We woke up this morning, Boxing Day, to the scene above, as far as the eye could see. As soon as I got up I had to get outside, get everyone else outside, take pictures. I just stood out there with my mouth open. As soon as I’d shoveled the walk (the kids & grandkids stayed overnight and had to leave at noon today) I went back inside, got the camera, and just wandered around, staring. I felt as if I was seeing the world as an artist. It was pure sensation. There was no intellectualization — “that’s a lamppost”, “that’s how I should frame this shot”. I was seeing only with the right side of my brain — seeing dark and light, spaces and shadows, not processing what I was seeing and iconizing it. I watched a downy woodpecker fly across the yard and land on the pole of our snow-covered bird feeder, and then do a double-take — “this is not a tree”. A pair of wild rabbits scrambled through the snow, running in circles around the trees.
What pulled me outside was pure emotion, pure sensation, and it was that emotion, that feeling, not some ‘object’ I wanted to ‘capture’ with the camera.
All my senses were alert, blurred into synaesthesia (in the scientific sense of integrated, rather than the psychological sense of jumbled). I was sensing profoundly, viscerally, like an animal. And it occurred to me that, just as our mental processing of objects begins to interfere with our artistic ability to represent them authentically, our mental processing abstracts our entire reality. Our ability to perceive authentically is diminished as our ability and inclination to conceive increases. The more we think, the less purely we sense, and the less we really feel.
This is an arguable and completely unsupported hypothesis, of course, but it ‘makes sense’ to me. The correlation between intensity of sensation and intensity of emotion (we even use the ambiguous word ‘feeling’ to describe both) seems to me instinctively obvious. Animals with minimally-conceiving brains live their entire lives synaesthetically (perhaps with the exception of rare moments when they are ‘rationally’ fearful — when they ‘conceive’ that their, or their loved-ones’, lives are in danger). It must be a wonderful, constantly astonishing, richly emotional life. No wonder that, despite their ‘inability’ (or lack of need) to conceive of the idea of their own mortality or purpose in life, they seek so passionately to live!
We humans were definitely short-changed when in comes to acuity of senses. We have only a few evident senses to begin with, and they’re pretty dim compared to those of other creatures — many birds and animals see better than us, and differently from us, and most hear and smell better than we do, and sometimes seem to have senses we lack entirely. If our lives are sensually poorer than other creatures’, it seems sensible to me that our lives are also emotionally emptier, shallower. We were endowed by nature instead with a bigger and more complex brain than most other creatures, a compensatory advantage. But I wonder if as our ability for abstraction increases it also further diminishes our ability to feel, distances us from our senses and emotions by putting a conceptual veil between the real world and the representational theatre of it that plays continually in our heads.
The first one to follow me outside this morning was our grand-daughter Cassandra. She’s a natural athlete and I watched to see how much of her attention would be captured by the amazing panorama that greeted her eyes as she stepped outside. Although it’s unfair to judge, and I have no doubt that children are more synaesthetic than adults, it seemed to me that she was immediately taken by the athletic promise of the snow — she had the ‘flying saucer’ type toboggan in her hand as she came out. I watched her as she slid down the front hill of our lot, and she seemed much more excited by the speed than by the natural wonder all around her. She went to retrieve her dad when she became impatient with my shoveling. I sent them around to the more obstacle-free back hill with the faster aluminum toboggans, and followed soon after with the camera in hand. I took some photos that were memorable in a different sense:
A half hour later the tobogganing was followed by a snowball fight, and then I returned to my nature photography. I just missed the rabbits in this shot but I still like it:
I thought it was curious that this experience followed less than a week after my story about the skunk, and my article about closing your eyes and imagining. I sometimes think anything can happen, and will only happen, when you’re ready for it.
(more pictures on my Flickr page)
December 26, 2005
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