“Still Water”: Thoughts on blindness and nature-writing

I wrote this last year when I was TA-ing for an Ecocriticism seminar and thought I would post it here. I want to explore these issues further.

September 4, 2011

“Cry of shore-bird and crash of surf were the sounds of the edge of the land—the edge of the sea” (Carson 139).

Living in the Village apartments on campus affords me the experience of walking past a few small bodies of water on my way to class.  Usually, when I am walking to class, I fail to note any extraordinary features of the thicket of trees and small pond with its two bench swings.  I feel myself pulled toward campus — I experience a volley of auditory information, from strangers’ conversations to the idling golf carts parked along the sidewalk.  These cosmopolitan noises thoroughly distract me from the calmer world of the pond.

However, when I am returning from class, I notice a different set of sounds. For the past two weeks, as I have entered the residential area of campus and walked past the pond sheltered by the trees, I’ve felt and heard the change long before seeing it.  The air grows cooler and easier to breathe. I am able to hear crickets – in fact, they’re so loud that I marvel at my ability to ignore them during the previous journey.  I feel calmer too, less harried, more focused, as the industrial sounds of campus construction and landscaping move farther away.

With a mind to collect more data on these contrasting ambiances, my friend Katie and I spent Thursday afternoon sitting on the swing nearest the pond.  On the main part of campus, the air was unpleasant, hot, and sticky. But as we sat on the swing, we marveled at the breeze and the comfortable warmth.  Distance muffled the perceptible sounds of a busy campus to a low, indivisible hum.  At the pond, the only sounds I remember were the metallic creaking of the swing and the soft timbre of our voices.  Occasionally we’d hear the conversation of students passing by along the sidewalk behind us.  We sat at the pond for two hours, surprised at how slowly time seemed to pass. When we finally stood up, our legs were sore from working the swing.

After about an hour, Katie leaned over to tell me that a guy was fishing in the pond.  I hadn’t heard him approach and I could hear a faint plop plop, which I supposed to be the sounds of his fishing equipment descending into the water.  It disturbed me that I couldn’t gather more aural information about the fishing student.  It disturbed me that I couldn’t hear birds or the customary crickets.  As I sat there, feeling the afternoon air, I compared my experience to the vividness of Carson’s prose.  Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison because she has the entirety of the ocean to convey through multi-sensory imagery, but I felt that my experience, though relaxing, was incredibly barren.

I began to muse, and am musing still, on the prevalence of visual imagery in nature writing – and the necessity of visual acuity on writing nature.  I begin to wonder what I can convey without a friend, conveniently sitting beside me to tell me the color of the leaves and the names of the trees.  Faced with the task of conveying my experiences and the passionate drive to make something from them, I wonder what my depictions will “look” like.  I wonder what my contributions will be.

I think I must redefine my connection to the natural world just as I must find the validity in my own perception. I stand daunted by the compelling prose of Carson. She writes details I cannot perceive, concepts – like color – that I only understand in theory.  I think the task before me is to familiarize myself with the sounds, smells, and textures of nature that will facilitate a better understanding of the perceptions I want to convey. Whether I can experience the ocean as Carson does, it’s still water.

Carson, Rachel. Under the Sea-Wind. New York: Penguin Group Inc, 1941.

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