These pictures are from a rainy day on the Loess Hills of Iowa’s western border, driving up from the bottom to the top of the state. I’m developing an allergy to interstates—there is just so much more to see, and much more beautiful views, along the little backcountry roads that snake through farmland and tiny towns all across this nation. Sure, they are slower, but I have no particular need to get anywhere fast. Beauty is now my number one consideration as I choose my routes.
My family went on a lot of road trips as I was growing up, and I’ve seen a lot of countryside. I’d stare out the window for hours, sometimes interested, sometimes bored, and thought I was seeing all there was to see.
I’ve been on the road for about a year now, and seen a lot more countryside, and though the landscape has changed through different areas of the country, I have seen it in much the same way as I always have. That felt normal to me. It was what I have always known.
But in the last few months, very gradually, things have started to change. Now as I drive slowly down some country lane, or even along short bouts of the interstate, things look different.
It is as if the landscape is clearer, more acute, the edges more defined, the textures richer, the colors brighter. I imagine this is how moviegoers must have felt when Technicolor was first introduced. Or like Jonah in Lois Lowry’s The Giver, when he first started to see the color red and realized that the colorless grayscale world he had grown up in was lacking something he never new existed. Of course I saw vibrant colors before, but it is as if someone turned up the intensity several more notches.
Before, I would have seen a field of corn, and now I see all the individual plants, the overgrown roadside gully now presents me with a joyful bouquet of many types and species of plants, some of which I can now identify. I’m picking out single wildflowers in the bushes that I never would have seen before, I notice every individual flap of a bird’s wings as it speeds by me, cows in pastures now look different from each other, they are individuals and I am catching those differences without the slightest effort.
Yesterday I saw something on the road ahead that I am pretty sure I would have before taken to be a small leaf scooting along in the wind, and this time, just by the way it moved, I instantly knew—I didn’t have to think about it, I just knew—it to be the tiniest little frog. That was verified a little later by another that I very clearly saw hopping across the road, and I swerved to avoid both of them. Multiple times, I’ve seen the individual legs of a single stinkbug on the road ahead of me while zooming past at 50 mph.
Even sitting in a city park, just looking at the grass and watching the squirrels and birds, which can now capture my attention for hours, the colors and textures are more intense, the greens of the grass more diverse, it isn’t simply “green,” but there are a hundred shades and hues, the movement as it sways in the breeze is more nuanced than I’ve ever seen, and it isn’t simply “grass” that is swaying, but the thousands of individual blades from a dozen different species of grass, and grass looks remarkably different in the morning dew, the afternoon bright sun, and the softer tones of early evening.
I can hear more nuance, too, picking out individual birds and frogs amidst a cacophony of sound as they’re all chirping or ribbiting (is that a word?) together, and I can differentiate the sounds different birds make, and the frogs sound different from the bullfrogs or toads—I couldn’t see them, just hear them, so I’m not sure which, but there was definitely more than one species at the lakeside in Arkansas.
I have hesitated to mention any of this, even while talking with family in person, partially because it feels at some level really lame, and at another level like bragging, and mostly because I am having a hard time trying to describe it. I’m afraid that people will just respond that yes, they too see the grass, it sure is nice to look at, even beautiful, yes they see the flowers, too, and they will think that they see it all and go back to whatever they were doing before. I, too, thought that I saw it all, and had no idea what I was missing out on.
I’m not at all trying to brag, just to describe what I’m going through, but how do you describe something that is both so common and yet so beyond most people’s usual experience?
Is it simply that I was particularly obtuse before? Or that I didn’t see as well as most people? I don’t think so. I think that we adapt to what we are around most, and when we spend most of our time in a city or suburban setting, we learn to effortlessly notice the minute details of that setting because that is what affects our lives. I expect that people who spend a great deal of time outside likewise notice even more of these minute details that I am just starting to pick up on.
I knew that botanists and outdoorsman would be much better than me at identifying and knowing the names and properties of the plants and behaviors of animals around them, but now I think they also see more of them. Cool!
How hard it is to notice the limitations of our own perspective.
I am just starting to come to grips with this myself, to realize by its expansion that I had a limited perspective, and yet by definition, I can have no idea how much that is the case. Things are starting to change inside me, to grow and expand, and I hope and expect that this is only the beginning. That beginning to see more subtlety, and also to hear more nuance, is a sign that I am on the right track.