Annie Dillard’s “Seeing” from her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a perfect contrast between physical perception and spiritual understanding. It is a careful blend of beauty, wonder, and philosophical perspectives. She challenges us to examine how we see the world we live in both literally and spiritually. Dillard meticulously describes in great detail how altering how she observed the natural world affected her differently each time; sometimes in a fearful way.
When trying to see a frog that everyone else seemed to have found without much effort she finally asked for help and was told to look for “green,” however, she realized that the color was more like a greenish brown of “wet hickory bark.” What a wonderful way to explain to her readers that sometimes we must narrow the parameters of our sight to see what we aim to see. If we look for a frog among grass, leaves, trees, and a pond we will only see those things; if we look for the color, we see just the things of that color or color variation, and we may just see what we were in pursuit of seeing.
When you look at a tree what do you see; only a tree? Do you hear birds in the tree? If so, then why do you only see the tree? Dillard opens our eyes to the problem of seeing only the natural object through our physical sight. But what about our spiritual sight? Why shouldn’t we ride our spirit and soar above the physical and see the birds that mysteriously appear from the tree in bursts of color? We finally see the freedom of letting go of the literal and allowing for the spiritual when we read her experience with the red-winged blackbirds that were invisible in the tree behind the house. She had seen a tree, then a sudden burst of color that vanished quickly; then, of course, the lonely tree was back. A moment of clarity—a moment of beauty, both sudden and brief.
She touches on the severity of nature and its almost sinister hold on us when she speaks about the Greenland Eskimos and their seemingly torturous experience with the nearly perfect stillness and calmness of the weather as it hypnotizes them into near “obscurity and physical or mental” paralysis. The fact that we are always busying ourselves with movement, sound, and never-ending thoughts keeps us from realizing the purity of quiet and peacefulness. How sad and truly frightening it is to always seek peace but then be horrified by it when we find it.
Our relationship with nature ought to be accepted as a layered friendship. We are not one dimensional, and obviously, neither is the natural world that surrounds us. We learn from Dillard’s own isolated experiences that our perspective of the world is both open and closed depending on what our personal perceptions and experiences are. Just as the blind person who suddenly sees with his or her physical eyes a patchwork of color; we too see a patchwork of possibilities in the world around us. Our relationship with nature is as complex or as simple as we allow it to be. We will never see everything, but we can perceive much. We can always keep our eyes open even when blind. Sight is not seeing; feeling, thinking, existing harmoniously in nature—that is how we see.