Slow Seeing

2,110 total words    

8 minutes of reading

I’m reading the journals of Gerard Manley Hopkins when the thin metal and glass rectangle in my pocket makes the sound of a bumblebee and shivers against my leg. I respond like Pavlov’s doga tiny jolt of anticipation flooding my veinsand pull it out to see that the device is alerting me, with no particular emphasis, to the facts that glyphosate has been found in granola and my sister just left me a voicemail. Brushing my finger across the smooth surface, I am plunged into news about the style choices of royals, the spring sale at North Face, the romaine lettuce blamed for an E. coli outbreak, and the concerns about our data being taken by Facebook. It takes great discipline to turn off the phone and its alluring bits of information and return my focus to the book in my hands, which I very intentionally have chosen to read today to remind me about the practice of slow seeing and sustained attention.

Hopkins is famous for his detailed seeing in his well-known poems. In “Windhover,” he details for the reader of the poem how his careful observation of a kestrel riding a column of air at dawn results in an ecstasy that cuts through the everyday experience of being alive, and, like the blue-bleak embers, “that ah my dear, fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion,” the speaker of the poem seems to be broken open by the radiance and miracle of life on earth. For Hopkins, this is evidence of the sacred, attributed to God. But the poem offers more than an invitation to faith as it sings into the ears of readers years later about the reward of looking deeply. Even someone who is not born into a spiritual tradition is invited into the ecstasy of slow and careful seeing. In his journals, I found the more private side of his meditations on the natural world.1 For days on end, he reported on the ever-changing skies. Here is one example: 

March 14––Bright morning, pied skies, hail. In the afternoon the wind from the N., very cold; long bows of soft grey cloud straining the whole heaven but spanning the skyline with a slow entasis which left a strip of cold porcelain blue. The long ribs or girders were as rollers across the wind… 

And here, in these two entries, discovering something surprising and different from his previous empirical knowledge of the sky, and writing without line breaks and punctuation, he seems breathless and full of wonder: 

April 22––But such a lovely damasking in the sky as today I never felt before. The blue was charged with simple instress, the higher, zenith sky earnest and frowning, lower more light and sweet. High up again, breathing through woolly coats of cloud or on the quains and branches of the flying pieces it was the true exchange of crimson, nearer the earth/against the sun/it was turquoise, and in the opposite south-western bay below the sun it was like clear oil but just as full of colour, shaken over with slanted flashing ‘travellers’, all in flight, stepping one behind the other, their edges tossed with bright ravelling as if white napkins were thrown up in the sun but not quite at the same moment so that they were all in a scale down the air falling one after the other to the ground.  

May 9––A simple behavior of cloudscape I have not realised before. Before a N.E. wind great bars or rafters of cloud all the morning and in a manner all the day marching across the sky in regular rank and with equal spaces between. They seem prism-shaped, flat-bottomed and banked up to a ridge: their make is like light tufty snow in coats. 

And here, he paints for us an end-of-day portrait of the behavior of light, remembering just two other times in his life seeing a “wedge of light” like the one he records on this day: 

May 24––It was a glowing yellow sunset. Pendle and all the hills rinsed clear, their heights drawn with a brimming light, in which windows or anything that could catch fluttered and laughed with the blazeall bounded by the taught outline of a mealy blue shadow covering the valley, which was moist and giving up mist. Now where a strong shadow lay in a slack between two brows of Pendle appeared above the hill the same phenomenon. I had seen twice before (once near Brussels) a wedge of light faintly edged, green on the right side, red on the left, as a rainbow would be, leaning to the right and skirting the brow of the hill with a glowing edge. 

What rapturous attention! What a patient outpouring of love! I find these detailed, long descriptions to be a balm today, an antidote to the relentless inundation of information soundbites and images that stream into us twenty-four hours a day, relentless as a strobe light. My attention shatters with each interruption, leaving no time for mulling over the meaning of it all. What would it be like to live with the patient and passionate attention and keen awareness of Hopkins? What new things would I see? How would my life change? 

My own habits of meditating on the conditions of an individual day, especially in the winter months in the Midwest, are often limited to checking my phone’s weather app, which gives me a temperature and digital background depicting blue skies or snowflakes, or, in the summer months, images of blue skies or lightning strikes and raindrops. I wasn’t always like this. 

My mother loves storms. When my sister and I were small, she often constructed temporary blanket nests on the porch or front stoop of wherever we were living and made cinnamon toast and cocoa for us to nibble on as we watched a storm front move across the sky. In the Midwest, the storms often come in a wall of darkening, churning cumulus clouds, sometimes pulsing with erratic light, warning the earthbound creatures with their loud rumbling, and just before the rain begins, a huge gust of cool air sweeps across the trees, turning the leaves backwards. That was our cue to run inside, squealing with anticipation. My mother would also often pull the car over to the side of the road when we were driving somewhere, and insist we look at a sunset or a flock of birds or a field of tall grasses moving in the wind. Today, I crave changing skies and wind moving across water or fields because I know these things bring me joy, but I’m often too busy at my computer to go see these things. I rarely make seeing things a priority, though I’ve begun to think I should. 

In the past few years, it’s struck me that it might be important for all of us to cultivate habits of slow looking and habits of wonder in this time of so much environmental devastation. Rachel Carson famously said, “It seems reasonable to believe—and I do believe—that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”2 Can we train ourselves to slow down in our looking and practice the experience of wonder? And if we did, would we begin acting a little more sanely? I wanted more models. So many of our technologies have replaced historical ways of observing and recording the world.  

During Darwin’s time, when the recording of myriad examples of animals and plants and the building of taxonomies were burgeoning without the help of digital cameras and GPS (which clearly would have been handy, and obviously are a great help to scientists today), many scientists, including Darwin, relied on a book of colors called Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours to accurately describe things they found in the natural world. The book was based on the work of a person called Abraham Gottlob Werner who had developed a system of color identification for minerals which was collected and augmented by the artist Patrick Syme. The hope was to create a common, and unambiguous, language of visual description. 

Syme’s pursuit and production of a series of precise descriptions, based on Werner’s work, exposed his ability to observe the most minute details and subtleties of the non-human world. For each hue, he named the color, provided a painted sample, and gave specific examples of where the viewer would find the color among animals, plants, and minerals.3 Here are a few examples: 

Sienna yellow can be found on the “vent parts of the tail of the bird of paradise” and “the stamina of honeysuckle” and is the color “of pale Brazilian topaz”. 

Tile red is evident on the “breast of the cock bullfinch” and “shrubby pimpernel” and the color “of porcelain jasper”. 

Red lilac purple is displayed on the “light spots of the upper wings of peacock butterfly”  and “red lilac and pale purple primrose” and is the color “of lepidolite”. 

Astonishing! Not only the light spots on the peacock butterfly, but the light spots on the upper wings. The descriptions are like tiny poems to me. I am painfully aware of my inadequate capacity to notice such subtlety. 

Peacock Butterfly

And yet I do have—as many of us do—some things that slow me down, that beg me to linger and captivate me in a way that pulls me away from headlines and ad banners on my electronic devices. One of those things is honeybees. 

I began keeping honeybees because I have been mystified by them since I was a little girl. Keeping honeybees has allowed me to observe the complicated and beautiful lives of creatures so completely different than methat build their cities out of wax, dance their stories, and create honey the flavor of their landscapes. I can spend hours watching them fly back from the fields and climb into the hive, back legs loaded with different colors of pollen, or working the comb and gently touching each other with their antennae. My obsession with them has made me want to advocate for them, write about them, to help them survive this world that is so filled with chemicals that make them sick and is depleted more and more of the habitats they need for nourishment. This attention to honeybees has also made me notice other insects, other pollinators—mason bees, carpenter bees, butterflies of many kinds—creatures that were invisible to me in the past. Now when I walk down the street or through a field I am aware of countless beings that I had not seen before, and I am filled with awe. 

It is springtime in the Midwest, and everything is bristling with the emergence from dormancy. Crocuses erupt from cold soil. Trees dress in their flowery attire and begin flirting with bees. Yesterday on my walk, I heard my first frogs of the season singing, and I saw three dragonflies darting over a nearby urban pond where a painted turtle sunned himself on a log. My honeybees are bringing in purple pollen from the bright blue squill in my yard, which I noticed the bumblebees seem to love, too. I imagine Werner and Syme would have wanted to name the specific hue of purple and that Hopkins would have enjoyed trying to describe these bright days in sensuous language. 

Would Hopkins have written all his lovely journals had he had the Internet or a smartphone? Would his musings have appeared on Facebook or Twitter? Would Syme and Werner have looked as closely at butterflies, flowers, and stones? Or would they have been too distracted to see so deeply? I don’t know. I do know that while today’s technology gives us so many incredible tools of communication and innovation, I would argue we still need to consciously decide to pay attention to the non-digital world these days, and that when we do, our reward can be a sense of gratitude, of reverence, of connection, and maybe of an urgency to care for our fragile, imperiled earth. The world around us is a vibrant, ever-changing miracle of which we are a part. Let’s put our phones down and close our computers for a minute, go outside, and notice it. 

Image credit

Peacock Butterfly” by Dagpåfugløye. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

[1] Selections taken from H. House and G. Storey, The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins (London: Oxford University Press, 1959).

[2] R. Carson, “Design for Nature Writing” (acceptance speech for the John Burroughs Medal, April 1952), in L. Lear, ed., Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), 94.

[3] See P. Syme, Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts (Edinburgh, Scotland: Printed for William Blackwood in Edinburgh; and T. Cadell, Strand, London, 1821).

  • Heather Swan

    Heather Swan’s book Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field was released in the fall of 2017 from Penn State Press and was awarded the 2018 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award. Her nonfiction has appeared in Aeon, ISLE, Resilience, Edge Effectsand About Place Journal.

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