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Walking with Open Eyes

Bill Meredith

"The eye is the window to the soul." …Leonardo da Vinci
"If you don't look, you won't see." …Meredith's First Law
"An idle mind is the Devil's playground." …Meredith Willson

Every discipline has its collection of myths, and science, that bastion of logic and rationality, is no exception. One of the myths we perpetuate is that to be a scientist you have to be an exceptional observer. I must plead guilty of perpetuating that myth; on field trips my students always were amazed that I "found" so many things they had never seen before. I constantly reminded them if they hoped to understand nature they had to keep their eyes open and pay attention to anything that they didn't recognize, and early in my career this became "Meredith's First Law." I never got around to telling them that the reason I saw so many things was that I had walked over the same area hundreds of times before. And they didn't stop to think that I saw things because I had spent my life studying what should be there, so I knew what to look for.

Away from the woods, I am no better at observing than the average person on the street. My wife confirms this regularly as I stand in front of the refrigerator searching in vain for the jar of mayonnaise that she assured me was on the left-hand side of the second shelf, or when I return empty-handed from the produce aisle she sent me to on the rare occasions when she gets me into a store. Of course a lot of what passes for observational ability is really just being familiar with the territory; we prove this on the even rarer occasions when I get her to go for a walk. She can spot a bargain from a mile off in a shopping mall, but constantly tramples wildflowers underfoot in the woods. My students used to say that "If you've seem one flower, you've seen them all" was Mrs. Meredith's First Law.

This all came to mind when I took my first walk to Toms Creek for the new year. A lot of the birds that usually come south for the winter haven't arrived because of the warm weather, so my list was not growing very fast. Observation, to a biologist, includes listening, and I did hear a robin; but otherwise not much was happening. Nevertheless, I was in a good mood as a result of a random act of kindness… two young men in the town's maintenance truck stopped and handed me the glove I had dropped when I paused to look at some bluebirds a couple hundred yards back. That doesn't always happen.

Thinking of things I had seen on other walks, Meredith Willson's prediction came true. My mind wandered off on its own and began a surreal free-association conversation with itself inside my head. As best I can recall, it went something like the following: What does it take to be a good observer? Eyesight is important, but it can't be the only requirement; E. O. Wilson, arguably the foremost living biologist and one of the great observers of all time, has only one functional eye. Are some people simply born with exceptional ability to observe? Probably, but surely anyone can learn. Do certain tools help? Well, I carried a walking stick to poke at things long before my arthritic hip required its help… binoculars are good for seeing birds, of course, and if you look through them backwards they make a useful magnifier for small things… I'm never without a pen-knife to cut things open with… it's a shame cigars aren't good for you, because they always seem to put me in a more observant mood…. And at that point my conscious mind reasserted itself.

I had just got to the end of a fine Macanudo that a friend had given me for Christmas. Maybe that had nothing to do with it, but just as I ground out the last spark with my heel the proverbial light bulb came on above my head, and I realized that it is the frame of mind that makes an observer. Everyone sees things, but true observers have a mindset that drives them to think about what they see, and to be curious about how it might relate to other things. Scientists have no monopoly on this; I have walked with biologists who spend their lives in laboratories and are no more perceptive in the woods than my wife. On the other hand, in spite of their own myths about being unworldly, artists and poets depend for their livelihood on being good observers.

So the rest of the walk was spent fantasizing about whom I would like to go for a walk with. Ed Wilson appeared, and borrowed my hand-lens to squint at some ants with his one good eye. Leonardo da Vinci made me wait while he sketched the intricate pattern of grooves engraved on the trunk of a dead elm tree by the beetles that killed it. The bank of the creek was lined with little bare pathways where beavers climb out; Paul Errington, who spent his life trapping, kneeled down in the mud to show me their tracks. At one point where the creek used to divide and flow around an island, debris from a flood last fall blocked one side and now the other bank has eroded some 30 feet northward; Loren Eiseley leaned on a cane beside me and mused about the timelessness of such changes, and how insignificant human history is by comparison. Walt Kelly materialized by some possum tracks, hobbling on his artificial leg and chuckling about what Pogo would think of George W. Bush. Linnaeus crashed happily through the underbrush, spouting Latin names left and right. By an old sycamore tree had broken off in a storm, Charles Darwin looked at younger sycamores growing nearby and spoke of how thankful he was that modern DNA research provided a mechanism to confirm his theory. And W. B. Yeats sat beside me on a log from the same fallen tree and talked about the meaning of life and death.

Toward the end of the walk, the fantasies were replaced by memories. From the time I could walk, I went into the woodlot every summer evening with my father to bring the cows in for milking. He would never say, "There's the cow by that tree;" rather, it was "There's Old Midget under that pin oak, and her calf is just behind that black walnut." He never actually told me it was important to know the particular kinds of things; he simply showed by his actions the practical importance of knowing and noticing. That is where the habit of observing got started. I have walked with open eyes ever since, and life has been richer because of it.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith