Thursday, August 26, 2010

Morning in Minnesota: A Reflection on Language and Sight

I am in Northern Minnesota at a cabin sandwiched between a lake and a swamp. It is beautiful. And this morning I took a walk and wrote the following in my journal:

This is beautiful. I don't have the words to describe what I am looking at this morning. And I worry that with the lack of language, I will be unable to see all that is before me. Yesterday, Ryan talked about an article he read about a study on language. People with only one word for blue lacked the capacity to distinguish between shades of blue. They couldn't see a difference.

But, this is what I can say. I am sitting on a moss-covered log among ferns wilted with a glistening, morning dew, overlooking a swamp lined with rushes. Still, still water, without expression. So still, that things are allowed to grow on it, like a layer of dust, like doilies on a glass table.

And low-angled light cuts through the trees and illumines the underside of sleepy, morning leaves, and makes visible the rise of misty spirits that walk the bog.

And I am still, absorbed into what I see.

So, reflection on my reflection. Our host, Tony, could have described the scene in much greater detail. The kinds of rushes, ferns, trees, algae (or whatever grows on the water). And this undoubtedly would have created a larger space of articulation, undoubtedly deepened my reflection. But with the words I had, common words, lacking any real descriptive precision, I was still able to get at what I was seeing.

My sense of fit between what I was seeing and what I wrote was enabled by metaphor, by what Ricouer calls a predicative impertinence. By employing language beyond its normal semantic field, I was able to evoke what I could not otherwise describe. This is the power of poetic structures.

One more reflection. The more I described, the more I saw. The effort to describe, the attention given to bringing to words, brought out things of which I was not immediately aware. It was, for instance, only in describing the peacefulness of the scene that the light became apparent to me.

I am committed to this practice. To a reflective attentiveness, to writing a world into view.


Anonymous said...

A Russian artist friend once told me that even in pre-school, art teachers take away black crayons and even pop the black paint out of the kids' watercolor kits. I asked why and she said, "Because nothing that you can see is black." To which I asked, "What color is a black cat, then?" She said, "A black cat is a lot of colors, but black is not one of them."

Since that day, I've never looked at our black cat the same. Sunning in a window, curled under a shady plant, stretching in lamplight, I make myself identify different colors that I see.

So I wonder - how many other things do we miss by not identifying and naming (describing) them.

Thanks for your thoughts. I like the stillness of dust resting on the surface of the swamp water.

Alicia Gonzales-Barnes said...

Nice post. It is absolutely true that the longer one takes paying attention to a thing, the more that is seen. Or understood. Or felt. Or heard. Or . . .