Seeing Nature: Deliberate Encounters with the Visible World is a love story—with Earth as the object of affection. Paul Krafel, naturalist and teacher, tells a series of gentle parables based on his observations of soil and water, sky and rock, plant and animal, growth and decline. As he summarizes in the chapter "Ten Years Later":
Life is a spiral of storytelling between my actions and the world. My book is a series of stories about times when I "woke up" and heard a story the world was telling that increased my awareness of what I was actually doing within this universe. ("Ooh, the horizon's rising. That's cool.") This feedback allows me to live with greater grace. This increasing grace is what the words in this book tell about.
The parabolic (parable-ic?!) arc of ideas in Seeing Nature means the book—like Nature herself—escapes encapsulation. So here instead of a review are some fragments that caught my idiosyncratic eye with their sparkle.
There's the lesson that Richard Feynman's father taught him on the distinction between symbol and reality, when in his essay "Seeing Animals as Individuals" Krafel writes:
Watching for the constantly adjusting Fit between an animal and its world has changed the way I see animals. When I first started watching animals, my standard question was "What is the name of that animal?" That question made me rely on external authorities such as identification books and rangers. If I was alone, the question could not be answered. And whenever the question was answered, the answer did not lead to further questions. Thinking I now knew the animal, I would walk away in search of animals with other names. Yet all I really knew were names.
Many years later my standard question has shifted to "What is this animal doing?" This question does not rely on external authorities but turns me back to closer observation of the animal. Searching for the answer leads into other questions, such as "How does this behavior fit?" and "What will this individual do next?" When I recommended these questions to people on my nature walks, our walks settled into extended observations that taught us all. Focusing on names deflects from the moment, whereas watching for the Fit probes the moment. One sees more stories and is inspired more often by pieces of the world fitting together so beautifully.
There's an arsenal of powerful techniques I learned in theoretical physics: dimensional analysis, spacetime diagrams, lagrangian and eulerian coordinates, path-integral methods, and so forth. These dry-sounding techno-mathematical constructs magically come to life as Krafel looks at the world and describes what he observes. From "The Fit":
I delight each time I discover the Fit between two pieces of the world. The delight is similar to (but deeper than) fitting together two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. When two puzzle pieces fit together, they reveal more of the picture than they did apart. The delight I feel each time I see the Fit between pieces of the world feels like a glimpse of a beautiful picture too vast for me yet to see. Each glimpse tantalizes me to discover the Fit between other pieces.
There's the idea of temporal transcendence—expanding one's view beyond the present instant to slice through swaths of time. From "Seeing Further into the Fourth Dimension":
A change cannot be run backward. But I can move back and forth through "time." I can look downstream and see leaves rot into a brown slime or move my gaze upstream and watch brown slime freshen into leaves. If I discover some new flowering feature as I move away from the snowbank, I can move back toward the snowbank (back in "time") to study its origin. Moving back and forth helps me sense how things once were and how things will be in the future.
There's transcendence that stretches consciousness across space. From "Walking":
While walking through the desert one day, I happened to look to the side. What I saw startled me. Objects appeared to move at different speeds depending on their distances from me. Nearby plants streamed through my visual field quickly while more distant plants moved more slowly. As I practiced, I noticed that the near side of a bush appears to move past faster than the far side. Everything takes on a greater sense of depth. Hills a mile away move faster than mountains five miles away. This does not happen when I look straight ahead. The longer I can walk without taking my eyes off this side view, the further I can extend this enhanced sense of depth.
Eventually, I learn to walk gazing about in all directions as far as I can. My mind relaxes and expands as I walk through this vast, slowly changing view. My focus has spiraled far away from myself.
There's the profound optimism that Krafel describes in "Diverging":
This work reminded me of the process of evolution. Tiny changes create opportunities for other tiny changes. Over time, what seemed impossible becomes possible. Each time I discover a new possibility created by my work, my spirit begins singing, "Don't wait until there is a clear path to the goal. Begin. Doing the work will help create the path."
And there's the slow development of the ability to see through the ephemeral, to penetrate the veil of the moment. From "The Gradient of Converging Water":
That memory reminds me of how I once saw the world. Summits and rivers existed completely independently of one another, with no influence whatsoever on the land in between them. In a world as disconnected as that, I had to stick to the trails if I wanted to find my way. Yet I did learn some things that day. I learned that a summit is surrounded by a mountain and that a river is surrounded by a valley. I began to learn about the drainage patterns that water has carved upon all the land.
These drainage patterns were unknown to me as a child because I grew up in a town. Every town is built upon a pattern of streams but most towns have encased their streams in culverts and buried them beneath pavement. Raindrops begin to converge into streams, but then they disappear through grates down into the storm sewers. Streams are allowed to flow freely only through parks, so I encountered streams as disjointed scenery that appeared at one end of a park and disappeared at the other end. The intricate, subtle slopes of a drainage have been graded and covered with smooth sidewalks and roads. We become what we practice, so in towns we learn the pattern of streets rather than the pattern of drainages. Not until I felt the subtle slopes underfoot as I hiked across deserts and mountains did I learn the pattern of drainages.
I think now about applying that hydrologic vision to ideas—as notions gather in the highlands of individual minds and trickle, converge, and grow into roaring conceptual torrents ...
(belated thanks to RP, the kind correspondent who recommended Seeing Nature two months ago; the book was published in 1999 by http://www.chelseagreen.com/ ; cf. NaturalProfligacy (20 Dec 1999), InvisibleWeb (8 Dec 2002), BigPictureFallacy (22 Jan 2003), BeneathNotice (23 May 2003), FeedOrFeedback (6 Sep 2004), ...)