“We hear and perceive only what we already half know,” wrote Thoreau, thinking what it takes to see without being blinded by prejudice. “The art of seeing must be learned,” Marguerite Duras sang a century later from her pages a symphonic reckoning with what makes life worth living.
In the time between these two extraordinary seers, another appeared – a great naturalist (or “naturist”, as he described himself) John Burroughs (April 3, 1837 – March 29, 1921) raised this topic in the title essay The Sharp Eye and Other Essays (public library | free e-book), published in the last years of his long and magnificent life.
Wonderfully exploring the idea of seeing with new eyes, Burroughs examines what it means to be a seer—a person with extraordinary vision into realms of reality to which we spend our ordinary days blind, but which are always close at hand. if we know how to look:
Noticing how one eye reinforces the other, I have often amused myself by wondering what the effect would be if it were possible to open the eyes behind the eyes, say, to a dozen or more. What would he see? Perhaps not the invisible – not the smell of flowers, not the germs of fever in the air – not an infinitesimal microscope, not an infinitely distant telescope. This would require not so much more eyes as an eye built with more different lenses; but does he not see with augmented power within the natural limits of vision? At any rate, some people seem to have more eyes opened than others, they see with such power and distinctness; their vision penetrates the tangle and obscurity where the vision of others fails like a spent or powerless bullet.
He observes that extraordinary seers like Thoreau and Audubon—as extraordinary seers as himself, we can safely say with the clarity of posterity in hindsight—always seem to have more than two eyes open: “not the outer eyes, but the inner “. He writes:
We open another eye every time we see beyond the first general features or outlines of things – every time we catch the special details and distinctive marks that this mask covers.
The sentiments of the poet-physicist Richard Feynman will be repeated a generation later in his wonderful ode to a flower, Burroughs notes that “science gives new possibilities of vision,” revealing new layers and details of nature, “as if adding new and sharper eyes.” This is a power we can train in our normal vision simply by changing our appearance:
The habit of observation is the habit of seeing clearly and decisively. Rare and characteristic things are revealed not by the first casual glance, but by steady, deliberate aiming of the eye. You have to look hard and keep your eyes firmly in place to see more than ordinary humanity.
The era before Susan Sontag called being the main task and talent of the writer “professional observer”, Burroughs adds:
It is as necessary for a naturalist as it is for an artist or a poet. A sharp eye notices specific points and differences, grabs and preserves the individuality of a thing.
We think we have looked at a thing sharply until we are asked about its features. I thought I knew exactly the shape of a tulip tree leaf until one day a woman asked me to draw the outline of one of them… Most facts of nature, especially in the life of birds and animals, are well illustrated. We don’t see the play because we don’t look hard enough.
Complete with Georgia O’Keefe on the art of seeing, and then revisit Burroughs how to live with our human fragility and its excellent A Manifesto of Spirituality in the Age of Science.