Monday, June 20, 2011

Leafy Perception and Sorting out Detail

When I first started this blog, I alluded to, and then briefly wrote about my experience nearly losing my eyesight.

At the time, I was aswirl with fears and recalculations of life and trying to come to terms with it all.  As for many people, sight is my dominant sense.  I am a teacher, a reader, a writer; a filmmaker; and a musician whose greatest strength might be sight reading.

And I am a gardener.  Who studied it seriously enough to make it an avocation, and who chose not to make it a vocation, but relies upon it as a form of meditation.   So it was not the generic laments of "how will I read?" or "how can I create images on film?" or "will I be valuable, can I even function happily, as a musician who cannot read music?"  Each of those had their own levels of solvability.

It was when I looked across one of my garden beds out front, thinking I would scan for weeds, and realized I could not even differentiate the leaves of the wanted plants, that I was whalloped.

One of many amazing things about the human eye (and our brain) is how we can see this, this image as recorded by a camera, but then also instantly and seemingly simultaneously scan for up close detail.  Standing from this point, I can look into and across the top of the foliage and identify where errant grasses and weeds are.  Kind of hard here, even if you click on the picture and open it up bigger.

So I have to approximate what our eyes can do.  Kind of like I needed to that day I stood a few paces away from the bed out front, and had a rapid, blistering series of realizations.

Like our amazing eye/brain communication, I was simultaneously realizing "Hey, I can't see the weeds!"  and "Hey, I can't see...much of anything.  Green.  That's it."  All the while moving in closer and closer...

The killer was I got right in on top of the leaves.  Which, in that case, were siberian iris, ornamental grasses, and regular lawn grass grown tall enough to flower and go to seed.

Not that I'd know.

I was done for.


I take a lot of close up and macro images.  For all kinds of reasons:  they rarely fail to interest me, it's a shortcut to helping make a picture "work," it's the only way to be sure certain details my eye-brain is registering are being communicated to the viewer.

When I lost my eyesight--when it went fuzzy, when I watched it glaze over and out--I didn't just lose a type of input.  I lost an important physical metaphor for sorting and thinking.  Learning and practicing are complex things, and putting learned practiced knowledge and ability to work creating is yet another complex something.

When it comes to camera images, you can sort manually that which your brain does intuitively.  See that picture there, with the angelica and the purple iris in the foreground and the peach and purple iris in the left background?  Pull it up large.  Let your eye scan over it.  Decide what it in sharpest focus.  In photography parlance, you are identify just what plane in the depth of field was made to be the center of attention.

In overblown fiction parlance, a character hones their eagle eyed attention on the pointy sharp edges of a loosely fronded angelica stalk, and notes the sharp contrast between edge and the surrounding air.

Either way, you just sorted detail that was already sorted. Look again; that picture was not taken by having the camera a foot away from the angelica.  The camera is at a distance, and zoomed in on the angelica stalks.  The fence in the far background is over 10 feet away from the angelica, and not a soft wash of grey, but series of sharp edged planks with clearly visible graining and splinters.  WHEN one's attention is upon it.  This angle/lens choice removes the option of paying attention to that.

So, you sorted a further level of detail from a collection of input that had already been pared.  That's a lot of thinking.  That's a lot of deciding where and when to pay attention.  

All of the levels are important.  When you stand back from the garden, there is a flow, a rhythm, both in the moment and over time.  There are colors to mix/complement/contrast, smells to consider, heights to account for both in terms of visual pleasure and plant survival.  Whose pleasure and whose survival, of course, being another set of variables.


So when I think about the ability to scan a planted area and pick out the wanted from the not wanted, feel the rhythm the planting establishes and determine if there are any breaks or hiccups, imagine what the textural and color palette will present in the future and if amendments should be made accordingly, I occasionally think of what I imagine a perfumer does.  How they select their elements to play together in the moment and over time, in what proportion...and how they must reach in to "pluck" that which does not belong, whether instinctively (thanks to long experience) or by careful process of elimination.  Or guesswork, which will lead to learning.  In my imagination, it is instinctive--but as a gardener I know that sometimes it is long experience which leads to the non-thinking but correct gesture.

On the other hand, as a musician, I know that the "right" gesture can be the result of training, or instinct, or a combination of both.

I also know that my ability to garden was ominously threatened by the prospect of losing my sight.  Which at the time reminded me of the dreams I would sometimes have in my youth about losing or seriously injuring a finger, as my instrument requires the use of all fingers on both hands.  

Perfumers must hate having colds, right?  Or the threat of brain trauma leading to anosmia?  Or even the temporary anosmia that can result from certain illnesses or conditions?

all photographs author's own


Anonymous said...

I hope your mystery eyesight problems have gone or settled down. Don't like the sound of that at all.

Look after yourself, please.

cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

ScentScelf said...

Oh, Anna, you are so kind. Thank you. My eyes are now three years without the ridiculous and ridiculously rare situation; the more time that goes by without recurrence, the better the outlook. So to speak. :)

As for my ability to discern things, well...the physical apparatus functions. The rest is, left to your judgement.

Good to see you, as always.

Musette said...

I am so happy that disaster was averted! Unlike a lot of people, you have always seemed to really appreciate your senses - perhaps it's come from having so many stimuli and taking such pleasure in honing those senses via that stimuli. Consider: you garden (with great zeal), you study perfume, you are a musician, an avid reader, a lover of good food and use every. single. one of your senses at a heightened pace. The Universe cut you a HUGE break - and I, for one, am grateful that it did! You deserve to keep all your senses in excellent working order!


ScentScelf said...

I was cut a ginormous break, and I try to remember to be grateful for that on a regular basis. I look forward to putting my senses to work tonight with a roaring solstice fire, beverage, weather (it might storm, it might steam), nosh, and the smell of roses and remaining peonies doing there best to waft through it all.

Thank you. :)

Vanessa said...

Very relieved to hear that you have come through this opthalmological(?) scare and you draw an excellent analogy between judicious weeding the selection of perfumery ingredients.

Our flower beds would currently benefit from a robust "root and branch"-style weeding session. There are some very impudent dandelions springing up everywhere you turn.

ScentScelf said...


(It is hard to address you without exclamation, as the name I still associate seems to call for it. :) )

You know, they are at times cheerful, but when I think about it, they are never anything but impudent, those dandelions.

And thanks for the kind words.