Introduction: The Art of Good Seeing

by | May 15, 2009

hoto by M. Urzua Zuniga/Gemini Obervatory.


“We had gone a few miles upriver and now were standing on the riverbank, and in front of us, on the other side, the forest was rising like a wall.  We looked in silence and then Schultes said, as if speaking to himself, ‘I know every tree, every single tree one can see from here.’”

—From a letter written by anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff of his 1952 encounter with Richard Evans Schultes,  Harvard College class of 1938 and later Professor of Botany at Harvard. 

At the heart of scientific exploration and discovery is an ability to see deeply into the unknown.  The scientific gaze transforms these depths, whether through a telescope or across a river, into shapes and patterns that shed both meaning and light.  When Schultes, one of the greatest botanical explorers and ethnobotanists ever to have lived, says “I know every tree,” it is not of ownership or possession that he speaks, but of his ability to see so much more than the non-botanical mortals who stand beside him.

I first experienced this widening gaze when, as a Harvard undergraduate, I spent a year working as a research assistant at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.  At first all was green.  Only with study, with time, did the forest come into focus.  Only then did I see the feathery, grey-green branches of Xylopia, the unequal petioles that signaledCapparis, the ribbed trunks of Quararibea.  Not surprisingly, the ability to distinguish these “endless forms most beautiful,” to quote from the final sentence in The Origin of Species, was like a drug, bringing with it the desire to claim, with knowledge and name, more territory.  And yet the more my eyes became accustomed to the ‘green,’ the more visible became all that I had yet to see.

I suspect that the young Charles Darwin had a similar experience when, in 1832, he arrived in Brazil.  Although he later described his earliest forays in fairly general terms: “Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest,” his notes and journals are filled with data, numbers, details – all of which speak to his increasing ability to see and claim the world around him.  For the young Darwin, it was a world replete with capybaras and musical frogs, icebergs and Indians, volcanoes and red snow, flycatchers and finches.  But for all his enormous powers of observation, the heavens – both astronomical and metaphorical – seem to fall outside of Darwin’s realm.  Indeed the lack of interest in astronomical phenomena is striking in Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle.

The irony of this is that Darwin’s theory of the mutability of species was seen by many as treading exactly on the ”heavens” through its displacement of humans from the centrality conferred by special creation.  Moreover, his theory of the mutability of species undermined the prevailing metaphysical idealism in which truth lies not in the day-to-day details and variation, but in some purer, unchanging realm.  Writing on the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Origin, Ernst Mayr, Professor of Biology at Harvard from 1953 to 1975, states that “The ultimate conclusions of the population thinker and of the typologist are precisely the opposite.  For the typologist, the type (eidos) is real and the variation an illusion, while for the populationist, the type (average) is an abstraction and only the variation is real. No two ways of looking at nature could be more different.”

The practice of science is deeply connected to how one sees the natural world.  Thus, when astronomer Robert Kirshner (pp. xx) describes northern Chile as a place of “good seeing,” I think of this as referring to more than the clarity of the air and the absence of artificial light.  Good seeing is also a state of mind.  Good seeing involves a delight in the appearance of new things and the clarity that comes from stepping outside of one’s daily routine.  Therein lies the value of exploration for the scientist, whether it be traveling by sail around the world or by plane to Chile.  For Darwin, the Galapagos Islands proved to be a place of “good seeing,” although even this was a near-miss. Darwin writes that despite the Vice-Governor “declaring that the tortoises differed from the different islands, and that he could with certainty tell from which island any one was brought,  I did not for some time pay sufficient attention to this statement, and I had already partially mingled together the collections from two of the islands.”

As a young, not-yet scientist in Panama, I found that the tropical rainforest was my place of “good seeing.” It was there that I learned to see and to inquire. The Sky Above, the Earth Below celebrates good seeing by bringing together articles of and inspired by scientific exploration.  The theme that unites them is learning how both the journey and the place, whether large or small, brings the world increasingly into focus, and how this sharpening gaze generates a widening sense of wonder.

Spring 2009Volume VIII, Number 3

N. Michele Holbrook is the Charles Bullard Professor of Forestry at Harvard’s Department of Organismic & Evolutionary Biology.

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