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The Sunflower Hill Chronicles, Part 12: Seeing

By Birgitta Jansen

July 10, 2022

It is a lovely Sunday afternoon. The temperature is probably around 20°C; warm in the sunshine and cool in the shaded woods. A strong westerly wind, especially noticeable on The Hill, also has a cool edge to it. In a cerulean blue sky, a procession of stately cumulus clouds drift to destinations unknown. When I was a kid, I used to lie in on my back in a grassy field next to our house. Those were the sultry days of summer and I was mesmerized. Time lost all meaning as I watched the silent, slow-moving clouds leisurely morph into an endless array of mysterious shapes. For some reason or another I don’t do that anymore…

The weather has been like this all week: sunshine in the morning, clouds arriving mid to late morning, breezes ranging from light to strong. There’s been a bit of rain now and then, but last Monday, July 4, Kimberley area residents experienced this season’s first thunder/lightning storm followed by a significant downpour.

I walk my usual route: up Campground Trail to Jimmy Russell, turn right, up to the eastbound Sunflower Hill Trail to the hairpin curve, walk the ridge going west and then down Duck Pond Trail. I walk this route, or one of many variations of it, several times a week, sometimes with a pack and multiple cameras dangling on my shoulders, and sometimes just as a little reconnoiter or a power walk.

Mosses grow on a log

When I was here a few days ago zipping along the trails sans pack and cameras, it didn’t look like there had been many changes that I wanted to document. But today, as I am here with my cameras, I realize that I am seeing changes and interesting details I missed earlier. With the cameras and the intention to see, seeing has a different, more thoughtful quality. For me, the camera is my tool to see.

This is not a new discovery for me, but today’s moment of conscious awareness brings it to the fore again. My husband Neal, who is a professional photographer, describes his landscape photography as a conversation with the landscape. I like that. A conversation implies a two-way interaction. There really is a difference between an image that is thoughtfully created and snapshot taken in passing. Just like painters with their paintbrushes, some photographers are artists with their cameras.

I have thought about “seeing” a lot. This may leave you, dear reader, to wonder why “seeing” needs to be thought about. Well, it’s interesting.

We tend to take seeing for granted. Those of us who are sighted clap our eyes open in the morning and go about our business. In our interaction with our environment, we rely predominantly on what we see rather than on what we perceive through our other senses. But it gets interesting when we realize that our eyes are the tools that allow us to see, the portal through which visual stimuli reach our brain. In essence, we “see” with our brain, or more specifically, with a part of our brain called the primary visual cortex. The visual cortex lies in the occipital lobe of the brain, located in the back of the head, and that’s where the information is processed. And now it gets complicated. We tend not to see what we do not know or recognize. What we see depends on what we know.

Small flowers in a green-leafed plant

Imagine an accident has just occurred in an intersection. There are a number of witnesses: a lawyer, a paramedic, an auto-body shop employee, a mother and a police officer. What they have each seen may vary based on their knowledge and previous experience, which means that each person will have a different story to tell. The mom may have instantly noticed the two children in the backseat, while the paramedic will be focused on potential injuries, and so on.

One important factor is that more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities and urban settings. This means that a large percentage of humans have developed what I call “city seeing habits.” Everything in a city is based on usage by humans; it is built by humans and it’s sized in such a way that we can use it. The elevator buttons are the right height for most of us. Our laptops, automobiles, airplanes, pencils, camping gear, smartphones and street signs are all human-sized. We are living in an artificially created landscape that makes it so easy to think that the world is about us.

When we try to connect with the land, it is challenging because we do not know it as intimately — and we don’t know how to “see” it. There is little in the “city experience” that prepares us to develop a relationship with the land and understand that the land is not about us. The land is about itself.

A closeup of tree bark

One way to begin bridging the gaps in our knowledge is through what I call “intentional seeing.” What I mean by that is seeing with conscious awareness. For example, it is useful to learn the names of plants. That can be the beginning of getting to know the vegetation and then start noticing where the various plants grow. Once you know what an Oregon grape looks like, you’ll see it everywhere! We don’t notice the nameless in the same way.

Slow solo walks with a focus on seeing can be another good strategy. Here in Kimberley, we have the luxury of being relatively safe in our Nature Park, which means we can venture out solo. If we’re out in the pleasant company of others, our attention is on the conversation. Some people have disagreed with me on that and countered, “but even when I’m talking, I can still look around me and see.” However, when we multi-task, our attention is divided, which means we notice half, or less than half, of what is actually around us. We can’t fully process what we see; we don’t have enough bandwidth.

A few weeks ago, I was spending some time checking out pinedrops (more about those in another essay). A vibrant young woman arrived, put her mountain bike down, and inquired, “What are you looking at?” After I told her more than she really wanted to know about pinedrops, she commented that she had never seen this plant, all 42 inches of it. And actually that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In order to be safe, bike riders need to focus their attention on the trail and what’s coming up 6 feet in front of them. But this means there’s a lot they cannot notice, like pinedrops, the lovely calypso orchid or mountain slipper, or coral root, or… perhaps I need not go on.

A closeup view of a pinecone from above, so it appears to spread out in concentric rings

Many little worlds open up for the person who pays attention, who really looks, who perhaps carries a hand lens. It is a marvelous way of discovering the magic that is all around us — the magic that is life, the existence that we are part of.

Let your feet carry you along the path, experience the magic of a community of trees in the mountains, revel in the silence or perhaps the feeling of the wind and sun on your face. Allow yourself to be fully engaged by what you see. You may discover a richness out there and within. Then share what you find, your love for a place you’ve come to care about.

A tiny tree grows from the top of an old stump

I stop in the open area on the Sunflower Hill Trail and look at the clouds, watching their stately procession to destinations unknown. Another word comes to mind: Gratitude.

All photos by Birgitta


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