An observatory is a place to see, whether into the infinite distance of the Cosmos or into the most microscopic iteration of Nature. Each of us is such a place, able to observe first and to transform our perceptions into experience, knowledge, and action. In this series on writers about Nature, perhaps the most articulate and influential for me was Annie Dillard, a remarkable writer whose The Living is one of the great novels about the American northwest and the founding and early history of Seattle, and whose Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of the great essays on the discipline of observation, the power of seeing, and the need to visualize such awareness through words.
Dillard spent a year in the close confines of Tinker Creek, a stream in West Virginia, where she spent her days walking its course and the local pond it fed and to cause herself to sit silent and near, to see the beautiful, changing aspect of the flora and the active, sometime violent interactions between the resident fauna. There is an astonishing description at the beginning of her watching a frog just bitten by a beetle and the immediate, sad passing of life, leaving for a moment the empty skin only to sink into the water and disappear into cruel history. I can remember reading that passage to this day and realizing that my environs were filled with such drama if only I would give myself the time and space to observe things quietly and closely, to become aware of the natural world not has a one-dimensional set for life but as a deep and dynamic and effective context for learning.
Like poets and other essayists on Nature, Dillard was able also to relate the micro to the macro, to turn reality into metaphor, and to link her fine observations to larger ideas be they the psychological effects on a blind girl suddenly able to see, the complexities of wave mechanics, or a discussion of the divine. In so doing, her voice was unique.
Here are a just a few examples, among the many that resonated so powerfully with me:
“Seeing is very much a matter of verbalization. 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.’ I have to say the words, describe what I’m seeing. If Tinker Mountain erupted, I’d be likely to notice. But if I want to notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life, I have to maintain in my ear a running description of the present.”
“But here is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go When I see in this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with or without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.”
“This Tinker Creek! It was low today, and clear. On the still side of the island the water held pellucid as a pane, a gloss on runes of sandstone, shale, and snail-inscribed clay silt; on the faster side it hosted a blinding profusion of curved and pitched surfaces, flecks of shadow and tatters of sky. There are the waters of beauty and mystery, issuing from a gap in the granite world...”
From Annie Dillard I learned this: that to observe the closeness of a narrow stream, or to observe the vastness of a dynamic ocean, takes a similar determination to place oneself inside the process, to listen and to watch. This is as much what the ocean is for as for anything else: to make us see, to understand how the marine world works, to draw conclusions, and to act on behalf of the world ocean through words first as deliberated, focused, strategic actions.
“My God, this world!” Annie Dillard exclaimed.
Peter Neill is founder and director of the WORLD OCEAN Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. Online at worldoceanobservatory.org. Peter Neill is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society” available now.