserslautern whenever I could, while most of my Army buddies played cards, went to the PX, or movies on base. Putting my conscious mind where my body was, I think I got more from my military experience than those of my buddies who carried on as if they were still in the States.

I bring this up because I see so many people hiking the trails of Acadia National Park jabbering away as if they were back wherever they came from. That is, their minds are anywhere but where their bodies are at the moment. Which is why I published ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park in 1998—to show some of what might be discovered by actively exploring the trails along the way instead of manfully striding to the top of the mountain and then back to the car. The point being that we have to actively reach out to the landscape if even a portion of it is to register in consciousness. Looking is the greater part of seeing; without it we are functionally blind.

Which good old Thoreau said almost 150 years ago (Henry David Thoreau, “Autumnal Tints” in Excursions, 1863):

Objects are concealed from our view, not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because we do not bring our minds and eyes to bear on them; for there is no power to see in the eye itself, any more than in any other jelly. We do not realize how far and widely, or how near and narrowly, we are to look. The greater part of the phenomena of Nature are for this reason concealed from us all our lives. (Page 350f.)

I picture that visual ray shooting out of our pupils, intercepting the scene, reflecting it back into our eyes so our brains can get at it. No ray, no sightline, no reflection, no seeing. I think digital photography is a good reminder that we have to take pains in aiming our cameras (or cell phones) at something if we want to view the image on the LCD monitor. That much is obvious. What we sometimes forget is that the same is true for seeing with our own eyes. Thoreau again:

There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate,—not a grain more. The actual objects which one man will see from a particular hill-top are just as different from those which another will see as the beholders are different. The Scarlet Oak must, in a sense, be in your eye when you go forth. We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads,—and then we can hardly see anything else. (Page 351.)

That last sentence says it all: we see from the inside-out—not simply what is there waiting to be seen. We need motivation to direct attention toward that which we want to see before we see anything at all. Exceptions to that principle usually demonstrate that, as the frog is programmed to see the hawk, we come programmed to see certain things such as flesh of the opposite sex, food, threats to our children, and shiny new cars. Well, maybe not all of us appreciate the cars, or opposite sex for that matter. Aside from such salient visions, learning and effort are generally required to appreciate the sight of most things nature and culture have on display. Some of us will notice them, many will walk right by. Thoreau says, for example:

In my botanical rambles I find that, first, the idea, or image, of a plant occupies my thoughts, though it may seem very foreign to this locality,—no nearer than Hudson’s Bay,—and for some weeks or months I go thinking of it, and expecting it, unconsciously, and at length I surely see it. This is the history of my finding a score or more of rare plants, which I could name. (Page 351.)

If you don’t have a mind for rare plants, you’ll never have an eye for them, either. Thoreau’s next sentence: “A man sees only what concerns him.” (Page 351.) Expectancy is destiny. True for us all. We generally see only what we have an interest in seeing in the world around us. To see more, we have to develop an interest in seeing more. We have to be trained—or train ourselves—to see what we’re missing.

I have found that it required a different intention of the eye, in the same locality, to see different plants, even when they were closely allied. (Page 352.)

Thoreau got that right. It takes “a different intention of the eye” so see anything we are not accustomed to look for in our surroundings. Intention is the key word in using our eyes. And ears, and fingers. The nose is different. With molecules actually settling on our olfactory membranes, we smell them whether we want to or not. Where smells have their own characteristic insistence, sights and sounds are more matters of intention on our part. Which is why we generally see what we are familiar with, as long as it’s not upstaged by a more commanding presence. Parents in the audience single out their children in the chorus and have eyes only for them, even though others may be better performers. Attention is in the eye of the beholder.

Which raises the question, if we want to learn to see or hear more than we do now, how do we upgrade our intention? That, of course, is one thing schools are for. If you missed what you wanted to learn then, there are always guide books to trees, butterflies, seashells, birds, music, wines, and just about everything else you want to gaze on, taste, or listen to. Or you can get an advanced degree in intentionality in any number of disciplines such as astrophysics or restaurant management. Of course there’s always the library, bookstore, Internet, museum and any number of institutions to help you live out your desire to see more along the road of life itself. What these aids can’t do for you, however, is the work of applying their message to your particular situation. You’ve got to put in the necessary ten-thousand hours on your own (see Reflection 75: Ten-Thousand Hours).

I got my first camera when I was four years old for a box top and a quarter. I put in ten-thousand hours taking pictures of my brothers, dogs, friends. I became a photographer in the Army, and a photographer’s assistant on the New York scene when I got out. I worked as a photographer at Iowa State University, Harvard College Observatory—and am still at it. I have fulfilled my visual intentions many times over. Then I got into teaching photography at Phillips Academy in Andover, and had to put in another ten-thousand hours learning to be a teacher. Which I really pulled off by teaching learning-disabled students at Landmark School in Beverly, MA. By then I knew classes were a myth of convenience; each student was an individual learner on his or her own. I could spot left-handers and hook-writers and cheek-resters across the room. For any given assignment, I found ways each student could learn from it what she or he needed to learn. I felt pretty good about putting my teaching intentions into practice. Then, thinking I knew how to do it, I turned to writing—and had to start all over with yet another stint of ten-thousand hours devoted to learning how to write by writing the same thing over and over again.

And so it goes. When teacher says, “Listen up, class,” she means for every student to hear her words exactly as she intends them, with no exceptions. But that’s wishful thinking. We are who we are, no two alike. We listen according to our training, experience, motivation, and ability—and are sure to hear a different message than teacher intends. The same goes for looking at pictures, movies, videos, Websites, graffiti, or masterpieces of art. The apprenticeship never ends; there’s always more to see than our eyes can relay to our minds. Seeing is a matter of exploring the possibilities by expanding our visual intentions ad infinitum.

Living in cities as most of us do, what can we see in nature? Sometimes, very little. The story is told of a family from Philadelphia coming to Mount Desert Island for a two-week vacation—and leaving after two days because there was nothing to see. The great outdoors was wholly beyond them. As Thoreau said, “The greater part of the phenomena of Nature are . . . concealed from us all our lives”—and he was talking about rural Concord Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century. If we are out of touch with nature today, we are in B-I-G T-R-O-U-B-L-E because nature is what provides our toehold in the universe. My own studies show that sea level is rising on the coast of Maine even as I write these words. Looking blindly from the picture windows so dear to our hearts, we do not sense the dangers lurking off the end of the dock. We don’t feel the crosshairs lined up on our chests, the laser beams steady on our brows—because our intention is to ignore them. La, what is the North Atlantic to me, or am I to the North Atlantic? That double-ended query tells the whole story. Out of touch with nature, we are out of touch with life itself. As I said, expectancy is destiny.

11x14 Camera-72

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

I dream about seeing a hole in the sky. It is raining. A young boy is riding a tricycle as we walk up the street together, I in the lead, he behind. I fear he won’t be able to pedal against the runoff coming off the hill, but he pedals faster and plows like a boat through the water. The street dips and we go downhill for a ways and come to a log cabin surrounded by mud filled with exposed tree roots. I tell the boy that the rain made all that mud. The road, filled with mud, turns sharply to the right. Looking up, I see a round hole (like a smoke hole without the smoke) in the sky, or rather, a hole in a translucent dome above the rain. Through the hole I see clouds lit by the sun. My eyes zoom in on the hole so I can see it clearly. Outside and under the hole, the rain is made of dashed lines which remind me (in the dream) of the snow on black-and-white television screens in the 1950s. Through the hole the clouds are made of similar dashes moving at an angle to the rain. I recognize this as a very unusual situation. I have never seen a hole in the sky before in my entire life. I mention this to some people we meet. . . .

 

Waking up, I am still amazed by seeing a hole in the sky. A round hole at the zenith overhead. Probably several feet in diameter, big enough to put your head and body through if you could get up to it. Child, tricycle, street, hill, rain, cabin, mud, hole in the sky—this fragment of a dream is wholly engaging and seems convincingly real.

 

What to make of it? The situation is this: the boy and I are together, though our relationship is unclear. The street reminds me (now that I’m awake) of School Street in Andover, Massachusetts, where I lived in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I used to walk my toddler son around the block in those days, he exploring the walkway to every house while I waited out by the street. The rain reminds me of the dashed lines beneath clouds on the screen of the L.L. Bean weather station I got for my last birthday. I have seen tree stumps and roots in mud, but no particular incident comes to mind. Explaining the cause of the mud to the boy is very much me in my teacher mode. I can’t account for the log cabin. The hole in the sky is very much like the circle representing the sun on my weather station. When the station predicts that precipitation is about to end, dashed rain, clouds, and sun appear together on the screen, the disc of the sun seeming to emerge from behind the clouds. I never actually saw the sun in the dream; it was inferred from lit edges of clouds.

 

I often think about the edges of things—about how the brain sharpens the contrast between surfaces to heighten such edges, creating a kind of line-drawing cartoon that is more distinct than reality itself. The hole in the sky had a very distinct edge, slightly lighter than the dome it was in, like a hem of pale material folded back on itself. Which reminds me of my first experience with Mercator projections (Reflection 60: Discovery, February 6, 2009), because there would be no way to fold a circular hem in the dome of the sky without slitting or slashing it so the smaller area would fold over the larger. I can’t suggest that I was specifically aware of that problem in the dream; it feels more like something I added in processing the dream now that I am awake.

 

I was emotionally concerned about the boy on the tricycle—whether he could go against the flowing runoff or not. The strongest feeling I had was the sense of wonder at seeing a hole in the sky. All dreams have a novel cast about them, and that seemed precisely the point in this one. I seemed very much my everyday self in judging a hole in the sky to be a novel event, and therefore worth commenting on. Which is how my dreams often run while I, the dreamer, are my same old self. Dreams, that is, often place me-as-I-know-myself in bizarre situations.

 

Many of my dreams are about attending or teaching specific classes in school, which is not surprising since I spent 18 years of my life as a teacher and another 19 years as a student before that. But in dream after dream I am neglecting my duty by not showing up for class, or showing up for the class after being unaccountably absent for six months, or I am not prepared, or I know nothing about the subject I am expected to teach, or I’m not wearing any clothes, and so on. My dreamworld is made up of one bizarre situation after another, to which my conventional self is expected to make a fitting response.

 

So I hazard the guess that I am normally conscious when I dream, but because I am deprived of sensations I am familiar with, as well as the ability to act, the situations within which I dream exist in a parallel universe ruled by feelings of novelty, wonder, awe, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and self-doubt. All the dream situations are possible in that they are variations on stock situations I am familiar with, while at the same time they are novel in taking place in fantastic locales concocted by my unsituated brain trying to figure out where it is and what’s happening. The best it can do is guess on the basis of the few clues suggested by my autonomic nervous system (heart beat, sexual arousal, carbon dioxide level, hunger, etc.) which carries on 24/7 whether I am awake or asleep.

 

From my days working at Harvard Observatory, I retain the image (from a book in the library) of a robed man standing on a ladder, poking his head and shoulders through the celestial sphere (which rips in his case), to confront stars and planets directly as they wheel overhead. It’s a wonderful image because so full of practical details, while the overall concept is preposterous and very dreamlike. I’ve carried that image with me for 48 years. It may have a bearing on the hole in the sky I discovered this morning in my dreams because it came to mind while trying to describe that hole. Memory evidently plays a prominent role in dreams, mixing and matching details drawn from a host of situations to create a landscape wholly novel and fantastic. And, entertaining, once you get past the anxiety.

 

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