Cleansing Perception

saunter jan 31 wide view

Sauntering at Hitchcock Nature Center in early winter. (Photo by Robert Smith.)

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 10.)

I sat in the kitchen of a south-Omaha art studio drinking good coffee in front of a plate of Mexican pastries. As I went on too long about what Henry David Thoreau said in his Journal on this morning in 1851, my artist-naturalist friend jumped up and disappeared. I love to talk about Thoreau’s paradoxical apologetics for identifying, classifying, and documenting his local biota and then setting all that aside in order to perceive the true nature of a plant or an animal.

I’m sure Christina had grown tired of my Thoreauvian mantras repeated once again for the other guests at the table.  But that’s what we do: we teach ecology and taxonomy and citizen science in general, but also sauntering: a way of walking and a rubric of in-seeing, aided by journaling, drawing, poetry, and contemplation. A good naturalist, in our school of thought, can identify birds and frogs by song, recite botanical Latin, and write a good haiku.

But she returned as quickly as she had bolted and proclaimed: “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees,” holding a book by that name. I had only a dim knowledge of artist Robert Irwin, but was very intrigued that his biography was so named. But I was not surprised to find the famous quote from the eighteen-century mystical poet and artist William Blake invoked by Irwin: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”


Winter liverwort at Hitchcock, seen on a Saunter. (Robert Smith.)

It seems that Irwin and colleagues had conducted a sensory-deprivation experiment, during which Irwin had spent six hours in an anechoic chamber at UCLA. (That does sound like something an avant-garde artist would do in California in 1968.) He had proved for himself Blake’s dictum. Speaking of his experience, he reported: “For a few hours after you came out, you really did become more energy conscious, not just that leaves move, but that everything has a kind of aura, that nothing is wholly static, that color itself emanates a kind of energy. You noted each individual leaf, each individual tree. You picked up things which you normally blocked out….”


December mosses revealed at Waubonsie State Park. (Photo by Billie Shelton.)

An anechoic chamber is not only sound-proof, but echo-proof, and is used by engineers to test equipment and materials for acoustic sensitivity and properties. And apparently, by artists seeking sensory cleansing.  A human in such a chamber is left only with the sound of thinking (which disappears over time) and the electrical hum of the nervous system. Upon emerging, Irwin channeled Blake and unwittingly, Thoreau: “Aye, when we are lifted from the film and slime of habitual life, we see the whole globe to be an aerolite, and reverence it as such, and make pilgrimages to it, far off as it is.” (30 August, 1856.)

We love to saunter when the nights get longer and the days grow colder.  A wild place in winter functions as an aerolite and as an anechoic chamber, not by canceling echoes that  bounce lively in the winter woods, but by cleansing the doors of perception in the naked landscape. Summer is stripped away and the world is framed in tawny stalks and corky trunks. Preconceptions and our habitual foliage can obscure mysteries that require a clear line of sight. They are shed like leaves.

The morning after coffee and pastries and kitchen philosophy, we made an early-winter pilgrimage in earnest. The frozen air made sparrows bright, mosses florescent, and drab fungi suddenly resplendent. We sauntered over steep earth, climbing ladders of shadows in and out of deep ravines. In the bottoms we found bryophyte jungles. The tall forest above made skeletal canopies except when condescending to mushrooms. Fissures in oaken bark nursed verdancies of lichens, made greener or more orange with frosting. Sunburst lichens radiated against the season and prickly vines of smilax, holding green, defied the russet day. Colors will burn even hotter with the coming snows.


Hackberry given to Waubonsie turkey-tails. (Photo by Westy Nelson.)

Winter Workshops and Saunters in the Loess Hills: click here for details.