Blinded by Familiarity

Excerpt from “Really Looking,” by Verlyn Klinkenborg, New York Times Editorial: The Rural Life, September 2, 2010:

I look out across the pasture as dusk begins and see a shining galaxy of airborne bugs. How would it be, I wonder, to have an awareness of the actual number of insects on this farm?

I ask myself a version of that question every day: “Have you ever really looked at ...?” You can fill in the blank yourself. But every day I feel blinded by familiarity. I open the hive, which is filled with honey, and the particularity of the honeybees, even their community, somehow escapes me, if only because I’ve been living with honeybees a good part of my life. I remember the phrase, “keep your eyes peeled,” and maybe that’s what I need, a good peeling.

Again and again, I find myself trying to really look at what I’m seeing. It happened the other afternoon, high on a nearby mountain. A dragonfly had settled on the denuded tip of a pine bough. It clung, still as only a dragonfly can be. Then it flicked upward and caught a midge and settled on the bough again, adjusting precisely into the wind. I see the dragonflies quivering through the insect clouds above my pasture, too. I always notice that there’s no such thing as really looking.

What I want to be seeing is invisible anyway: the prehistoric depth of time embodied in the form of those dragonflies, the pressure of life itself, the web of relations that bind us all together. I find myself trying to witness the moment when the accident of life becomes a continued purpose. But this is a small farm, and, being human, I keep coming up against the limits of what a human can see.

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