Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Seeing is (and is not) believing

REBECCA KNEALE GOULD

By the mid-afternoon of June 7th, Manhattan was shrouded in a thick, toxic, orange haze of wildfire-induced particulate matter. I was worried about my New York friends and reached out in concern. “No walk on the Brooklyn Bridge today!” one friend somewhat jauntily replied. “It feels downright apocalyptic here” said another, apparently less invested in dispelling my distress. “It’s unreal,” exclaimed my third correspondent, one who often struggles with asthma. But oh, how very real it was. The orange factor turned out to be all about optics and wavelengths, but it was nonetheless starkly visible. Meanwhile the daily views my friends were accustomed to were nowhere to be seen. 

In an email to a fellow writer, I enacted an effortful reach for a silver-lining:

“The only ‘positive’ element in an event like this (my fervent hope anyway) is that maybe when apathetic people actually SEE what our climate emergency looks like, it might spur them into action.” Then I added, “Based on past history I’m not that optimistic, but you never know!” Looking back at this email with a couple of weeks of hindsight, I see a classic, tripartite hope-despair-hope structure that has come to typify my climate change communication patterns. I actively resist a posture of Only Doom. But let’s be honest, as far as the hope-despair-hope sandwich is concerned, the outer slices are getting progressively thinner, while the unpalatable filling grows correspondingly thick.

If I thought I would get a response, I might ask the orange haze a few questions. Is seeing believing? If so, will the believing that comes from seeing finally kick the inactive into passionate action? And how much action, at what levels of power-brokerage, will be necessary to turn the massive ship of fossil-fuel dependence ever so slightly in a more sustainable direction?

I ask these same questions of myself almost daily. It gets exhausting. So for your sakes and mine, dear readers, let me now take this meditation in a slightly different direction — but with seeing and not-seeing as our continued motif.

Why is it that some people truly need visual evidence to assert that something is true? Why do others prefer to live in a context where a certain degree of mystery remains? Such people tend to follow Emily Dickinson’s exhortation to “tell the truth, but tell it slant.” 

Now, as a scholar, writer and teacher, I go first for clarity. In terms of how I like to experience the world, however, I want to stay open to indirection and allusion. I was reminded of this tendency in two separate conversations last week — one with a clergy colleague and another with a “spiritual, but not religious” friend. In each case, a certain phrase from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer sprang to mind and to speech: the description of a sacrament (such as baptism) as an “outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace.” 

To me, this phrase captures perfectly the essence of what it means to “see” with senses other than sight, a way of experiencing the world around us that is akin to contemplative practice. For those of us who are lucky enough to have good vision, consciously cultivating the other four senses can yield unexpected fruit (but this game works in any number of ways, depending on the sense that you rely upon the most). The broader point is to encounter the world indirectly, discovering, perhaps, that indirection can have transformative potential.

An example will help. For me, as was certainly the case for Dickinson, a sense of “inward and spiritual grace” often comes by way of birdsong. To be sure, in the visual realm, there are few things as thrilling as spotting the first flash of a redwing blackbird in early spring, or apprehending the sheer magnificence of a great blue heron as it rises aloft from a thicket of cattails, displaying its massive wingspan. But thanks to my Cornell Ornithological Lab’s “Merlin” App I have begun to “see” birds in a deliciously different way. With the aid of “Merlin,” I can now query over and over “Wait, was that an oven bird?”; “Did I just hear a pine warbler?” in ways that would likely drive a human companion right ’round the bird-lover’s bend.

Somehow, as I become able to identify more and more species of birds, I begin to feel more richly companioned. In my daily observations, I move from “Wow, this morning there’s a lot of beautiful birdsong!” (appreciative, but rather abstract) to:

“Those must be the same little phoebes who hatched just last week.” 

“That song sparrow is no longer afraid of the sheep.”

“Are the crows just kibitzing or are they pestering our beloved barred owl?”

As my ears become more sharply attuned to the flocks and families living all around me, I experience the world as more “peopled” in a way that any introvert would celebrate: gentle company, at a reasonable distance, expecting little of me and musically virtuosic to boot!

Like many of you, when I grow weary and fearful of the state of our world, I turn to my immediate natural surround as a way to stay grounded. But the irony of this approach is certainly not lost on me when I consider the extent to which the climate crisis occupies the center of that weariness and fear. Floods, fire and extreme heat threaten to destroy our crops and our food systems and in ways that will only exacerbate existing inequities. But the climate crisis also threatens to destroy the sacred spaces and holy sounds upon which we rely for our spiritual sustenance. Rachel Carson presciently noted precisely this when she warned against a massive loss of bird species in “Silent Spring.”

I move through our present climate reality with deep ambivalence. Sometimes I stare directly at the toxic orange hazes of our own making and ponder how I’m called to respond. But sometimes I give these horrors a necessary side-long glance, a glance — I hasten to add — that is substantively and ethically different from “turning a blind eye.” I pause long enough to be restored by song: bird song, frog song, sheep song, even every now and then a human song. Then it’s back to looking reality in the face and taking up our many cause s— grateful, always, that underneath an inward and spiritual grace abides. 

Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, focusing on comparative religion and the environmental humanities.

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