When I first dipped my toe into the creek, I wasn’t in the right mood, tossing it aside for a week to give myself time to regain perspective. Sometimes that’s all it takes, just a few days and how you respond to a book is entirely different. When I picked it up again, the clouds parted, the sunlight sparkled in, the birds chirped in my ear. She goes into the woods near her Virginia home to pay attention deliberately, reeling in the light show put on by the sun, the mountains, the trees. Fascinated by her descriptions of the von Senden book, Space and Sight, a collection of histories of cataract patients blind since birth, detailing their sense perceptions before and after operation. “Form, distance, and size were so many meaningless syllables.” There’s the patient who called lemonade “square” because it pricked his tongue as a square shape pricked the touch of his hands. Another marvels that everyone who visits her in the hospital has a different face.
I’m not sure what allows her the space and time to spend all day throughout the seasons observing the woods, but she describes it ” I have at the moment a situation which allows me to devote considerable hunks of time to seeing what I an see, and trying to piece it together.” She marvels at the strength of trees and plants, the chaos spinning around the natural world with no one minding death but us humans, “Our excessive emotions are so patently painful and harmful to us as a species that I can hardly believe that they evolved.”
Describing the wonders of seeing a mockingbird drop from a roof onto the ground:
I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do it try to be there. (p 10)
On seeing the tree with the lights in it:
Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. (p 36)
After driving for many hours, she stops at a gas station and pets a puppy, watching the sunset, being intensely present, but as soon as she acknowledges it, she’s lost it. “Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills up his cup under a waterfall.” It is this self-consciousness that hinders experiencing the present:
Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies. It is the glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people – the novelist’s world, not the poet’s. I’ve lived there. I remember what the city has to offer: human companionship, major-league baseball, and a clattering of quickening stimulus like a rush from strong drugs that leaves you drained. I remember how you bide your time in the city, and think, if you stop to think, “next year… I’ll start living; next year… I’ll start my life.” Innocence is a better world. (p 82)
More of giving up self to spend hour upon hour motionless, observing:
(the muskrat) never knew I was there. I never knew I was there, either. For that forty minutes last night I was as purely sensitive and mute as a photographic plate; I received impressions, but I did not print out captions… I have done this sort of thing so often that I have lost self-consciousness about moving slowly and halting suddenly… I have often noticed that even a few minutes of self-forgetfulness is tremendously invigorating. I wonder if we do not waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves. (p 200)
Battling her monkey mind, the scenes that drift across her memory from nowhere:
All right then. Pull yourself together. Is this where I’m spending my life, in the “reptile brain,” this lamp at the top of the spine like a lighthouse flipping mad beams indiscriminately into the darkness, into the furred thoraxes of moths, onto the backs of leaping fishes and the wrecks of schooners? Come up a level; surface. (p 95)
I love this:
Somewhere, and I can’t find where, I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?” “No,” said the priest, “not if you did not know.” “Then why,” asked the Eskimo earnestly, “did you tell me?” If I did not know about the rotifers and paramecia, and all the bloom of plankton clogging the dying pond, fine; but since I’ve seen it I must somehow deal with it, take it into account. “Never lose a holy curiosity,” Einstein said; and so I life my microscope down from the shelf, spread a drop of duck pond on a glass slide, and try to look spring in the eye. (p 123)
Tipped off to this book’s existence by an Atlantic piece forwarded by B.