The windows of the English Department overlook what we call here the triangle—the quad at most schools, but ours originally had only three reference points. In this central area of the campus, ancient trees canopy the lawn, their leaves faithfully budding, greening, changing with the seasons’ cycles. Students stroll the sidewalks to class and meals, or play Frisbee, study, read, and just relax, alone or with others, on the lush grass; classes sometimes gather around intrepid professors trying to hold their attention despite the distractions of nature and passing friends. Who knows how many romances have bloomed and come to fruition there, how many friendships have begun and solidified through shared joys and trials, how much knowledge of how many kinds has grown and been tried and proven?
A strong wind came up one sunny fall morning, and I watched as leaves filled the air with a golden glory, letting go of life to become mulch and fertilizer for the trees that had borne and nurtured them, making possible the new leaves in a spring to come. But they had glory still to share before that final decay: the next day I looked out to see the triangle carpeted a rich brown-and-rust, glistening in the afternoon sun, a beauty I’d never seen before. A day or two later came a sudden downpour and deafening wind under thunder-black skies. As the rain softened and slowed, the gale lifted the leaves, black with the wet, and blew them about under the trees like flocks of starlings startled from their roosts, trying to dry themselves. I watched for twenty minutes and the show never ended. The next day they lay like silver fire in the cold morning sun, sparking glory from the heavens.
Do such gems of beauty surround me every day; am I a blind woman without the sense to see? I like leaves, especially in a colorful autumn with its wild variety of golds and reds and rusts, oranges and yellows. But the rest of the time I don’t much notice them. I would like to learn how to see.
I teach a class on Gerard Manley Hopkins, and his ability to see and describe sets him apart from most poets, and artists too. We read about his training in art and his early affinity for John Ruskin’s sense of sight and its transcendent value. From this beginning, growing through the influences of Ignatian incarnationalism and Scotian intuition, Hopkins developed his theory of inscape: each created thing contains an essence unique to itself—its individual self which comes from Christ’s emptying Himself into the created world, the infinite contained within the finite and making it both itself and the Christ within it.
Hopkins believed we cannot see this inscape without the kind of close observation the artist makes of his subject. And so one day I brought in blank paper, and pencils, and autumn maple leaves I’d gathered from the lawn on the way to class. We drew for a long time, each studying an individual leaf intently. Then we noted how the leaves were all alike – definitely all from a maple tree—yet beautifully unique. This one had wider serrations on the top right, that one on the left, this other’s were almost a perfect symmetry; this one had a more rounded lower edge than another; the veins were slightly different lengths in each leaf; the red of the stem crept brightly into the leaf on this one but was barely pink even on the stem itself in that…. All were the same, as Christ is one infinite Being, yet all different, as He shows Himself in our unique and finite beings which He created for His pleasure and His glory.
Ours was scarcely a start, and I think only a few can see deeply—Dillard does, and certainly some visual artists must (though not, I think, nearly all). Perhaps it is a lack of trying and training, as Hopkins seemed to think; perhaps there is a gift of close sight, as Potok suggests in the Asher Lev novels, which only a few have. I do believe most of us see less than we could. Browning’s Fra Lippo says that’s the function of art: “we're made so that we love / First when we see them painted, things we have passed / Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see”—and I’ve found this to be true. It needn’t be only visual art, either, for Browning himself, Dillard, Hopkins show us the world in words.
I have difficulty seeing the physical world: the only way I know a dogwood from a redbud is when they are blooming; I keep finding myself startled at the beauty of flowers that my husband planted years ago in the yard; a potted plant sitting on my desk may die and I won’t notice for a week.
When I was younger, I tried to force myself to simply look and see. I never tried to draw what I looked at; I’d been convinced before kindergarten was over that I couldn’t even doodle well, much less draw anything remotely realistic. I have since attained the ability to squiggle simple daisies in the margins of faculty meeting notes, but I still can’t put on paper what I see except in the most rudimentary “stick-person” fashion. But I also had no patience for simply looking, by itself. My mind teems with rioting thoughts, ideas, concepts—in words not images—and I stop seeing almost the moment I start looking, the landscape becoming a mere vague background for attending to and sorting the commotion in my mind. For years I simply stopped trying to be observant beyond absolute necessity (one broken toe is enough to wake the eyes at least a little).
But still I wanted to see. And finally it was Hopkins and Dillard who taught me how. I’ve never seen the drawings of either except for a couple of sketches reproduced in one of my collections of Hopkins’ work. He was trained to draw, and obviously he drew often; Dillard writes about her frequent sketching in a number of her essays. But I didn’t start drawing or enroll in art classes. Rather, I began to write what I saw.
For some time, I didn’t realize what I was doing. I would see a spectacular moon on my way to work, decide I wanted to describe it at my weblog, merely for a bit of writing practice, and so I rehearsed on the drive words that would capture its beauty as accurately as possible – and, along with it, the longing and learning contained within that beauty. It was only in talking to a friend one day that I realized what had happened: the verbal descriptions of Hopkins and Dillard had made me see their worlds (as no other writers ever had, even when I loved their descriptive ability), and I was now using my gift with words to help me see my own world.
I am still far less observant than I’d like to be, but the world is beginning to open before me. I am better able now to see when I read any writer, and I notice more of my own surroundings: how the rainbows refracted through the crystal ball in my window fill my study with glory as they move across the walls and ceiling with the sun; the baby crepe myrtle at the edge of the lawn defying rain, wind, and merciless summer heat to hold its proud blossoms high; the tiny white flowers that bloom only rarely on the jade plant my daddy gave us for a wedding gift. It’s a bare beginning, but I find my heart lifted in praise more and more often as I attend to His creation, and I’ve even found that images are returning to me, reminding me of His presence in my past, as I try to write them now.
Having grown up in Kansas, I have always loved its state flower—yet its beauty was a passing pleasure when I happened to notice it. As an adult, with my own family in tow, we lived for a time on the edge of the Flint Hills, and on our way to church we would pass a field of sunflowers between Goessel and Newton. Because the field lay on our right, and the sun had risen on our left, the flowers’ faces turned toward us as we drove by, the sun’s brilliance reflected in acre after acre dazzling our eyes, stretching to the horizon under a clear azure sky. From their fencepost pews, glossy red-winged blackbirds sang praise, choiring us on our way, preparing us for worship of the Creator of such beauty. Since I have written the sight into my heart, the merest reminder of sunflowers—a word, a painting, a photo—brings back the beauty of those Sunday mornings, that call to worship, as nature never could when I sat in woods or field and struggled to realize my setting at all.
In those same years, a tornado-brewing storm late one summer afternoon sent us to the basement while its winds blew fiercely against the house and barn and snapped the trunk of our apricot tree. When we came back upstairs, we had to switch on lights; we could hear the gentle patter of rain on the driveway. Wondering what damage may have been done, I drew back the curtains of the living room picture window—to be greeted by the most intensely colored rainbow I’d ever seen, stretching unbroken from horizon to horizon across the plains. I called everyone to see and we tumbled outside and onto the driveway.
A mirror bow began to form, growing in strength until it was nearly as intense in color as the original, it too unbroken and spanning the sky. The half circle within the first bow began to glow, faintly at first but brighter and brighter until it shone like pure gold. We stared, heedless of the sprinkling rain, motionless, until the glory faded, then we returned to the house in a dazed silence, pondering the promise contained in all that beauty.
And today, in a glorious Southern spring, lavender phlox offset just-wilting bluebells in one of the front flower beds; in the other, yellow tulips startle the eye between vivid red azalea bushes. A mockingbird settles in the top of the still-bare cypress at the corner of the house, piercing the air with his repertoire while bees hum industriously among the blossoms all around. The white dogwood in our front yard glows with a dazzling radiance even under grey skies, and the redbud outside my window lifts its rich magenta blossoms to the returning sun. The first leaves are just unfolding; in a few days I shall stand beneath each tree and try to see—the likeness, the uniqueness, Christ in His creation holding all things together, even me, His belatedly learning witness.