Fields of view

January 9, 2017

I worked for two semesters during graduate school as a teaching assistant for Dr. Ray Evert, a brilliant and delightful human, a great plant anatomist. He was an inveterate and enthusiastic observer. Almost every lab I taught he was right there beside me, walking around and helping the students interpret what they were seeing. He peered through every scope, continually teaching and reteaching students to focus and perform Kohler illumination, helping them to interpret what they were seeing. Our field of view in the course tacked from less than half a millimeter to the whole plant. We waded into microscopic worlds with Dr. Evert by our side, jumping into a slide disoriented, blind to everything outside the sharp-edged circle of light that we navigated around the slide, uncertain as to where we were. Often it was frustrating, spending inordinate amounts of time simply not seeing what we were looking for. But then suddenly we would find it, or realize that we had been looking at it and could only now see it and understand what the drawing on the chalkboard earlier that day had meant. We traversed the length of a vessel cut lengthwise from a tree trunk 40 years earlier or digested out of a tree trunk in bubbling lye, then switched slides to stare end-on down another vessel cut, most likely, from the same tree. We drew, looked again, erased and redrew, thought back to the chalkboard drawings on the board, considered what Dr. Evert had put into those drawings and what he had left out, most likely deliberately. We went back to the scope, did more drawings, then occasionally glanced out the window to give our eyes a break, watched a tree branch shudder under the weight of a squirrel leaping, vessels creaking against each other.

A colleague is coming into town in a few weeks, and we’re going to spend the day hunting sedges for a winter-root study he is conducting. He wants the plants frozen, and it looks as though he’ll get his wish. On my bike ride in this morning, I had in mind to start relocating populations I know of that he might like to see. I turned off my light and walked to a trailhead where I know I can easily find five species. Within a minute, I could see well enough to get around and know where I was in the woods, but it was still nighttime, and I couldn’t see any sedges. Flipping on my light, I gained a 3-foot circle of visibility at my feet. Sliding my flashlight circle around on the forest floor, I found Carex hitchcockiana and a little colony of Carex jamesii. I found, moreover, that the Carex jamesii is more widespread than I thought, covering more of the ditch bank than I had noticed in summer. The leaves were green, despite the fact that temperatures have been well below freezing for at least a week, maybe more. I pulled off the edge of a few clumps to bring them back to the herbarium, looked at them closely under my light. Around me the great East Woods was all but invisible to me: coyotes and foxes, deer mice and meadow voles, white and bur and red oaks, puffed-up chickadees and nuthatches, cardinals ready to burst into song in the clear morning, torpid skunks and raccoons and chipmunks, woodland sunflower stalks, carpets of oak leaves and patches of snow and heaps of decomposing tree trunks. All I could see was the sedge in my hand.

I switched off my light, squeezed my eyes shut and reopened them. The East Woods was back. I pocketed the sedges and walked back to my bike, surrounded by oaks and sugar maples. I much prefer the woods at night without a flashlight. I biked for about 30 seconds before I remembered to switch my light back on: you can see well enough by night, but not that well. In my office I flipped on the computer to start writing, and I remembered something Dr. Evert had said to me in one of the interstices of the anatomy lab, when the students were all working quietly and we were waiting for a moment of need. There were a few such in every lab, and we were often quiet during them ourselves, but occasionally we’d swap short anecdotes or memories or jokes. During one of these Dr. Evert had told me about meeting Saul Bellow, asking him how he had come across Katherine Esau’s Plant Anatomy, referenced in one of Bellow’s books. During another, he had told me a good Groucho Marx line about a fly crawling up a wall, but I cannot remember it now. What I remembered this morning was an emphatic and puzzled observation Dr. Evert had made about computers. Dr. Evert, to my recollection, had a typewriter and a microscope and books and files in his office, but no computer. How, he asked in that lab, could people get any work done when they were pulled into the computer all the time? When he walked through the halls, he’d pass colleague after colleague staring into his or her monitor. There was something devouring about it, too captivating. Walking past office after office that week, I looked in and saw too that everyone was staring at his or her computer.

As I switched my computer on and started writing this morning, the day opened up outside. The sun came up, the birds started moving, and I had my coffee and wrote. At one point I pulled out the sedges I’d filed in my pocket and put them under the scope, to see if the bases looked as they ought to for C. jamesii. The whole business of seeing the world works like this, tacking back and forth between fields of view. You see what’s inside the field, and you make the most of every field and you tie the fields together. That’s the fun of it. It would be no fun at all with only a single field of view.

One thought on “Fields of view”

  1. Just for some thoughts on vision, 😉

    Donna Harraway 1991 Simians, Cyborgs, and Women – The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge / New York, p190

    These are lessons which I learned in part walking with my dogs and wondering how the world looks without a fovea and very few retinal cells for colour vision, but with a huge neural processing and sensory area for smells.
    It is a lesson available from photographs of how the world looks to the compound eyes of an insect, or even from the camera eye of a spy satellite or the digitally transmitted signals of space probe-perceived differences ‘near’ Jupiter that have been transformed into coffee table colour photographs.
    The ‘eyes’ made available in modem technological sciences shatter any idea of passive vision; these prosthetic devices show us that all eyes, including our own organic ones, are active perceptual systems, building in translations and specific ways of seeing, that is, ways of life. There is no unmediated photograph or passive camera obscura in scientific accounts of bodies and machines; there are only highly specific visual possibilities, each with a wonderfully detailed, active, partial way of organizing worlds. All these pictures of the world should not be allegories of infinite mobility and interchangeability, but of elaborate specificity and difference and the loving care people might take to learn how to see faithfully from another’s point of view, even when the other is our own machine. That’s not alienating distance; that’s a possible allegory for feminist versions of objectivity.
    Understanding how these visual systems work, technically, socially, and psychically ought to be a way of embodying feminist objectivity.

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