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.

Lights at night, from a distance

4 January 2017

I arrived in the East Woods today during astronomical twilight, still dark enough out to see the stars clearly, but I could see the day brightening as I walked in. From the furthest bend of the road going through the east woods, the lights of the suburbs and the business park to the north and northeast reminded me of coming into Las Vegas at night 25 years ago. I was 21, sitting in the back seat, a hitchhiker with a tall eastern European medical student who was also hitchhiking, living on white rice and raw bacon and ketchup and cream cheese (an unlikely but delicious combination), scouring used book stores for medical texts he couldn’t find back home; a 17- or 18-year-old kid from Texas, our driver, who was out to see the world before heading off to the military; and his German exchange student, who was sharp and a bit exasperated. I believe the boy’s parents had sent him and the exchange student off with the car and a gas card to see the west. He was nostalgic as all get out, compulsive, young. It was dark, and I had just caught a ride out of the Canyonlands and Zion and Arches. I was in the state you feel coming off the trail when you are suddenly back in the car, and your campsite of that morning is locked up instantaneously in the past, inaccessible to you, and you are a little stunned. What were we doing going through Las Vegas? I can’t tell you what I was feeling the second before we saw the city, but I remember the feeling of buoyancy as we came up over the hill to the east of Las Vegas on I-15, and I suddenly saw all those bright lights in the distance, orderly stars crammed into the gridwork of the streets and sidewalks. Peering over the shoulders of the guys in the front seat, I was flying through the west. I had once previously experienced this feeling, in the foothills of the alps in southern France, watching the lights of the houses on a far slope grade almost indistinguishably into the stars above. Both times, I felt I could jump and land among the lights with just a little push off.

I biked to the trail that leads west from the Big Rock Visitor station and walked the remaining way into the visitor center. I had in mind to start making observations of the woods today as a backdrop to a book on the American oaks – I think every year of my adult life has started with some vague plan of this sort – but I hadn’t reckoned on it being so dark. Trails stretch out when the sun goes down, and everything looks new and strange. I like walking in the woods, and I think a part of me will always have faith in a romantic fantasy that my senses will pick up where my eyes leave off, and I’ll be able to just sense the species I’m walking past. That of course is nonsense: the only way to make that move from one sense to the other is through work, taking the time to learn an individual during the day, get to know it well, then come back to that individual at night. At night, I find I am much more taken by the woods as a whole than I am by individual trees. A few individual trees grab my attention as I walk by, but I more impressed by the sound of the bike wheels rolling over the frozen chips, the structure and texture of the woods around me. I stopped at a bench overlooking one of the little ponds that appeared on the east side after the drainage tiles were smashed around 2005 or 2006. It was now what they call nautical twilight, and the early morning breeze was moving frozen things around a bit. Birds were still: I thought I heard something calling in the distance, but only once. It was only 12 degrees Fahrenheit, but I still expected to hear a bit more.

I walked on toward the visitor center, came up over the hill by Marlin Bowles’ lime prairie at the corner of the geographic collections, and off across Meadow Lake stood the illuminated trees that the Arboretum strings up each year. I was looking toward the west edge of the lake, to the very spot where three nights earlier my family and I had been standing, and my sons had gotten into a conversation about whether or not the lights constituted a work of art. One claim was that strings of lights should not, under any condition, be thought of as art; the counterclaim was that hung in the bedroom, those lights would just be lights, but out here, strung across the lake and up in the trees, they became art. I stayed out of the argument, but this morning as I walked the remaining quarter mile to my office, I watched the trees in front of the visitor center as I approached and then walked under them, and I was struck by what the lights accomplished. The lights so carefully track the architecture of the trees that they bring out some essential aspects of the structure that I would not have seen in the daytime. Like a fluorescent dye administered by a doctor, or a stain used by a cytogeneticist, the lights highlight the trees’ structural essentiality. From a distance, the artificial colors (blue, white, electric green) reveal one person’s understanding of the tree’s essence. Like the lights of the suburbs, or of Las Vegas, or of a village on hillside, the lights on the trees provide an insight into the architecture of the world that is harder to put our fingers on in the daytime. A walk at night, for me, highlights the structure and texture of the landscape much more than a walk during the day, when individual trees continually distract me.