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Sight Seeing and the Art of Looking

What you see is what you get.” -Annie Dillard

I fancy myself a sight seer–not a tourist, mind you, but a traveler, a seer of sights.  I think sight seeing is underrated and misunderstood.  Hailing from Florida, a tourist mecca, I know a little something about how many people sightsee.  But I’m talking about something else, something more economic, closer to home and more personal, but as potentially exotic as anything you’ll see on a safari.

I’ve always loved looking at things, at people and scenes and the minutia of a square of visual landscape.  That’s probably why I’m a writer. I see things, lots of things.  But that’s not a requisite for being a seer. Nor is good eyesight, really.  My vision isn’t particularly good. But my sight is sharp; that is, my attention to detail.  And thanks to the recent gift by my Beloved of a fantastic camera with a telephoto lens, my vision has become a little clearer, too, and suddenly the world is in sharp focus in previously visually inaccessible places.  But a camera is just a tool to record what’s always there.

The fact is, all you really need to be a good sight seer is to make a conscious choice to sit still and look.  Turn everything off – phones, iPods, computers, TVs, radios – and simply sit, indoors or preferably, outdoors. Sit and breathe.  It’s okay if your mind wanders.  That’s what minds do.  But look. When you take the time to really look at things, you will see things.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, author Annie Dillard, the Queen of Seeing as far as I’m concerned, likens the visual gifts around us to “unwrapped gifts and free surprises.” The world, she says, “is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.”  She laments that few people get excited by a penny these days.

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact, planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.  It is that simple.  What you see is what you get.

One of my favorite places to look for Annie Dillard’s universal pennies is a lovely county park in Tarpon SpringsPinellas County, where Tarpon Springs is located, is the most densely populated county in Florida, with more than 3000 residents per square mile.  Traffic on neighboring US 19 is an eight lane nightmare, especially during “snowbird season” in the winter, when northern tourists and seasonal dwellers dig in to avoid brutal northern winters.

But Pinellas also treasures and wonderfully maintains its green spaces and this one is no exception, an oasis of cypress and rolling hillside along Lake Tarpon.  The park is heavily used by hikers, bikers, joggers, picnickers, dog walkers, nature watchers, sports enthusiasts, boaters and fisher folk, all reveling in the open space and sunlight.  Only a small handful ever seem to stay in one place for long though, and while you can see the sights while strolling, you can’t really sight see the astounding diversity of things are to see in this remarkable urban wilderness.

“Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization,” notes Dillard.  “Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it.  It is, as Ruskin says, “not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen.””

To truly see anything requires silence, stillness, curiosity and studied observation.  A bird may flit by a walker; squirrels and lizards rustle branches near picnickers; a jogger might peripherally notice an alligator adrift by the boardwalk.  But these are just anterior experiences to the other things we’re doing. Sit still a while, though, and watch receptively, and an entire other universe of life reveals itself.

In the space of an hour or so at the park, sitting at a waterside picnic table, I have seen a blue jay catch an enormous hairy legged spider – and not just one, but several! – observed the protracted preening of purple gallinules and great egrets in magnificent breeding plumage, watched a great blue heron snapping branches off pine trees for nest building, seen dragonflies dipping rhythmically into the near shore to lay eggs, marveled at osprey hovering long seconds above the water before crashing in to catch fish, witnessed the dance of water bugs and the play of light and shadow on the trunks of trees around me.

Although I also enjoy watching people in the conduct of their daily lives, I love watching nature best.  It’s unaffected by our observation usually, and unpretentious even when we’re noticed.  I find it reassuring and perspective setting to see a tiny portion of animals lives played out before me. It’s humbling to see how much of an osprey’s life, for instance, is spent trying to secure food.  They exert an enormous amount of energy soaring above the water, hovering expectantly before soaring again, or diving over and over again, missing eight times out of ten.  I felt like celebrating for more than the just the opportunity of a great shot, when an osprey flew by me nearly at eye level recently, with an enormous fish clenched in its talons.

I had no idea, before I took the time to watch, how much work a heron invests in finding branches for its nest, or how carefully a moor hen sifts through water grasses, nor how fantastically they run across the top of the water when they land or take off, and beautifully the water glistens behind them when they do.  Animals days are spent patiently, focused solely in the work of staying alive.   Once, as I pondered the wisdom of a little grebe paddling near a good sized alligator, the grebe suddenly glided sideways in the water just as the alligator turned suddenly towards it.  Then both settled once again into passive floating.

It’s enough to make the minor annoyances most of us face daily just that – irritants.  We should make more pearls with them and less pettiness.

While the park is a great place to sight see, so is a backyard or any common green space. There are always squirrels and pigeons and insects and light and shadow playing on benches and buildings.  And children are great tour guides when it comes to sight seeing, if we’ll only follow their lead. Too often, they’re discouraged in honing their powers of observation, as the adults in their lives hurry them along.  We can take our cues from children, who are naturally curious about their world. We can stop, look, wonder and explore with them, and enrich not only their lives, but our own.

Sight seeing soothes the soul, slows things down and puts life in its proper perspectives, and us in our proper place in life, outside the artificial environments we create for ourselves.  When we take the time to look, and to actually see the world around us, we are restored, refreshed and rehumanized.

The literature of illumination, “ writes Dillard, “reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.”

There are sights in great abundance – go see them!


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