Learning To See

· Articles & Essays · ,

By Robin Wall Kimmerer

We poor myopic humans, with neither the raptors gift of long distance acuity, nor the talents of a housefly for panoramic vision. However, with our big brains, we are at least aware of the limits of our vision. With a degree of humility rare in our species, we acknowledge there is much that we can’t see, and so contrive remarkable ways to observe the world. Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubbell space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere. Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells. But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.

I remember my first encounter with the North Pacific, at Rialto Beach on the Olympic Peninsula. As a landlocked botanist, I was anticipating my first glimpse of the ocean, craning my neck around every bend in the winding dirt road. We arrived in a dense gray fog that clung to the trees and beaded my hair with moisture. Had the skies been clear we would have seen only what we expected: rocky coast, lush forest, and the broad expanse of the sea. That day, the air was opaque and the backdrop of coastal hills was visible only when the spires of Sitka Spruce briefly emerged from the clouds. We knew the ocean’s presence only by the deep roar of the surf, out beyond the tidepools. Strange, that at the edge of this immensity, the world had become very small, the fog obscuring all but the middle distance. All my pent-up desire to see the panorama of the coast became focussed on the only things that I could see, the beach and the surrounding tidepools.

Wandering in the grayness, we quickly lost sight of each other, my friends disappearing like ghosts in just a few steps. Our muffled voices knit us together, calling out the discovery of a perfect pebble, or the intact shell of a razor clam. I knew from poring over field guides in anticipation of the trip that we “should” see starfish in the tidepools, and this would be my first. The only starfish I’d ever seen was a dried one in a zoology class and I was eager to see them at home where they belonged. As I looked among the mussels and the limpets, I saw none. The tidepools were encrusted with barnacles and exotic-looking algae, anemones, and chitons enough to satisfy the curiosity of a novice tidepooler. But no starfish. Picking my way over the rocks, I pocketed fragments of mussel shells the color of the moon, and tiny sculpted pieces of driftwood, looking continuously. No starfish. Disappointed, I straightened up from the pools to relieve the growing stiffness in my back, and suddenly—I saw one. Bright orange and clinging to a rock right before my eyes. And then it was as if a curtain had been pulled away and I saw them everywhere. Like stars revealing themselves one by one in a darkening summer night. Orange stars in the crevices of a black rock, speckled burgundy stars with outstretched arms, purple stars nestled together like a family huddled against the cold. In a cascade of discovery, the invisible was suddenly made visible.


A Cheyenne elder of my acquaintance once told me that the best way to find something is not to go looking for it. This is a hard concept for a scientist. But he said to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion. The boundaries between my world and the world of another being get pushed back with sudden clarity, an experience both humbling and joyful.

The sensation of sudden visual awareness is produced in part by the formation of a “search image” in the brain. In a complex visual landscape, the brain initially registers all the incoming data, without critical evaluation. Five orange arms in a starlike pattern, smooth black rock, light and shadow. All this is input, but the brain does not immediately interpret the data and convey their meaning to the conscious mind. Not until the pattern is repeated, with feedback from the conscious mind, do we know what we are seeing. It is in this way that animals become skilled detectors of their prey, by differentiating complex visual patterns into the particular configuration that means food. For example, some warblers are very successful predators when a certain caterpillar is at epidemic numbers, sufficiently abundant to produce a search image in the birds brain. However, the very same insects may go undetected when their numbers are low. The neural pathways have to be trained by experience to process what is being seen. The synapses fire and the stars come out. The unseen is suddenly plain.

At the scale of a moss, walking through the woods as a six-foot human is a lot like flying over the continent at 32,000 feet. So far above the ground, and on our way to somewhere else, we run the risk of missing an entire realm which lies at our feet. Every day we pass over them without seeing. Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed.

My former husband used to teasingly deride my passion for mosses, saying that mosses were just decoration. To him, mosses were merely the wallpaper of the forest, providing ambience for his photographs of trees. A carpet of mosses does in fact provide this lustrous green light. But, focus the lens on the mossy wallpaper itself and the green blur of the background resolves itself into sharp focus and an entirely new dimension appears. That wallpaper, which seemed at first glance to be of uniform weave, is in fact a complex tapestry, a brocaded surface of intricate pattern. The “moss” is many different mosses, of widely divergent forms. There are fronds like miniature ferns, wefts like ostrich plumes, and shining tufts like the silky hair of a baby. A close encounter with a mossy log always makes me think of entering a fantasy fabric shop. Its windows overflow with rich textures and colors that invite you closer to inspect the bolts of cloth arrayed before you. You can run your fingertips over a silky drape of Plagiothecium and finger the glossy Brotherella brocade. There are dark wooly tufts of Dicranum, sheets of golden Brachythecium, and shining ribbons of Mnium. The yardage of nubbly brown Callicladium tweed is shot through with gilt threads of Campylium. To pass hurriedly by without looking is like walking by the Mona Lisa chatting on a cell phone, oblivious.

Photo by Wonderlane

Draw closer to this carpet of green light and shadow, and slender branches form a leafy arbor over sturdy trunks, rain drips through the canopy, and scarlet mites roam over the leaves. The architecture of the surrounding forest is repeated in the form of the moss carpet, the fir forest and the moss forest mirroring each other. Let your focus shift to the scale of a dewdrop, the forest landscape now becomes the blurred wallpaper, only a backdrop to the distinctive moss microcosm.

Learning to see mosses is more like listening than looking. A cursory glance will not do it. Straining to hear a faraway voice or catch a nuance in the quiet subtext of a conversation requires attentiveness, a filtering of all the noise, to catch the music. Mosses are not elevator music—they are the intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet. You can look at mosses the way you can listen deeply to water running over rocks. The soothing sound of a stream has many voices, the soothing green of mosses likewise. Freeman House writes of stream sounds—there is the rushing tumble of the stream running over itself, the splashing against rocks. Then, with care and quiet, the individual tones can be discerned in the fugue of stream sound. The slip of water over a boulder, octaves above the deep tone of shifting gravel, the gurgle of the channel sluicing between rocks, the bell-like notes of a drop falling into a pool. So it is with looking at mosses. Slowing down and coming close, we see patterns emerge and expand out of the tangled tapestry threads. The threads are simultaneously distinct from the whole, and part of the whole.

Knowing the fractal geometry of an individual snowflake makes the winter landscape even more of a marvel. Knowing the mosses enriches our knowing of the world. I sense the change as I watch my biology students learn to see the forest in a whole new way.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology.  She is the author of numerous scientific articles and award-winning collections of essays. A member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she combines her heritage with her scientific and environmental passions.

From Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Copyright © 2003 Robin Wall Kimmerer. Used by permission of Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, Oregon.

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