January 24, 2012 by bradcharlesbeals
One afternoon a few years back, I learned to see lilac bushes. My father-in-law, a world-class talker, pointed to a bush and said, “That’s a lilac.” It was the first time I’d ever really looked at one, so I listened as he said that it was a favorite, that it was the most spring-ish of spring-time flowers, that it bloomed in white, red, purple, and—naturally—lilac. And that was all. It was a discourse of about one minute, and I planned on forgetting it.
But then a miracle happened. Overnight, across the state of Michigan, along highways, driveways, back roads, and backyards lilac bushes sprang forth, full grown and in bloom. For days after, I could hardly turn my eyes to any familiar stretch of countryside without seeing a lilac bush where there had certainly not been one before.
The miracle, of course, was in my own brain. That the new information about a flowering tree should so quickly change the way I saw the landscape was to me, and still is, miraculous. As it turns out, it’s an every-day miracle.
Scientists believe—and good ones, I presume—that a baby can’t see things until her brain learns that such things really are. So a newborn may see the shape of a face, but not the nose. She can’t (or doesn’t) see nose because there’s no corresponding knowledge, no “nose” file in the brain to refer to. As she has more and more experience of nose, her ability to see it fills in, slowly, like a lens bringing an image into focus.
Maybe you’ve heard the eye described as being an extension of the brain; it’s a helpful notion for seeing how closely the two work together to bring our world into focus, to make of it something solid and navigable. Until there’s enough input, we simply don’t see whatever it is our brain is making sense of. You can test this yourself. Look at a page of text written in an unfamiliar language—say, German. You see nothing but letters broken up into what seem to be word-sized chunks. But there’s no recognition beyond that. You see no patterns, nothing familiar. Now glance at a page of English text, and it’s all familiarity, like the faces of friends. The content is the same: German and English use the same alphabet. But it’s the patterns of letters and their correspondence to known words that make up the seeing as we read. Knowledge here literally gives sight.
So what was there before? there in the lilac-bush place of my mind’s eye? I don’t remember it being a blank or a gray smudge in the picture, but maybe it was. There’s no way to know now because the lilac bush is one place in the scene to which I, apparently, paid no attention. It was probably filled with some stock photo from my head called “bush” or “nondescript shrub”. And here’s fascination for you: that our vision is always filled with something. Our page of German, indecipherable as language, is still filled with clear black and stark white, with letters and punctuation. It’s filled but waiting for more.
My brother-in-law can see deer in the woods. That may not seem like a feat unless you’re with him, unless he’s pointing at a curved piece of gray-brown lump pressing out from a thick tree trunk. And no amount of squinting and straining, no trick of the imagination will allow you to see what he sees, not until the lump moves and either disappears behind the tree or materializes into a deer. His brain has been long trained to see forest patterns and therefore breaks in the patterns. And those breaks, at certain heights off the ground, in certain un-tree-like curves and colors are often deer. But, like learning a new language, it takes years to see that way. And yet always, at all points in the education of our eyes, the forest is full.
I’m only now learning to see the trees that hide the deer. Some years ago, I bought a house that has a woodstove, so I’ve spent a lot of time in woods, felling, splitting, and hauling a variety of hardwood and not-so-hardwood trees. I’ve learned to see maple and cherry and oak and beach and poplar and elm. They look different, these trees. Their bark, leaves, limbs, and shapes are different. And I’ve learned this so gradually that I can’t remember what woods looked like when they were filled only with tree. So how do I know that I’m seeing more now that I once did? Because I narrate. I walk the woods and practice the vernacular. “That’s dogwood…old beech…maple there…nice cherry tree…beautiful sycamore.” I didn’t do that just a few years ago because I wasn’t really seeing different trees. I had not the vocabulary for it. And now, as my tree vocabulary grows, so does the complexity of what I see.
And I’m just a neophyte. If I leaned in close to a biologist in the woods, would I hear the synapses in his brain crackle as his eyes sweep across a field of vision packed with pattern and familiarity? No, I don’t think so. The brain seems to have an inexhaustible capacity for more and finer detail—I doubt that a biologists head makes any more noise than mine does. But in the woods he does see more than I do, I’m sure of that.
This idea that seeing is powered by knowledge brings me to more questions: what am I missing right now? What parts of my nascent vision are comprised of stock footage? And am I even able to detect such blindness? It gets very tricky here. To be able to see a blur, a lack of pattern, requires first a recognition of pattern. So no, I can’t detect the blindness. I can’t look around at the landscape and say now there’s a lack of clarity and detail just waiting to be filled in with knowledge. I can’t because there’s too much detail already filled in around it, the detail exactly matching the knowledge beneath. I can’t see potential patterns anymore than a child can see the inches he has yet to grow or read the language he has yet to learn.
That’s the nature of this world and our experience in it. The visual detail keeps up perfectly with its growing, corresponding knowledge. I learn that the difference between the black maple and the silver maple right next to it are its smoother bark and fewer leaf lobes. And then vision! From that point on, I see them differently. I watch a rugby match, and it’s all chaos and confusion. But a friendly hand points out the patterns in strategy, and the game becomes something new. Knowledge comes and makes vision possible. It differentiates and brings order.
So where there was once at the side of the road a passing blur of white or red or purple, there is now a lilac bush, syringia in all of its deciduous detail. And it is still—to this child still learning to see—miraculous.