I wonder if there are any species, other than humans, who so totally depend on one sense—the sense of sight.
While the Columbia River salmon find their way back to the exact stream where they were born using their sense of smell, and bats find their prey via sound waves, these creatures and essentially all wild animals utilize and synchronize all of their five senses together to satisfy their life needs. Evern my highly domesticated black lab dog appears to hear, smell and see all in one seamless moment.
To our detriment, human eyes have dominated the other senses. When we forage for food, we mostly base our purchase on how the item looks. No imperfections are allowed. In our modern, sterile mega-stores, there are no rich marketplace smells and we don’t handle the fruits or vegetables with our hands (with the exception of thumping watermelons!), and we definitely can’t take a bite to sample the flavors.
When we travel to natural wonderlands, we are keyed into what we hope to see—looming mountains, vistas, mighty rivers. Our camera and bird books are our right-hand companions. Ironically, when visually taking in a grand distant view, we can easily miss the smaller, closer wonders, entities that could give us a multi-sensory experience. Nature thus becomes something that is far away, something that it takes a family vacation to drive to. Nature may then be associated as a foreign place that is not associated with familiar home.
On a recent fourth grade field trip to the high desert, I was initially pleased to learn of a young girl’s interest in butterflies, only to find out she was solely interested in identifying them. She had brought with her an elephant-sized book entitled “Butterflies of the World.” When I asked the girl what she knew about butterflies, she shrugged and said. “Not much. They’re just pretty to look at.”
Despite a profusion of blooms at our then-spring season site, unless prompted by the leaders, I never saw any student stop to smell a single flower.
While television, film, and other visual addictions promote the use of any eyes-only culture, smog, acrid water and other man-made polltants seem to dull our sense of smell. Sounds in our world have become a lot of noise, a cacophonous drone of machines, music and talk. When is the last time you can remember hearing nothing at all?
I fear too often we look with our eyes, but don’t really see anything. Perhaps as Guy Murchie writes, “The eye is a two-way organ, a window of the soul that actually may serve its owner better by being looked into than out of.” Sight can be turned inside to help us become more spiritually and nature centered. Vision Quests have little to do with what is seen and more with spending some time interpreting sights and turning them into keen perceptions and feelings. Like all of our senses, sight is honed through practice. When coupled with smell, touch, hearing and taste, our sense of sight can make us skilled stewards because the real world is not just there for looks. Our planet provides cold and hot temperatures, rain and snow, mud, roses, purring cats, strawberries and the howl of wovles. We can never see enough of it, but combining all senses, we can make what we see more wonderful and memorable.
Before setting out to the shrub-steppe desert, we show the students a brief introductory movie. I like that there is no narration, simply the natural sounds of a special place. To fully listen to the desert, the students first “view” the video with eyes closed. Maybe this is a possible way to approach nature, with our eyes closed and our other senses wide open. ~