© Hilary F. Marckx, all rights reserved
This is an extract from a manuscript I used
in a class on spirituality and photography
at the Pacific School of Religion,
and the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA
I wonder just how many things I have looked at and never seen. Staring at a deep hole in a brook and seeing nothing, a fish leaps, breaking water with a splash that is sudden, unexpected, and startling. How could a fish have been in that water? I am sure there was nothing in the brook where I was looking. Could the fish be a magic fish and just appear from nowhere? Walking along an empty path, when part of the path croaks at me and leaps into the same brook. Maybe it is the brook that is magic. Or maybe I am blind, and only think I can see. Or, maybe the whole world is magic once one begins to look for what magic might be seen.
In a blue sky, a red tail hawk soars. It is on the hunt, and it can really see. Eyes like a hawk and all that, it can see the smallest movement from hundreds of feet in the air. Would that I could see like that hawk. Going into a steep left banking maneuver, its red tailfeathers flash rust-red in the sun—dazzling. The great bird drifts down to the branches of a blue oak tree and disappears—no more hawk. I want to see. I am not blind by choice. I do work hard at seeing. Cherie points at the hawk in the blue oak. I peer and lust after the sight, but no hawk.
The trees sing to me. I can see the trees, and they sound like birds. I must assume that the trees have learned to sound like birds, or else admit to being blind to birds. The trees make so many different bird sounds. It could be their leaves that have learned bird song.
From well over one hundred feet in the air, a leaf swoops down from a cottonwood tree. I can see that leaf. Maybe I can see leaves because I spend my time searching the trees for a glimpse at the birds. I can see leaves. Another leaf just now flew past me. Both leaves lit softly in the brook. I wonder if I have it all wrong? I peer into the depths of the trees in search of birds and I see leaves. Should I look instead for leaves to see the birds? Yet, why is it that I can see the hawks? Are the raptors of stronger stuff than birds that hide in trees?
I think the birds hide for good purpose. I suspect human vision is much too sharp for their wild comfort and tender skins. Once, high on the side of a Sierra Nevada peak, I espied a chipmunk eating the seeds from a low grass. I made not a move, but as soon as I saw what it was my eyes were looking at, the chipmunk flinched. I wondered at the time if my human vision was like a needle to prick that which I viewed. Did I needle-prick that chipmunk? I do not blame the birds for hiding.
City birds seem too calloused to, or by, human vision. Other birds, black birds, especially the redwings in the tules, are bold. They have no patience with intruders. they let me see them, but their language is foul. Once, when I was drawing some tule cattails, the redwings gathered around me and hurled insults until I left. Cherie asked me how thick was my skin to endure aspersions like that.
I never knew how many grasses I was blind to until I started to draw them. I first thought that if I were to go out and draw three or four I would have a reasonably good representation for my area. So I thought. There are grasses the grass book does not even know about. Dogtoothgrass, Hairgress, Dogtail, Ryegrass, Italian ryegrass, Squirreltail, Sorghum, Secal, Wheat, Canarygrass, Cupgrass, Brome, Dallisgrass, Lovegrass: just to name a few.
Where were all of these grasses last year? Years ago, then Governor of California Ronald Reagan, when commenting on the beauty of California’s redwood forests ignorantly proclaimed, “If you have seen one redwood you have seen them all,” or something close to that. He could have been speaking out of my own ignorance of grasses, flowers, and native plants in general. Take the oak trees in and around Northern California, where I live. Parts of this area are considered an oak savanna. I knew generally what an oak tree looks like, but valley oak, blue oak, lindermann oak, interior live oak, black oak, and more I do not know.
I cannot begin to discuss what I do not know to see about the pine trees. I have learned that the difference between the jeffrey pine and the ponderosa pine is that the jeffrey grows above the 6000 foot elevation and the ponderosa does not. I know that the only other way to really distinguish them is by the pinecone prickles which I never seem to remember and always need to look up—the ponderosa pinecone has outward pointing prickles, and the pinecone on the jeffrey has inward pointing prickles. But the grasses, I just seem to draw them I do not appear able to name them. There are too many of them, and there are more I discover every time I go out to draw. Not only am I blind, but it seems I am becoming more blind.
It is an invisible world out there, but I do get to see some of it, though not all. Learning the grasses and the oaks, and finding out about the prickles on the ponderosas and jeffreies is a first step. My eyes want to see, but my mind seems not to perceive. That is not the fault of my eyes. They are good eyes, and I am learning to see what they see.
Eyes. I am also beginning to see other peoples’ eyes. I am learning to see there is as much hidden in eyes as there are birds hidden in leaves. Pain, joy, sadness, gladness: these are hidden from sharp, analytic, human vision. A smiling face and laughter, but the eyes show fear. The unctuous voice and accommodating body language, with eyes offering only rage and rebellion. A voice speaking loudly with surety as a point is being made, yet the dry eyes cry out from suppressed tears and the need of recognition. The offer of love, freely given to offer hope and help, but these eyes are hungry, starved for the very gift offered. I have learned to see eyes as the trail-markers to the human soul.
The open, bright, fresh, clear, new eyes of wonder we see in a healthy child are, I believe, the norm for the human race. These eyes clear, not jaded, are stars in a facial universe, not treacherous ravines hidden in the shadow-side of a canyon. I want my eyes to show my dreams, and to let my world in, not block it out. I would like the courage to risk being seen fully by sharp, critical human vision.
I think much of what I do not see is due to years of training my eyes to block out and to shield my feelings from others. At some period in my life it was advantageous to do so, but it will not do at all now. I cannot afford to not see well because there is so much I have not seen. How can I possibly see all I need to see when I only peer out around barricades I have constructed? Seeing well is to have an unobstructed field of vision. How can I photograph a field if there is a wall in front of my lens? If I deconstruct walls I have built up against sharp human vision, maybe I will be able to see more birds and grasses. Maybe, if my own vision will be not quite so sharp, it could be much clearer.