Behind the Eye


NOTHING is seen until it is separated from its surroundings. A man looks at the landscape, but the tree standing in the middle of the landscape he does not see until, for the instant at least, he singles it out as the object of vision. Two men walk the same road: as far as the bystander can perceive, they have before them the same sights; but let them be questioned at the end of the journey, and it will appear that one man saw one set of objects, and his companion another ; and the more diverse the intellectual training and habits of the two travelers, the greater will be the discrepancy between the two reports.

And what is true of any two men is equally true of any one man at two different times. To-day he is in a dreamy, reflective mood, — he has been reading Wordsworth, perhaps, — and when he takes his afternoon saunter he looks at the bushy hillside, or at the wayside cottage, or down into the loitering brook, and he sees in them all such pictures as they never showed him before. Or he is in a matter-of-fact mood, a kind of stock-market frame of mind; and he looks at everything through economical spectacles, — as if he had been set to appraise the acres of meadow or woodland through which he passes. At another time he may have been reading some book or magazine article written by Mr. John Burroughs ; and although he knows nothing of birds, and can scarcely tell a crow from a robin (perhaps for this very reason), he is certain to have tantalizing glimpses of some very strange and wonderful feathered specimens. They must be rarities, at least, if not absolute novelties; and likely enough, on getting home, he sits down and writes to Mr. Burroughs a letter full of gratitude and inquiry, — the gratitude very pleasant to receive, we may presume, and the inquiries quite impossible to answer.

Some men (not many, it is to be hoped) are specialists, and nothing else. They are absorbed in farming, or in shoemaking, in chemistry, or in Latin grammar, and have no thought for anything beyond or beside. Others of us, while there may be two or three subjects toward which we feel some special drawing, have nevertheless a general interest in whatever concerns humanity. We are different men on different days. There is a certain part of the year, say from April to July, when I am an ornithologist ; for the time being, whenever I go out-of-doors, I have an eye for birds, and, comparatively speaking, for nothing else. Then comes a season during which my walks all take on a botanical complexion. I have had my turn at butterflies, also ; for one or two summers I may be said to have seen little else but these winged blossoms of the air. I know, too, what it means to visit the seashore, and scarcely to notice the breaking waves because of the shells scattered along the beach. In short, if I see one thing, I am of necessity blind, or half-blind, to all beside. There are several men in me, and not more than one or two of them are ever at the window at once. Formerly, my enjoyment of nature was altogether reflective, imaginative ; in a passive, unproductive sense, poetical. I delighted in the woods and fields, the seashore and the lonely road, not for the birds or flowers to be found there, but for the “ serene and blessed mood ” into which I was put by such friendship. Later in life, it transpired, as much to my surprise as to anybody’s else, that I had a bent toward natural history, as well as toward nature ; an inclination to study, as well as to dream over, the beautiful world about me. I must know the birds apart, and the trees, and the flowers. A bit of country was no longer a mere landscape, a picture, but a museum as well. For a time the poet seemed to be dead within me ; and happy as I found myself in my new pursuits, I had fits of bewailing my former condition. Science and fancy, it appeared, would not travel hand in hand ; if a man must be a botanist, let him bid good-by to the Muse. Then I fled again to Emerson and Wordsworth, trying to read the naturalist asleep and reawaken the poet. Happy thought! The two men, the student and the lover, were still there, and there they remain to this day. Sometimes one is at the window, sometimes the other.

So it is, undoubtedly, with other people. My fellow-travelers, who hear me discoursing enthusiastically of vireos and warblers, thrushes and wrens, whilst they see never a bird, unless it be now and then an English sparrow or a robin, talk sometimes as if the difference between us were one of eyesight. They might as well lay it to the window-glass of our respective houses. It is not the eye that sees, but the man behind the eye.

As to the comparative advantages and disadvantages of such a division of interests as I have been describing, there may be room for two opinions. If distinction be all that the student hungers for, perhaps he cannot limit himself too strictly ; but for myself, I think I should soon tire of my own society if I were only one man, — a botanist or a chemist, an artist, or even a poet. I should soon tire of myself, I say ; but I might have said, with equal truth, that I should soon tire of nature ; for if I were only one man, I should see only one aspect of the natural world. This may explain why it is that some persons must be forever moving from place to place. If they travel the same road twice or thrice, or even to the hundredth time, they see only one set of objects. The same man is always at the window. No wonder they are restless and famished. For my own part, though I should delight to see new lands and new people, new birds and new plants, I am nevertheless pretty well contented where I am. If I take the same walks, I do not see the same things. The botanist spells the dreamer ; and now and then the lover of beauty keeps the ornithologist in the background till he is thankful to come once more to the window, though it be only to look at a bluebird or a song sparrow.

How much influence has the will in determining which of these several tenants of a man’s body shall have his turn at sight-seeing ? It would be hard to answer definitely. As much, it may be, as a teacher has over his pupils, or a father over his children ; something depends upon the strength of the governing will, and something upon the tractability of the pupil. In general, I assume to command. As I start on my ramble I give out word, as it were, which of the men shall have the front seat. But there are days when some one of them proves too much both for me and for his fellows. It is not the botanist’s turn, perhaps ; but he takes his seat at the window, notwithstanding, and the ornithologist and the dreamer must he content to peep at the landscape over his shoulders.

On such occasions, it may as well be confessed, I make but a feeble remonstrance, and for the sufficient reason that I feel small confidence in my own wisdom. If the flower-lover or the poet must have the hour, then in all likelihood he ought to have it. So much I concede to the nature of things. A strong tendency is a strong argument, and of itself goes far to justify itself. I borrow no trouble on the score of such compulsions. On the contrary, my lamentations begin when nobudy sues for the place of vision. Such days I have ; blank days, days to be dropped from the calendar; when “those that look out of the windows be darkened.” The fault is not with the world, nor with the eye. The old preacher had the right of it; it is not the windows that are darkened, but “ those that look out of the windows.”