A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES
The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something .... To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, all in one.
-- John Ruskin, Modern Painters
Look in the mirror. The face that pins you with its double gaze reveals a chastening secret: You are looking into a predator's eyes. Most predators have eyes set right on the front of their heads, so they can use binocular vision to sight and track their prey. Our eyes have separate mechanisms that gather the light, pick out an important or novel image, focus it precisely, pinpoint it in space, and follow it; they work like top-flight stereoscopic binoculars. Prey, on the other hand, have eyes at the sides of their heads, because what they really need is peripheral vision, so they can tell when something is sneaking up behind them. Something like us. If it's "a jungle out there" in the wilds of the city, it may be partly because the streets are jammed with devout predators. Our instincts stay sharp, and, when necessary, we just decree one another prey and have done with it. Whole countries sometimes. Once we domesticated fire as if it were some beautiful temperamental animal; harnessing both its energy and its light, it became possible for us to cook food to make it easier to chew and digest, and, as we found out eventually, to kill germs. But we can eat cold food perfectly well, too, and did for thousands of years. What does it say about us that, even in refined dining rooms, our taste is for meat served at the temperature of a freshly killed antelope or warthog?
Though most of us don't hunt, our eyes are still the great monopolists of our senses. To taste or touch your enemy or your food, you have to be unnervingly close to it. To smell or hear it, you can risk being farther off. But vision can rush through the fields and up the mountains, travel across time, country, and parsecs of outer space, and collect bushel baskets of information as it goes. Animals that hear high frequencies better than we do -- bats and dolphins, for instance -- seem to see richly with their ears, hearing geographically, but for us the world becomes most densely informative, most luscious, when we take it in through our eyes. It may even be that abstract thinking evolved from our eyes' elaborate struggle to make sense of what they saw. Seventy percent of the body's sense receptors cluster in the eyes, and it is mainly through seeing the world that we appraise and understand it. Lovers close their eyes when they kiss because, if they didn't, there would be too many visual distractions to notice and analyze -- the sudden close-up of the loved one's eyelashes and hair, the wallpaper, the clock face, the dust motes suspended in a shaft of sunlight. Lovers want to do serious touching, and not be disturbed. So they close their eyes as if asking two cherished relatives to leave the room.
Our language is steeped in visual imagery. In fact, whenever we compare one thing to another, as we constantly do (consider the country expression: "It was raining harder than a cow pissing sideways on a rock"), we are relying on our sense of vision to capture the action or the mood. Seeing is proof positive, we stubbornly insist ("I saw it with my own eyes ..."). Of course, in these days of relativity, feats of magic, and tricks of perception, we know better than to trust everything we see ("... a flying saucer landed on the freeway..."). See with our naked eyes, that is. As Dylan Thomas reminds us, there are many "fibs of vision."  If we extend our eyes by attaching artificial lenses and other accessories to our real ones (glasses, telescopes, cameras, binoculars, scanning electron microscopes, CAT scans, X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging, ultrasound, radioisotope tracers, lasers, DNA sequencers, and so on), we trust the result a little more. But Missouri is still called the Show Me! state, which, as a kind of visual pun, I guess, it displays on its license plates for motorists to see. "The writing is on the wall," a politician says sagely, forgetting temporarily that it could be a forgery nonetheless. We quickly see through people whose characters are transparent. And, heaven knows, we yearn for enlightenment. "I see where you're coming from," one woman says to another in a cafe, "but you'd better watch out, he's bound to see what you're up to." See for yourself! the impatient exclaim to disbelievers. After the Bible's first imperative -- "Let there be light" -- God viewed each day's toil and "saw that it was good." Presumably, He, too, had to see it to believe it. Ideas dawn on us if we're bright enough, not dim-witted, especially if we're visionary. And, when we flirt, though the common phrase sounds quite ghoulish and extreme, we give someone the eye.
The process of seeing began very simply. In the ancient seas, life-forms developed faint patches of skin that were sensitive to light. They could then tell light from dark, and also the direction of the light source, but that was all. These skills turned out to be so useful that eyes evolved that could judge motion, then form, and finally a dazzling array of details and colors. One reminder of our oceanic origins is that our eyes must be constantly bathed in salt water. Some of the oldest eyes on record are those of the trilobite, one of the great success stories of the Cambrian age, which we now know only through its plentiful fossil remains. As I type this, I am wearing on a chain around my neck a small trilobite fossil, set in a silver bezel. Five hundred million years ago, it thrived in the swamps, with compound faceted eyes that could see mainly sideways but, unfortunately, not up. On the other hand, the newest eyes are those we have invented, such as the electric eye (based on what we learned about the motion-detecting design of the frog's eye), or the mirror telescope (based on the contrast-judging design of the horseshoe crab's eye), or synchronous lenses for use in microsurgery, optical scanning, and severe vision problems (based on the double lens of copilia, a myopic crustacean that lives deep in the Mediterranean). Although plants do not have eyes, Loren Eiseley argues eloquently for the eye of the fungus pilobolus, which has a light-sensitive area that controls the spore cannon it aims at the brightest spot it can find.
We think of our eyes as wise seers, but all the eye does is gather light. Let's consider the light-harvesting. As we know, the eye works a lot like a camera; or rather, we invented cameras that work like our eyes. To focus a camera, you move the lens closer to or farther away from an object. The eye's rubbery, bean-shaped crystalline lens achieves the same result by changing its shape -- the lens thins to focus on a distant object, which looks small; thickens to focus on a near one, which looks large. A camera can control the amount of light it allows in. The iris of the eye, which is really a muscle, changes the size of a small hole, the pupil,  through which the light enters the eyeball. Because fish don't have this pupillary response, in which the iris protects against sudden surges of light, and most of them do not have eyelids (since their eyes are constantly bathed in water), they're much more susceptible to dazzlement than we are. In addition to its gate-keeping function, the iris, named after the Greek word for rainbow, is what gives our eyes their color. Caucasian eyes appear blue at birth, Negro eyes brown. After death, Caucasian eyes appear greenish-brown. Blue eyes are not inherently blue, not stained blue like fabric: They appear blue because they have less pigment than brown eyes. When light enters "blue" eyes, the very short blue light rays scatter as they jump off tiny, nonpigmented particles; what we see are the scattered rays, and the eyes appear to be blue. Dark eyes have densely packed pigment molecules and absorb the blue wavelengths, at the same time reflecting other colors whose rays are longer. They therefore appear to be brown or hazel. Though on casual inspection irises may look pretty much the same, the pattern of color, starbursts, spots, and other features is so highly individual that law-enforcement people have considered using iris patterns in addition to fingerprints.
At the back of a camera, film records the images. Lining the rear wall of the eyeball is a thin sheet, the retina, which includes two sorts of photosensitive cells, rods and cones. We need two because we live in the two worlds of darkness and light. A hundred and twenty-five million thin, straight rods construe the dimness, and report in black and white. Seven million plump cones examine the bright, colorpacked day. There are three kinds of cones, specializing in blue, red, and green. Mixed together, the rods and cones allow the eye to respond quickly to a changing scene. One place on the retina, where the optic nerve enters the brain, has no rods or cones at all and, as a result, does not perceive light; we refer to it as our "blind spot." But right in the middle of the retina lies a small crater, the fovea, filled with highly concentrated cones, which we use for precision focusing when we want to examine an object in bright light, to drag it into sharp view and grip it with our eyes. Because the fovea is so small, it can perform its magic only on a small area (a four-inch-square snapshot at eight feet, for example). Almost every cone in a fovea has its own direct line to higher centers in the brain; elsewhere on the retina, rods and cones may serve many cells, and vision is vaguer. The eyeball moves subtly, continuously, to keep an object in front of the fovea. In dim light, the fovea's cones are almost useless; instead we must look just "off" of an object to see it clearly with the surrounding rods, not directly at it because the fovea would fail us and the object appear invisible. Because the rods see no color, we don't perceive color at night. When the retina observes something, neurons pass the word along to the brain through a series of electrochemical handshakes. In about a tenth of a second, the message reaches the visual cortex, which begins to make sense of it.
However, seeing, as we think of it, doesn't happen in the eyes but in the brain. In one way, to see flamboyantly, in detail, we don't need the eyes at all. We often remember scenes from days or even years earlier, viewing them in our mind's eye, and can even picture completely imaginary events, if we wish. We see in surprising detail when we dream. Sometimes when I'm in a visually besotting landscape, somewhere out in nature and experiencing intense rapture, I lie down at night and close my eyes, and see the landscape parading across the inside of my closed lids. The first time this happened --on a 200,000-acre working cattle ranch, surrounded by pastel mesas, in the New Mexico desert -- I was a little spooked. Wrung out from the rigors of the branding corral, I needed sleep, but all the day's images, gestures, and motions still blazed in my visual memory. It was not like dreaming: it was like trying to sleep with your eyes wide open during a fiesta in full swing.
The same thing happened more recently, this time in Antarctica. One sunny day, we cruised through Gerlache Strait, which narrows to 1600 feet at its southern end; ice mountains towered on either side of the ship. Black jagged mountains, covered in cascading snow and ice, looked like penguins standing in familiar postures in a wash of brilliant light. While real penguins porpoised beside the boat, huge icebergs floated by, with bases of pale blue and sides of mint green. In the ship's glassed-in observation deck, people sat in armchairs at the window, some dozing. One man held out his pinky and first finger as if giving someone the evil eye, but he was measuring an iceberg. Deception Island, though distant, looked close and clear in the sterile air. A crib of ice holding a soft blue wash in its palms drifted close to the ship. Across the strait, ice calved off a glacier with a loud explosive crumble. Pastel icebergs roamed around us, some tens of thousands of years old. Great pressure can push the air bubbles out of the ice and compact it. Free of air bubbles, it reflects light differently, as blue. The waters shivered with the gooseflesh of small ice shards. Some icebergs glowed like dull peppermint in the sun -- impurities trapped in the ice (phytoplankton and algae) tinted them green. Ethereal snow petrels flew around the peaks of the icebergs, while the sun shone through their translucent wings. White, silent, the birds seemed to be pieces of ice flying with purpose and grace. As they passed in front of an ice floe, they became invisible. Glare transformed the landscape with such force that it seemed like a pure color. When we went out in the inflatable motorized rafts called Zodiacs to tour the iceberg orchards, I grabbed a piece of glacial ice and held it to my ear, listening to the bubbles cracking and popping as the air trapped inside escaped. And that night, though exhausted from the day's spectacles and doings, I lay in my narrow bunk, awake with my eyes closed, while sunstruck icebergs drifted across the insides of my lids, and the Antarctic peninsula revealed itself slowly, mile by mile, in the small theater of my closed eyes.
Because the eye loves novelty and can get used to almost any scene, even one of horror, much of life can drift into the vague background of our attention. How easy it is to overlook the furry yellow comb inside the throat of an iris, or the tiny fangs of a staple, or the red forked tongue of a garter snake, or the way intense sorrow makes people bend their bodies as if they were blowing in a high wind. Both science and art have a habit of waking us up, turning on all the lights, grabbing us by the collar and saying Would you please pay attention! You wouldn't think something as complexly busy as life would be so easy to overlook. But, like supreme racehorses, full of vitality, determination, and heart, we tend to miss sights not directly in our path -- the colorful crowds of people on either side, the shapes left in the thickly rutted track, and the permanent spectacle of the sky, that ever-present, ever-changing pageant overhead.
I am sitting at the edge of the continent, at Point Reyes National Seashore, the peninsula north of San Francisco, where the land gives way to the thrall of the Pacific and the arching blue conundrum of the sky. When cricket-whine, loud as a buzz saw, abruptly quits, only bird calls map the quiet codes of daylight. A hawk leans into nothingness, peeling a layer of flight from thin air. At first it flaps hard to gain a little altitude, then finds a warm updraft and cups the air with its wings, spiraling up in tight circles as it eyes the ground below for rodents or rabbits. Banking a little wider, it turns slowly, a twirling parasol. The hawk knows instinctively that it will not fall. The sky is the one visual constant in all our lives, a complex backdrop to our every venture, thought, and emotion. Yet we tend to think of it as invisible -- an absence, not a substance. Though we move through air's glassy fathoms, we rarely picture it as the thick heavy arena it is. We rarely wonder about the blue phantasm we call the sky. "Skeu, " I say out loud, the word that our ancient ancestors used; I try to utter it as they might have, with fear and wonder: "Skeu." Actually, it was their word for a covering of any sort. To them, the sky was a roof of changing colors. Small wonder they billeted their gods there, like so many quarrelsome neighbors who, in fits of temper, hurled lightning bolts instead of crockery.
Look at your feet. You are standing in the sky. When we think of the sky, we tend to look up, but the sky actually begins at the earth. We walk through it, yell into it, rake leaves, wash the dog, and drive cars in it. We breathe it deep within us. With every breath, we inhale millions of molecules of sky, heat them briefly, and then exhale them back into the world. At this moment, you are breathing some of the same molecules once breathed by Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Anne Bradstreet, or Colette. Inhale deeply. Think of The Tempest. Air works the bellows of our lungs, and it powers our cells. We say "light as air," but there is nothing lightweight about our atmosphere, which weighs 5,000 trillion tons. Only a clench as stubborn as gravity's could hold it to the earth; otherwise it would simply float away and seep into the cornerless expanse of space.
Without thinking, we often speak of "an empty sky." But the sky is never empty. In a mere ounce of air, there are 1,000 billion trillion gyrating atoms made up of oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, each a menagerie of electrons, quarks, and ghostly neutrinos. Sometimes we marvel at how "calm" the day is, or how "still" the night. Yet there is no stillness in the sky, or anywhere else where life and matter meet. The air is always vibrant and aglow, full of volatile gases, staggering spores, dust, viruses, fungi, and animals, all stirred by a skirling and relentless wind. There are active flyers like butterflies, birds, bats, and insects, who ply the air roads; and there are passive flyers like autumn leaves, pollen, or milkweed pods, which just float. Beginning at the earth and stretching up in all directions, the sky is the thick, twitching realm in which we live. When we say that our distant ancestors crawled out onto the land, we forget to add that they really moved from one ocean to another, from the upper fathoms of water to the deepest fathoms of air.
The prevailing winds here are from the west, as I can see from the weird and wonderful shapes of the vegetation along the beach. A light steady breeze blowing off the Pacific has swept back the wild grasses into a sort of pompadour. A little farther back, in a more protected glade, I find a small clump of them, around which a circle runs in the dirt. It looks as if someone pressed a cookie cutter down in the ground, but the wind alone has done it, blowing the grass around and turning it into a natural protractor. We think of the wind as a destructive force -- a sudden funnel that pops a roof off a schoolhouse in Oklahoma -- but the wind is also a gradual and powerful mason that carves cliffs, erodes hillsides, re-creates beaches, moves trees and rocks down mountains or across rivers. Wind creates waves, as in the sensuously rippling dunes of Death Valley or along the changing shorelines. The wind hauls away the topsoil as if it were nothing more than a dingy tablecloth on the checkerboard fields of the Midwest, creating a "dust bowl." It can power generators, gliders, windmills, kites, sailboats. It sows seeds and pollen. It sculpts the landscape. Along rugged coasts, one often sees trees dramatically carved by the relentless wind.
The north wind is shown on ancient maps as a plump-cheeked man with tousled hair and a strained expression, blowing as hard as he can. According to Homer, the god Aeolus lived in a palatial cave, where he kept the winds tied up in a leather bag. He gave the bag to Odysseus to power his ship, but when Odysseus's comrades opened the bag the winds raced free throughout the world, squabbling and whirling and generally wreaking havoc. "The children of morning," Hesiod called the Greek winds. To the ancient Chinese, fung meant both wind and breath, and there were many words for the wind's temperaments. Tiu meant "to move with the wind like a tree." Yao was the word for when something floated on the breeze like down. The names of winds are magical, and tell a lot about the many moods the sky can take. There's Portugal's hillside vento coado; Japan's demonic tsumuji, or soft pine-grove-loving mat sukaze; Australia's balmy brickfielder (which first described dust storms blowing off brickyards near Sydney); America's moist warm chinook drifting in from the sea, and named after the language of Indians who settled Oregon; or snow-clotted blizzard, or fierce Santa Ana, or Hawaii's humid waimea; North Africa's hot, sand-laden desert simoom (from the Aramaic word samma, "poison"); Argentina's baking, depleting zonda, which pours down from the Andes to sweep the pampas; the Nile's dark, gloomy haboob; Russia's gale-force buran, bringing a storm in the summer or a blizzard in the winter; Greece's refreshing summer etesian; Switzerland's warm, gusty foehn blowing off the leeward slopes of a mountain; France's dry cold mistral ("master wind") squalling through the Rhone Valley and down to the Mediterranean coast; India's notorious monsoon, whose very name means a whole season of monsoons; the Cape of Good Hope's bull's-eye squall; Alaska's petulant williwaw; Gibraltar's easterly-blowing datoo; Spain's mellifluous solano; the Caribbean's hurricane (derived from the Taino word huracan, which means "evil spirit"); Sweden's gale-level frisk vind; China's whispering I tien tien fung, or first autumn breeze, the sz.
Storms have been fretting the coast here for days, and now thick gray clouds stagger across this sky. I watch mashed-potato heaps of cumulus (a word that means "pile") and broad bands of stratus (which means "stretched out"). As author James Trefil once observed, a cloud is a sort of floating lake. When rising warm air collides with descending cold air, the water falls, as it does now. I take shelter on a porch, while a real toad-strangler starts, a fullblooded, hell-for-leather thunderstorm, during which the sky crackles and throbs. Lightning appears to plunge out of it, a pitchfork stabbing into the ground. In fact, it sends down a short electrical scout first, and the earth replies by arcing a long bolt up toward the sky, heating the air so fast that it explodes into a shock wave, of thunder, as we call it. Counting the seconds between a lightning flash and the thunder, I then divide by five, and get a rough idea of how far away it is -- seven miles. In one second, sound travels 1100 feet. If the lightning flash and the thunder arrive at the same time, one doesn't have much of a chance to count. In a little while the storm quiets, as the thunder bumpers roll farther up the coast. But some clouds still stalk the sky. A cloud rhinoceros metamorphoses into a profile of Eleanor Roosevelt; then a bowl of pumpkins; then a tongue-wagging dragon. Parading hugely across the sky, clouds like these have squatted above people of all times and countries. How many vacant afternoons people have passed watching the clouds drift by. The ancient Chinese amused themselves by finding shapes in the clouds just as Inuits, Bantus, and Pittsburghers do now. Sailors, generals, farmers, ranchers, and others have always consulted the crystal ball of the sky to foretell the weather (lens-shaped clouds -- severe winds aloft; dappled or "mackerel" sky -- rain is near; low, thick, dark, blanketlike clouds -- a stormy cold front may be coming), devising jingles, maxims, and elaborate cloud charts and atlases, graphics as beautiful as they are useful. On a train through Siberia, Laurens van der Post looked out the window at the huge expanse of flat country and endless sky. "I thought I had never been to any place with so much sky and space around it," he writes in Journey into Russia, and was especially startled by "the immense thunder clouds moving out of the dark towards the sleeping city resembling, in the spasmodic lightning, fabulous swans beating towards us on hissing wings of fire." As van der Post watched the lightning from the train, the Russian friend accompanying him explained that they had a special word in his language for just that scene: Zarnitsa.
Throughout time and place, people have been obsessed with the many moods of the sky. Not just because their crops and journeys depended on the weather, but because the sky is such a powerful symbol. The sky that gods inhabit, the sky whose permanence we depend on and take for granted, as if it really were a solid, vaulted ceiling on which stars were painted, as our ancestors thought. The sky that can fall in nursery rhymes. In the nuclear disarmament marches of the sixties, some people wore signs that read: CHICKEN LITTLE WAS RIGHT. We picture the sky as the final resting place of those we love, as if their souls were perfumed aerosol. We bury them among pine needles and worms, but in our imaginations we give them a lighter-than-air journey into some recess of the sky from which they will watch over us. "High" is where lofty sentiments dwell, where the "high and mighty" live, where choirs of angels sing. I don't know why the sky symbolizes our finest ideals and motives, unless, lacking in self-confidence, we think our acts of mercy, generosity, and heroism are not intrinsic qualities, not characteristics human beings alone can muster, but temporary gifts from some otherworldly power situated in the sky. Stymied by events, or appalled by human nature, we sometimes roll our eyes upward, to where we believe our fate is dished out in the mansions of the stars.
Driving four hours south, along spectacular cliffs and a wild and dramatic ocean where sea otters bob in the kelp beds, sea lions bark, harbor seals clump together like small mountain ranges, and pelagic cormorants, sanderlings, murres, and other seabirds busily nest, I pause on a wind-ripped slope of Big Sur. A Monterey pine leans out over the Pacific, making a ledge for the sunset. The pummeling gales have strangled its twigs and branches on the upwind side, and it looks like a shaggy black finger pointing out to sea. People pull up in cars, get out, stand and stare. Nothing need be said. We all understand the visual nourishment we share. We nod to one another. The cottony blue sky and dark-blue sea meet at a line sharp as a razor's edge. Why is it so thrilling to see a tree hold pieces of sky in its branches, and hear waves crash against a rocky shore, blowing spray high into the air, as the seagulls creak? Of the many ways to watch the sky, one of the most familiar is through the filigree limbs of a tree, or around and above trees; this has much to do with how we actually see and observe the sky. Trees conduct the eye from the ground up to the heavens, link the detailed temporariness of life with the bulging blue abstraction overhead. In Norse legend, the huge ash tree Yggdrasil, with its great arching limbs and three swarming roots, stretched high into the sky, holding the universe together, connecting earth to both heaven and hell. Mythical animals and demons dwelt in the tree; at one of its roots lay the well of Mimir, the source of all wisdom, from which the god Odin drank in order to become wise, even though it cost him the loss of an eye. We find trees offering us knowledge in many of the ancient stories and legends, perhaps because they alone seem to unite the earth and the sky -- the known, invadable world with everything that is beyond our grasp and our power.
Today the ocean pours darkly, with a white surf pounding over and over. Close to the shore, the thick white wave-spume looks applied by a palette knife. The damp, salty wind rustles like taffeta petticoats. One gull finds a shellfish and begins picking it apart, while the others fly after it and try to snatch the food away, all of them squeaking like badly oiled machinery.
When I was in Istanbul many years ago, I marveled at the way the onion-shaped mosques carved the sky between them. Instead of seeing a skyline, as one would in New York or San Francisco, one saw only the negative space between the swirling, swooping, spiraling minarets and bulbous domes. But here one sees the silhouette of distinctive trees against the sky: Scotch pine, which has a long stem with a roundish top resembling a child's rattle; tall, even, rice-grain-shaped cypress and spruce. Farther north stand the sequoias, the heaviest living things to inhabit the planet. The talcy-leaved eucalyptus, nonnative trees that are so hardy and fast-growing they've taken over whole forests in California, look like bedraggled heads of freshly shampooed hair. In the fall and winter, one can find among their branches long garlands of monarch butterflies, hanging on by their feet, which have prongs like grappling hooks. Each year, a hundred million migrate as much as four thousand miles from the northern United States and Canada to overwinter on the California coast. They cluster to keep warm. Butterflies seem to prefer the oily mentholated groves, the fumes of which keep away most insects and birds. Blue jays occasionally attack the monarchs when they leave their garland to sip nectar or sit out in the open and spread their wings wide as solar collectors. Monarch larvae eat the leaves of milkweed, a poisonous, digitalis-like plant, to which they are immune, but which makes them poisonous; and birds quickly learn that eating monarchs will make them sick. If you see a monarch flying around with a wedge-shaped piece of wing missing, you are most likely looking at a veteran of an uninformed bird's attack. When I was helping to tag monarchs, I saw just such a female trembling on the porch floor outside my motel-room window. A huge blue jay in a nasty temper perched on the porch rail, screeching and flapping, and getting ready to dive at the monarch again. Though I usually know better than to intrude in nature's doings, my instincts took over and I rushed outside, lunged at the blue jay to punch it in the chest, just as it leapt up with a great squawk and flap, truly terrified by my sudden attack. The butterfly stood her ground and shook, and I picked her up carefully, checked to see if she were pregnant by pressing her abdomen gently between my thumb and forefinger, feeling for a hard pellet. She wasn't, and the missing wedge of wing didn't look too bad, so I carried her to the base of a tree, at the top of which swayed a long orange string of monarchs. Then I held her above my open mouth and breathed warm air over her body, to help heat her flying muscles since it was a chilly morning, and tossed her into the air. She fluttered right up to her cluster, and, as I walked back to my room, I saluted her. The blue jay was still shrieking bloody murder, and then I saw it fly out of the yard with strong, confident beats.
At Big Sur, the hawks are working the thermals like barnstormers, swooping and banking as they ride invisible towers of warm, rising air above the sun-heated ground. Birds are so nimble and adroit. Each species has its own architecture, flight habits, and talents to make the most of the sky, which they sometimes reveal in their silhouettes. On some owls, for instance, the leading edge of the primary feathers is softly fringed to muffle the sound of their approach. Finches flap hard a few beats, then close their wings and rest a little. Turtledoves flap continuously when they're flying. Peregrine falcons fold in their wings when they dive. Swifts, which average about twenty-five mph, have very pointy wings that make them sleeker by cutting down on drag as they dart and glide. At the Grand Canyon, you can see them working the canyon walls like small aerobats.
Our sky is also filled with "passive flyers." Female ash trees loose their winged "keys," and aspens and others produce long catkins that drop and blizzard across the ground. Maples launch tadpole-shaped seeds that fall whirlygig down, all blade, all propeller, like small autogyros. Thanks to the wind, the sex lives of many plants have changed. Dandelions, milkweed, thistles, cottonwoods, and others have evolved wind-riders in the shape of parachutes or sails. Pine, spruce, hemlock, maple, oak, and ragweed don't have flamboyant flowers, but they don't need them to divert a bird or bee. The wind is go-between enough. Plants can't court, or run away from a threat, so they've devised ingenious ways to exploit their environment and animals. Pollen grains may be as small as one ten-thousandth of an inch in diameter, yet they must travel uncertain winds and strike home. Using a wind tunnel, Karl Niklas, a Cornell scientist, recently discovered that plants aren't just hobos, hoping their pollen will catch a passing breeze and get off at the right stop. Niklas found that the pine cone has evolved an architecture perfect for capturing wind from any direction: a turbine shape, with petalblades that spin the air all around it. Like a planet, the pine cone wraps itself in an atmosphere of rapidly moving air, with, just below the upper, swirling layer, a still and vacant layer. When pollen falls from the rapid layer to the still layer, it cascades right down into the cone. Niklas also tested the air-flow dynamics of the jojoba plant, which uses two rabbit-ear-shaped leaves to direct air, with results that show similar finesse.
In allergy season, pollen makes me (and millions of others) sneeze a little, and my eyes sometimes itch so that I can't wear my contact lenses. But I like knowing that all this mischief happens just because of shape. Tiny Sputniks traveling through the lower sky, some pollen looks like balls covered with spikes. Others are as football-shaped as the pupils of alligators. Pine pollen is round, with what looks like a pair of ears attached to each side. Their shapes make them move or fly at different speeds and in different patterns, and there's little danger of the wrong pollen swamping the wrong plant. It's odd to think of the sky having niches, but it does; even the wind has niches.
As night falls on Big Sur, all the soot of the world seems to pour down into the sunset. A swollen yellow doubloon drops slowly into the ocean, shimmer by shimmer, as if swallowed whole. Then, at the horizon, a tiny green ingot hovers for a second, and vanishes. The "green flash" people call it, with mystical solemnity. But it is the briefest flash of green, and this is the first time in all my sunset-watching that I've seen it. Green, azure, purple, red: How lucky we are to live on a planet with colored skies. Why is the sky blue? The sun's white light is really a bouquet of colored rays, which we classify into a spectrum of six colors. When white light collides with atoms of gases that make up the atmosphere -- primarily oxygen and nitrogen -- as well as with dust particles and moisture in the air, blue light, the most energetic light of the visible spectrum, is scattered. The sky seems to be full of blue. This is particularly true when the sun is overhead, because the light rays have a shorter distance to travel. The red rays are longer, and penetrate the atmosphere better. By the time the sun sets, one side of the Earth is turning away from the sun; the light has to travel farther, at an angle, through even more dust, water vapor, and air molecules; the blue rays scatter even more and the red rays remain, still traveling. The sun may appear magnified into a swollen ghost, or slightly elliptical, or even above the horizon when it's really below it, thanks to refraction, the bending of light waves. What we see is a glorious red sunset, especially if prowling clouds reflect the changing colors. The last color that plows through the atmosphere without being scattered is green, so sometimes we see a green flash right after the sun disappears. In space, the air appears to be black because there is no dust to scatter the blue light.
At Big Sur lighthouse, perched on a distant promontory, a beacon flashes to warn ships away from the coast and sandbanks, its light zooming out to them at 186,000 miles per second. The searchlight of the sun takes about eight minutes to reach Earth. And the light we see from the North Star set sail in the days of Shakespeare. Just think how straight the path of light is. Pass sunlight through a prism, though, and the light bends. Because each ray bends a different amount, the colors separate into a band. Many things catch the light prismatically -- fish scales, the mother-of-pearl inside a limpet shell, oil on a slippery road, a dragonfly's wings, opals, soap bubbles, peacock feathers, the grooves in gramophone records, metal that's lightly tarnished, the neck of a hummingbird, the wing cases of beetles, spiders' webs smeared with dew -- but perhaps the best known is water vapor. When it's raining but the sun is shining, or at a misty waterfall, sunlight hits the prism-like drops of water and is split into what we call a "rainbow." On such a day, rainbows are always about, hidden somewhere behind the skirts of the rain; but to see one best, you have to be positioned just right, with the sun behind you and low in the sky.
It is nighttime on the planet Earth. But that is only a whim of nature, a result of our planet rolling in space at 1,000 miles per minute. What we call "night" is the time we spend facing the secret reaches of space, where other solar systems and, perhaps, other planetarians dwell. Don't think of night as the absence of day; think of it as a kind of freedom. Turned away from our sun, we see the dawning of far-flung galaxies. We are no longer sun-blind to the star-coated universe we inhabit. The endless black, which seems to stretch forever between the stars and even backwards in time to the Big Bang, we call "infinity," from the French in-fini, meaning unfinished or incomplete. Night is a shadow world. The only shadows we see at night are cast by the moonlight, or by artificial light, but night itself is a shadow.
In the country, you can see more stars, and the night looks like an upside-down well that deepens forever. If you're patient and wait until your eyes adjust to the darkness, you can see the Milky Way as a creamy smudge across the sky. Just as different cultures have connected the stars into different constellations, they've seen their own private dramas in the Milky Way. The "backbone of night" the Bushmen of the Kalahari call it. To the Swedes, it is the "winter street" leading to heaven. To the Hebridean islanders, the "pathway of the secret people." To the Norse, the "path of ghosts." To the Patagonians, obsessed with their flightless birds, "the White pampas where ghosts hunt rheas." But in the city you can see the major constellations more easily because there are fewer stars visible to distract you.
Wherever you are, the best way to watch stars is lying on your back. Tonight the half-moon has a Mayan profile. It looks luminous and shimmery, a true beacon in the night, and yet I know its brilliance is all borrowed light. By day, if I held a mirror and bounced a spot of sunlight around the trees, I would be mimicking how the moon reflects light, having none of its own to give. Above me, between Sagittarius and Aquarius, the constellation Capricorn ambles across the sky. The Aztecs pictured it as a whale (cipactli), the East Indians saw an antelope (makaram), the Greeks labeled it "the gate of the gods," and to the Assyrians it was a goat-fish (munaxa). Perhaps the best-known star in the world is the North Star, or Polaris, though of course it has many other names; to the Navaho it is "The Star That Does Not Move," to the Chinese, the "Great Imperial Ruler of Heaven."
Throughout time, people have looked up at the sky to figure out where they were. When I was a girl, I used to take an empty can, stretch a piece of tinfoil over one end and pierce pinholes in it in the outline of a constellation; then I'd shine a flashlight in the other end, and have my own private planetarium. How many wanderers, lost on land or sea, have waited till night to try and chart their way home with help from the North Star. Locating it as they did connects us across time to those early nomads. First you find the Big Dipper and extend a line through the outer two stars of its ladle. Then you'll see that the North Star looks like a dollop of cream fallen from the upside-down Dipper. If the Big Dipper isn't visible, you can find the North Star by looking for Cassiopeia, a constellation just below Polaris that's shaped like a W or an M, depending on the time you see it. To me, it usually looks like a butterfly. Because the Earth revolves, the stars seem to drift from east to west across the sky, so another way to tell direction is to keep your eye on one bright star in particular; if it appears to rise, then you're facing east. If it seems to be falling, you're facing west. When I was a Girl Scout, we found our direction during the day by putting a straight stick in the ground. Then we'd go about our business for a few hours and return when the stick cast a shadow about six inches long. The sun would have moved west, and the shadow would be pointing east. Sometimes we used a wristwatch as a compass: Place the watch face up, with the hour hand pointing toward the Sun. Pick up a pine needle or twig and hold it upright at the edge of the dial so that it casts a shadow along the hour hand. South will be halfway between the hour hand and twelve o'clock. There are many other ways to tell direction, of course, since roaming is one of the things human beings love to do best -- but only if they can count on getting home safely. If you see a tree standing out in the open, with heavy moss on one side, that side is probably north, since moss grows heaviest on the shadiest side of a tree. If you see a tree stump, its rings will probably be thicker on the sunny side, or south. You can also look up at the tops of pine trees, which mainly point east or, if you happen to know where the prevailing wind is coming from, you can read direction from the wind-bent grasses.
It's November. The Leonids are due in Leo. Pieces of comet that fall mainly after sunset or before sunrise, they appear in the same constellations each year at the same time. In Antarctica, I had hoped to see auroras, veils of light caused by the solar wind bumping into the earth's magnetic field and leaving a gorgeous shimmer behind. But our days were mainly sun-perfect, and our nights a grisly gray twilight. In the evening, the sea looked like pounded gunmetal, but there were no auroras to make glitter paths overhead, Here is how Captain Robert Scott described one display in June 1911:
The eastern sky was massed with swaying auroral light ... fold on fold the arches and curtains of vibrating luminosity rose and spread across the sky, to slowly fade and yet again spring to glowing life.
The brighter light seemed to flow, now to mass itself in wreathing folds in one quarter, from which lustrous streamers shot upward, and anon to run in waves through the system of some dimmer figure....
It is impossible to witness such a beautiful phenomenon without a sense of awe, and yet this sentiment is not inspired by its brilliancy but rather by its delicacy in light and colour, its transparency, and above all by its tremulous evanescence of form.
Tonight Mars glows like a steady red ember. Though only a dot of light in the sky, it is in my mind a place of blustery plains, volcanoes, rift valleys, sand dunes, wind-carved arches, dry river beds, and brilliant white polar caps that wax and wane with the seasons. There may even have been a climate there once, and running water. Soon Venus will appear as a bright silvery light, as it usually does about three hours after sunset or before sunrise. With its gauzy white face, it looks mummified in photos, but I know that impression is given by cloud banks full of acids floating above a surface where tricks of light abound and the temperatures are hot enough to melt lead. There are many kinds of vision -- literal, imaginative, hallucinatory; visions of greatness or of great possibilities. Although I can't see the steady light of other planets just yet, I know they are there all the same, along with the asteroids, comets, distant galaxies, neutron stars, black holes, and other phantoms of deep space. And I picture them with a surety Walt Whitman understood when he proclaimed: "The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place."
Sunrise. Darkness begins to wash out of the sky. A thick lager of fog sits in the valley like the chrysalis of a moth. Venus, Mercury, and Saturn burn bright silver holes in the slowly bluing sky. The stars have vanished, because by the time starlight gets to Earth it's too dim to be seen during the daylight. Two black shapes in the fog reel into focus as cows. A calf reveals itself. Learning about the world is like this -- watching and waiting for shapes to reveal themselves in the fog of our experience. A wan sky curdles with gauzy streaks of cloud. The land is veiled in mist. The highest hill looks like a train's smokestack: Clouds trail behind it. Now the cloud world that was horizontal becomes vertical as cumulus begin to rise over the mountain. Venus throbs, a broken lighthouse in the western sky. A nation of cloud tepees rises along the top of the ridge. The first hawk of the day glides on cool air, wings arched. The dew sits in round, bluish drops on the clover-rich grass. A squadron of eighteen pelicans flies in a long check mark overhead, turns on edge and vanishes, turns again and tilts back into sight. A huge pillow of fog rolls through the valley. The cows disappear, but the sky grows bluer; Venus fades, white clouds begin to form, the fog lifts like a fever, a house and more cows appear. A lone, lightning-struck tree stands like a totem pole on a hillside, the light quickens, and birds begin their earnest songs, as the first yellow floats up like egg yolk over the ledge of the world, and then the sun is a canary singing light.
Without light, could you or I see? Without light and water, could life exist at all? It's hard to imagine living without light. The most frightening dark I remember was when scuba-diving in an underwater cave in the Bahamas. We carried flashlights, but at one point I turned mine off and just sat in the darkness. Later, when I climbed up out of the cave and stepped into the blinding light of a hot Bahamian day, the sun was burning from ninety-three million miles away, yet felt like fresh sandpaper on my arms and legs. At exactly 4:00 P.M. it rained briefly, as it did each day at that time. The wet roads looked shiny. Not so the stone walls. Light waves hitting a smooth, flat surface bounce back evenly, making the surface shine. If the surface is rough, the light waves scatter in different directions, not as many will return to our eyes, and the surface doesn't look shiny. It takes only a little light to stimulate the eye -- a candle burning ten miles away will do -- and a moonlit night, especially after a snowfall, will flood the eye with reflections, shapes, and motion. Astronauts in orbit around Earth can see beneath them the wakes ships leave in the oceans. But when we're in the forest under a low cloud cover, and night falls like a black sledgehammer, there are no light rays to bounce back at the eyes, and we don't see. As Sir Francis Bacon noted slyly in his essay on religion, "All colours will agree in the dark."
Even people who have been blind since birth are greatly affected by light, because, although we need light to see, light also influences us in other subtle ways. It affects our moods, it rallies our hormones, it triggers our circadian rhythms. During the season of darkness in northern latitudes, the suicide rate soars, insanity looms in many households, and alcoholism becomes rampant. Some diseases, including rickets, result in part from children receiving too little sunlight; children are active creatures, and need the vitamin D that light produces to keep them healthy. Other malaises, like Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which leaves many people feeling depleted and depressed in the winter months, can be corrected by daily doses of very bright light (twenty times brighter than average indoor lighting) for about half an hour each morning. Some lingering low-level depression can be cured by changing a patient's sleep schedule so that it parallels the season's periods of light and dark more closely. Most years, Ithaca, New York, has only two seasons, both of which are wet -- hot wet and cold wet -- so it tends to be overcast much of the time. Bright light doesn't stream in through the picture windows at sunrise. Anyway, my bedroom windows are thickly curtained, and I sleep in a room dark enough to please a star-nosed mole. Although I go speed walking for fifty minutes every day, regardless of season or weather, I find that I feel much more energetic, and generally happier, if I do my winter walkabouts in early or midmorning, and do them every single day without fail; in summer, it doesn't seem to matter when I work out, or even if I occasionally miss a day.
Light therapy is being used to help people with psoriasis, schizophrenia, and even some forms of cancer. The pineal gland, or "third eye," as it's been mystically labeled, seems to be intimately involved with our sense of season, of well-being, the onset of puberty, the amount of testosterone or estrogen we produce, and certain of our more subtle seasonal behaviors. Testosterone is at its highest in men during early afternoons (around 2:00 P.M.) in October, I suppose because a child conceived then would be born during the summer and have a greater chance of survival. Of course, men don't all wait for that one climactic autumn month to make love, rising through a crescendo of libido in September and an only slightly dwindling mania as they near Christmas.
One of the hallmarks of our species is our ability not only to adapt to our environment, but also to change the environment to better suit us. We withstand the cold reasonably well, but we don't let its extremes bully us into migrating; we just build shelters and wear clothes. We respond to sunlight, and we create light for times when there is little or no sun. We use the energy of fire, and we create energy. Most of this we like to do outside our bodies, unlike other creatures. When we want to light up the world around us, we build lamps. Many insects, fish, crustaceans, squids, fungi, bacteria, and protozoa bioluminesce: They throb with light. The angler fish even hangs a glowing lure from its mouth, which attracts prey. A male firefly flashes its cool, yellow-green semaphores of desire, and if the female, too, is randy, she flashes back her consent. They look hot and bothered, twinkling through a summer's night like lovers drifting from one streetlamp to the next. Their light comes from the blending of two chemicals, luciferin and luciferase (lucifer means "shining"). If you row through Phosphorescent Bay off the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico, at night, you'll leave a trail of glowing auroras in the water and see cool fire dripping from your oars; it comes from microscopic invertebrates, which live in the water and secrete a luminous fluid whenever jostled. James Morin, a marine biologist at UCLA, has been studying rice-grain-sized crustaceans of the genus Vargula, which he's nicknamed "firefleas." There are thirty-nine known species, and they use light not only for courtship, but also to alarm their enemies. When they light up, they become more visible, but so does the predator, which in turn becomes easier to spot by an even larger predator. During courtship, each species flashes its own dialect of light. Far brighter than fireflies, Vargulae glow with an intense brilliance. "If I put a single fireflea on my fingertip and squashed it, I could read a newspaper from the light for about ten minutes," Morin explains. Sailors tell about ships trailing fire from their sterns. They don't mean St. Elmo's fire (an atmospheric phenomenon that can strike a mast and ignite it with a cool, crackling, eerie green glow), but a moon-bright glitter swirled up on the water as the ship passes through tiny luminous lives.
Around Halloween, stores begin to sell necklaces, wands and other plastic items that glow coolly in the dark. Based on bioluminescence, they contain luciferins, and work the same way as a firefly's glow. But, for extra sparkle, a trick or treater might also chew wintergreen Lifesavers. If you stand in the dark and crush one between your teeth, it will spill blue-green flashes of light. Certain substances (some quartzes and mica, even adhesive tape, when it is yanked off specific surfaces) are triboluminescent; they give off light if you rub, crush, or break them. Broken wintergreen fluoresces and broken sugar gives off ultraviolet light; the combination -- in candies that contain both sugar and oil of wintergreen -- produces tiny bolts of blue-green lightning. Try this parlor game: Step into a closet with a mouthful of wintergreen Lifesavers and a friend and wait for sparks to fly.
At twilight, pink wings tremble along the hilltops, and purple does a shadow dance over the lake. When light hits a red car on the streetcorner, only the red rays are reflected into our eyes, and we say "red!' The other rays are absorbed by the car's paint job. When light hits a blue mailbox, the blue is reflected, and we say "blue." The color we see is always the one being reflected, the one that doesn't stay put and get absorbed. We see the rejected color, and say "an apple is red." But in truth an apple is everything but red. [LC-1]
Even though it's sunset and the quantity, quality, and brightness of light have all diminished, we still perceive the blue mailbox as blue, the red car as red. We are not really cameras. Our eyes do not just measure wavelengths of light. As Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid Land Camera and instant photography, deduced, we judge colors by the company they keep. We compare them to one another, and revise according to the time of day, light source, memory.  Otherwise, our ancestors wouldn't have been able to find food at sunset or on overcast days. The eye works with ratios of color, not with absolutes. Land was not a biologist, but a keen observer of how we observe, and his theory of color constancy, proposed in 1963, continues to make sense. Every college student at one time or another has asked what it means to know something, and whether there are simple perceptual truths that people share. We watch color television because our ancestors had eyes cued to the ripening of fruit; and they also had to be wary of poisonous plants and animals (which tend to be brightly colored). Most people can identify between 150 and 200 colors. But we do not all see exactly the same colors, especially if we're partly or completely color-blind,  as many people are -- men in particular. A blue ship may not look the same when viewed from opposite sides of a river, depending on the landscape, clouds, and other phenemona. The emotions and memories we associate with certain colors also stain the world we see. And yet, how astonishing it is that we do tend to agree on what we call red or teal or cream.
Not all languages name all colors. Japanese only recently included a word for "blue." In past ages, aoi was an umbrella word that stood for the range of colors from green and blue to violet. Primitive languages first develop words for black and white, then add red, then yellow and green; many lump blue and green together, and some don't bother distinguishing between other colors of the spectrum. Because ancient Greek had very few color words, a lot of brisk scholarly debate has centered around what Homer meant by such metaphors as the "wine-dark sea." Welsh uses the word glas to describe the color of a mountain lake, which might in fact be blue, gray, or green. In Swahili, nyakundu could mean brown, yellow, or red. The Jale tribespeople of New Guinea, having no word for green, are content to refer to a leaf as dark or light. Though English sports a fair range of words to distinguish blue from green (including azure, aqua, teal, navy, emerald, indigo, olive), we frequently argue about whether a color really should be considered blue or green, and mainly resort to similes such as grass green, or pea green. The color language of English truly stumbles when it comes to life's processes. We need to follow the example of the Maori of New Zealand, who have many words for red -- all the reds that surge and pale as fruits and flowers develop, as blood flows and dries. We need to boost our range of greens to describe the almost squash-yellow green of late winter grass, the achingly fluorescent green of the leaves of high summer, and all the whims of chlorophyll in between. We need words for the many colors of clouds, surging from pearly pink during a calm sunset over the ocean to the electric gray-green of tornadoes. We need to rejuvenate our brown words for all the complexions of bark. And we need cooperative words to help refine colors, which change when they're hit by glare, rinsed with artificial light, saturated with pure pigment, or gently bathed in moonlight. An apple remains red in our minds, wherever we see it, but think how different its red looks under fluorescent light, on the shady branch of a tree, on a patio at night, or in a knapsack.
Color doesn't occur in the world, but in the mind. Remember the old paradoxical question: If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? A parallel question in vision: If no human eye is around to view it, is an apple really red? The answer is no, not red in the way we mean red. Other animals perceive colors differently than we do, depending on their chemistry. Many see in black and white. Some respond to colors invisible to us. But the many ways in which we enjoy color, identify it, and use it to make life more meaningful are unique to humans.
In the Hall of Gems at the Museum of Natural History in New York, I once stood in front of a huge piece of sulfur so yellow I began to cry. I wasn't in the least bit unhappy. Quite the opposite; I felt a rush of pleasure and excitement. The intensity of the color affected my nervous system. At the time, I called the emotion wonder, and thought: Isn't it extraordinary to be alive on a planet where there are yellows such as this? One of today's "color consultants" might tell me instead which chakra, or energy center, the yellow was stimulating. The therapeutic use of color has become faddish of late, and, for a price, all sorts of people will help you "learn what colors your body needs," as one guru puts it. Recent books decree the only and perfect colors to make you look beautiful or cure your flagging spirits. But scientists have known for years that certain colors trigger an emotional response in people. Children will use dark colors to express their sadness when they're painting, bright colors to express happiness. A room painted bubble-gum pink (known in hospitals, schools and other institutions as "passive pink") will quiet them if they've gotten obstreperous. In a study done at the University of Texas, subjects watched colored lights as their hand-grip strength was measured. When they looked at red light, which excites the brain, their grip became 13.5 percent stronger. In another study, when hospital patients with tremors watched blue light, which calms the brain, their tremors lessened. Ancient cultures (Greek, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, and others) used color therapies of many sorts, prescribing colors for various distresses of the body and soul. Colors can alarm, excite, calm, uplift. Waiting rooms in television studios and theaters have come to be called greenrooms, and are painted green because the color has a restful effect. Dressing baby boys in blue and girls in pink has a long history. To the ancients, a baby boy was cause for celebration, since it meant another strong worker and the carrying on of the family name. Blue, the color of the sky where the gods and fates lived, held special powers to energize and ward off evil, so baby boys were dressed in blue to protect them. Later, a European legend claimed that baby girls were born inside delicate pink roses, and pink became their color.
Some years ago, when I had taken a job directing a writing program in St. Louis, Missouri, I often used color as a tonic. Regardless of the oasis-eyed student in my office, or the last itchlike whim of the secretary, or the fumings of the hysterically anxious chairman, I tried to arrive home at around the same time every evening, to watch the sunset from the large picture window in my living room, which overlooked Forest Park. Each night the sunset surged with purple pampas-grass plumes, and shot fuchsia rockets into the pink sky, then deepened through folded layers of peacock green to all the blues of India and a black across which clouds sometimes churned like alabaster dolls. The visual opium of the sunset was what I craved. Once, while eating a shrimp-and-avocado salad at the self-consciously stately faculty club, while I gossiped with an anorexic and hopped-up young colleague, I found myself restless for the day to be over and all such tomblike encounters to pale, so I could drag my dinette-set chair up to the window and purge my senses with the pure color and visual tumult of the sunset. This happened again the next day in the coffee room, where I stood chatting with one of the literary historians, who always wore the drabbest camouflage colors and continued talking long after a point had been made. I set my facial muscles at "listening raptly," as she chuntered on about her specialty, the Caroline poets, but in my mind the sun was just beginning to set, a green glow was giving way to streaks of sulfur yellow, and a purple cloud train had begun staggering across the horizon. I was paying too much rent for my apartment, she explained. True, the apartment overlooked the park's changing seasons, had a picture window that captured the sunset every night, and was only a block away from a charming cobblestone area full of art galleries, antique stores, and ethnic restaurants. But this was all an expense, as she put it, with heavy emphasis on the second syllable, not just financial expense, but a too-extravagant experience of life. That evening, as I watched the sunset's pinwheels of apricot and mauve slowly explode into red ribbons, I thought: The sensory misers will inherit the earth, but first they will make it not worth living on.
When you consider something like death, after which (there being no news flash to the contrary) we may well go out like a candle flame, then it probably doesn't matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply; are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly. It probably doesn't matter if, while trying to be modest and eager watchers of life's many spectacles, we sometimes look clumsy or get dirty or ask stupid questions or reveal our ignorance or say the wrong thing or light up with wonder like the children we all are. It probably doesn't matter if a passerby sees us dipping a finger into the moist pouches of dozens of lady's slippers to find out what bugs tend to fall into them, and thinks us a bit eccentric. Or a neighbor, fetching her mail, sees us standing in the cold with our own letters in one hand and a seismically red autumn leaf in the other, its color hitting our senses like a blow from a stun gun, as we stand with a huge grin, too paralyzed by the intricately veined gaudiness of the leaf to move.
The stealth of autumn catches one unaware. Was that a goldfinch perching in the early September woods, or just the first turning leaf? A red-winged blackbird or a sugar maple closing up shop for the winter? Keen-eyed as leopards, we stand still and squint hard, looking for signs of movement. Early-morning frost sits heavily on the grass, and turns barbed wire into a string of stars. On a distant hill, a small square of yellow appears to be a lighted stage. At last the truth dawns on us: Fall is staggering in, right on schedule, with its baggage of chilly nights, macabre holidays, and spectacular, heart-stoppingly beautiful leaves. Soon the leaves will start cringing on the trees, and roll up in clenched fists before they actually fall off. Dry seedpods will rattle like tiny gourds. But first there will be weeks of gushing color so bright, so pastel, so confetti-like, that people will travel up and down the East Coast just to stare at it -- a whole season of leaves.
Where do the colors come from? Sunlight rules most living things with its golden edicts. When the days begin to shorten, soon after the summer solstice on June 21, a tree reconsiders its leaves. All summer it feeds them so they can process sunlight, but in the dog days of summer the tree begins pulling nutrients back into its trunk and roots, pares down, and gradually chokes off its leaves. A corky layer of cells forms at the leaves' slender petioles, then scars over. Undernourished, the leaves stop producing the pigment chlorophyll, and photosynthesis ceases. Animals can migrate, hibernate, or store food to prepare for winter. But where can a tree go? It survives by dropping its leaves, and by the end of autumn only a few fragile threads of fluid-carrying xylem hold leaves to their stems.
A turning leaf stays partly green at first, then reveals splotches of yellow and red as the chlorophyll gradually breaks down. Dark green seems to stay longest in the veins, outlining and defining them. During the summer, chlorophyll dissolves in the heat and light, but it is also being steadily replaced. In the fall, on the other hand, no new pigment is produced, and so we notice the other colors that were always there, right in the leaf, although chlorophyll's shocking green hid them from view. With their camouflage gone, we see these colors for the first time all year, and marvel, but they were always there, hidden like a vivid secret beneath the hot glowing greens of summer.
The most spectacular range of fall foliage occurs in the northeastern United States and in eastern China, where the leaves are robustly colored, thanks in part to a rich climate. European maple's don't achieve the same flaming reds as their American relatives, which thrive on cold nights and sunny days: In Europe, the warm, humid weather turns the leaves brown or mildly yellow. Anthocyanin, the pigment that gives apples their red and turns leaves red or red-violet, is produced by sugars that remain in the leaf after the supply of nutrients dwindles. Unlike the carotenoids, which color carrots, squash, and corn, and turn leaves orange and yellow, anthocyanin varies from year to year, depending on the temperature and amount of sunlight. The fiercest colors occur in years when the fall sunlight is strongest and the nights are cool and dry (a state of grace scientists find vexing to forecast). This is also why leaves appear dizzyingly bright and clear on a sunny fall day: The anthocyanin flashes like a marquee.
Not all leaves turn the same colors. Elms, weeping willows, and the ancient ginkgo all grow radiant yellow, along with hickories, aspens, bottlebrush buckeyes, cottonweeds, and tall, keening poplars. Basswood turns bronze, birches bright gold. Water-loving maples put on a symphonic display of scarlets. Sumacs turn red, too, as do flowering dogwoods, black gums, and sweet gums. Though some oaks yellow, most turn a pinkish brown. The farmlands also change color, as tepees of cornstalks and bales of shredded-wheat-textured hay stand drying in the fields. In some spots, one slope of a hill may be green and the other already in bright color, because the hillside facing south gets more sun and heat than the northern one.
An odd feature of the colors is that they don't seem to have any special purpose. We are predisposed to respond to their beauty, of course. They shimmer with the colors of sunset, spring flowers, the tawny buff of a colt's pretty rump, the shuddering pink of a blush. Animals and flowers color for a reason -- adaptation to their environment -- but there is no adaptive reason for leaves to color so beautifully in the fall any more than there is for the sky or ocean to be blue. It's just one of the haphazard marvels the planet bestows every year. We find the sizzling colors thrilling, and in a sense they dupe us. Colored like living things, they signal death and disintegration. In time, they will become fragile and, like the body, return to dust. They are as we hope our own fate will be when we die: Not to vanish, just to sublime from one beautiful state into another. Though leaves lose their green life, they bloom with urgent colors, as the woods grow mummified day by day, and Nature becomes more carnal, mute, and radiant.
We call the season "fall," from the Old English feallan, to fall, which leads back through time to the Indo-European phol, which also means to fall. So the word and the idea are both extremely ancient, and haven't really changed since the first of our kind needed a name for fall's leafy abundance. As we say the word, we're reminded of that other Fall, in the garden of Eden, when fig leaves never withered and scales fell from our eyes. Fall is the time when leaves fall from the trees, just as spring is when flowers spring up, summer is when we simmer, and winter is when we whine from the cold.
Children love to play in piles of leaves, hurling them into the air like confetti, leaping into soft unruly mattresses of them. For children, leaf fall is just one of the odder figments of Nature, like hailstones or snowflakes. Walk down a lane overhung with trees in the never-never land of autumn, and you will forget about time and death, lost in the sheer delicious spill of color. Adam and Eve concealed their nakedness with leaves, remember? Leaves have always hidden our awkward secrets.
But how do the colored leaves fall? As a leaf ages, the growth hormone, auxin, fades, and cells at the base of the petiole divide. Two or three rows of small cells, lying at right angles to the axis of the petiole, react with water, then come apart, leaving the petioles hanging on by only a few threads of xylem. A light breeze, and the leaves are airborne. They glide and swoop, rocking in invisible cradles. They are all wing and may flutter from yard to yard on small whirlwinds or updrafts, swiveling as they go. Firmly tethered to earth, we love to see things rise up and fly -- soap bubbles, balloons, birds, fall leaves. They remind us that the end of a season is capricious, as is the end of life. We especially like the way leaves rock, careen, and swoop as they fall. Everyone knows the motion. Pilots sometimes do a maneuver called a "falling leaf," in which the plane loses altitude quickly and on purpose, by slipping first to the right, then to the left. The machine weighs a ton or more, but in one pilot's mind it is a weightless thing, a falling leaf. She has seen the motion before, in the Vermont woods where she played as a child. Below her the trees radiate gold, copper, and red. Leaves are falling, although she can't see them fall, as she falls, swooping down for a closer view.
At last the leaves leave. But first they turn color and thrill us for weeks on end. Then they crunch and crackle underfoot. They shush, as children drag their small feet through leaves heaped along the curb. Dark, slimy mats of leaves cling to one's heels after a rain. A damp, stucco-like mortar of semi-decayed leaves protects the tender shoots with a roof until spring, and makes a rich humus. An occasional bulge or ripple in the leafy mounds signals a shrew or a field mouse tunneling out of sight. Sometimes one finds in fossil stones the imprint of a leaf, long since disintegrated, whose outlines remind us how detailed, vibrant, and, alive are the things of this earth that perish.
Polar bears are not white, they're clear. Their transparent fur doesn't contain a white pigment, but the hair shafts house many tiny air bubbles, which scatter the sun's white light, and we register the spectacle as white fur. The same thing happens with a swan's white feathers, and the white wings of some butterflies. We tend to think of everything on earth as having its own deep-down rich color, but even razzmatazz colors that hit one's eyes like carefully aimed fireworks are just a thin rind on things, the merest layer of pigment. And many objects have no pigment at all, but seem richly colored nonetheless because of tricks played by our eyes. Just as the oceans and sky are blue because of the scattering of light rays, so are a blue jay's feathers, which contain no blue pigment. The same is true of the blue on a turkey's neck, the blue on the tail of the blue-tailed skink, the blue on a baboon's rump. Grass and leaves, on the other hand, are inherently green because of the green pigment chlorophyll. The tropical rain forests and the northern woods both sing a green anthem. Against a backdrop of chlorophyll green, earth brown, and sky-and-water blue, animals have evolved kaleidoscopic colors to attract mates, disguise themselves, warn off would-be predators, scare rivals away from their territory, signal a parent that it's time to be fed. Woodland birds are often drably colored and lightly speckled, to blend in with the branches and sifting sunlight. There are lots of "LBJs," or "little brown jobs," as birders sometimes call them.
Abbott Thayer, an early twentieth-century artist and naturalist, noticed what he called countershading, a natural camouflaging that makes animals most brightly colored on the parts of their body that are least exposed to sunlight, and darker on those areas that are most exposed. A good example is the penguin, which is white on the breast so that it will look like pale sky when viewed from underneath in the ocean, and black on its back, so that it will blend in with the dark depths of the ocean when viewed from on top. Since penguins are not in much danger from land predators, their obvious two-tone linoleum-floor look doesn't matter when they're waddling on shore. Camouflage and display is the name of the game in the animal kingdom. Insects are especially good at disguise; one famous example is the British peppered moth, which took only fifty years to change from a lackluster salt-and-pepper gray to nearly black so that it could blend in with tree bark that had become stained by industrial pollution. Pale moths were easier for a bird to spot as the tree trunks grew darker, and so darker moths survived to produce even darker moths, which in turn survived. Animals will do most anything to disguise themselves: Many fish have what look like eyes on their tails so that a predator will aim its attack on a less vital part of the body; some grasshoppers look so much like quartz they become invisible on South African hills; clever butterflies sport large, dark eyespots on their wings, so that a songbird predator will think it's facing an owl; the insects called walking sticks appear dark and gnarly as twigs; Kenyan bush crickets blend in with the lichens on a tree trunk; katydids green up like leaves -- some species even develop brown fungusy-looking sections; a Peruvian grasshopper mimics the crinkled dead leaves on the forest floor; the Malaysian tussock moth has wings that resemble decaying leaves: brown, torn, or perforated. Various insects costume themselves as snakes, others as bird droppings; lizards, shrimp, frogs, fish, and a few spiders tint their body color to blend in with their surroundings. Camouflage to a fish means scintillating like the water that surrounds it, breaking up the apparent outline of its body, and vanishing among the corridors of down-welling light. As Sandra Sinclair explains it in How Animals See: "Each scale reflects one-third of the spectrum; where three scales overlap, all colors are canceled out, leaving a mirrorlike effect." All a predator may see is a twisting flash of light. Luminescent squids maneuver at depths where there is little light; swimming through the gloom, they mimic the natural light from above, and can even disguise themselves as clouds floating over the surface of the water in order to become invisible to their prey. They are "stealth" squids. All sorts of animals can change color quickly by shrinking or enlarging their store of melanin; they either spread the color around so much that they look darker, or tug the color into a smaller space so that some underlying pigment becomes visible. In Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov writes joyously of his fascination with the mimicry of moths and butterflies:
Consider the imitation of oozing poison by bubble-like macules on a wing ... or by glossy yellow knobs on a chrysalis ("Don't eat me -- I have already been squashed, sampled and rejected"). Consider the tricks of an acrobatic caterpillar (of the Lobster Moth) which in infancy looks like bird's dung.... When a certain moth resembles a certain wasp in shape and color, it also walks and moves its antennae in a waspish, unmothlike manner. When a butterfly has to look like a leaf, not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-bored holes are generously thrown in. "Natural selection" in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appeal to the theory of the "struggle for life" when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator's power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.
Animals indulge in such lavish and luscious forms of display that it would take a whole book just to list their color-mad graces. The peacock's scintillating, many-eyed tail is so famous an example it's become eponymous. "What a peacock he is," we say of a gentleman dandied up beyond belief. Color as a silent language works so well that nearly every animal speaks it. Octopuses change color as they change mood. A scared freshwater perch automatically turns pale. A king penguin chick knows to peck at the apricot comet on its parent's bill if it wants to be fed. A baboon flashes its blue rump in sexual or submissive situations. Confront a male robin with a handful of red feathers and it will attack it. A deer pops its white tail as a warning to its kin and then springs out of the yard. We lift our eyebrows to signal our disbelief. But many animals wear their gaudy colors as warnings, as well. The arrowpoison frog, which dwells in the Amazon rain forest, glistens with vibrant aqua blue and scarlet. Don't mess with me! its color shrieks at would-be predators. I was with a group of people who came upon such a frog squatting on a log, and the temptation to touch its cloisonne-like back was so strong one man automatically began to reach out for it when his neighbor grabbed his wrist, just in time. That frog didn't need to flee; it was coated with a slime so poisonous that if the man had touched it, and then touched his eye or mouth, he would have been poisoned on the spot.
When your cat stalks a low-lying slither at twilight, it's tempting to believe the old wives' tale that cats can see in the dark. After all, don't their eyes glow? But no animal can see without light. Cats, and other night-roving creatures, have a thin, iridescent  layer of reflecting cells behind the retina called the tapetum. Light strikes its mirror surface and bounces back at the retina, allowing an animal to see in faint light. If you hold a flashlight against your forehead at night and shine its light into the forest or along a swamp or ocean, you're bound to "shine" the red or amber eyes of some nocturnal creature -- a spider, a caiman, a cat, a moth, a bird. Even scallops, with their tiny stuffed-olive-looking eyes, have a tapetum to capture more light, so that late at night they can observe any whelk sneaking up on them. Results of scientific experiments seem to indicate that cold-blooded animals can see better in dim light than warm-blooded ones, so amphibians generally have better night vision than mammals. (In one test conducted by researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the University of Helsinki, humans needed eight times as much light to see a worm at night than a toad did.) Cats, like other predators, have their eyes set squarely in front; they often have relatively big eyes and great depth perception, so that they can sight and track their prey. Consider the owl, a pair of binoculars with wings, whose eyes make up a third of its head size. Arrowhead crabs, bright spiderlike reef creatures familiar to scuba-divers, have eyes set so far apart they can see in almost a complete circle. Horses have little depth perception, because their eyes are placed far around each side of the head. Like prey in general, they need peripheral vision to keep an eye out for an attack from a predator. I've always thought it was particularly brave of horses to be willing to take jumps they must lose sight of at the last moment. Predators frequently have vertical pupils, since they look forward for their prey; whereas sheep, goats, and many other hoofed animals, which must be vigilant across the fields in which they graze, have horizontal pupils. An interesting feature of the alligator's pupil is that it can tilt a little as the angle of the head changes, so that prey will always be in focus. Roadside alligator wrestlers who flip a 'gator over, rub its stomach, and "put it to sleep" are actually giving it a bad case of vertigo. Upside down, an alligator's pupils can't adjust, and the world becomes a confusing tumult of images. Many insects have compound eyes that iridesce, but few are as beautiful as the eye of the goldeneye lacewing: a background of black topped by a perfect six-pointed star, which shimmers blue at its tips, green as you move inward, then yellow, and finally red at the center.
Prairie dogs are color-blind to red and green, owls are entirely colorblind (because they have only rod cells), and ants don't see red at all. The deer that stroll into my yard to feast on apples and rosebushes see me mainly as shades of gray, as do the rabbits that eat the wild strawberries on my back lawn and are tame enough to kick in the rump. A surprising number of animals do see in color, but the colors they see are different. Unlike us, some also see in infrared, or with radically different kinds of eyes (barred, compound, iridescent, tubular, at the ends of stalks). The world that greets them looks different. Horror films persuaded us that the fly's compound eye meant that it saw the same image repeated many times, but scientists have now taken pictures through the eyes of insects, and we know that a fly sees a single complete scene, as we do, only a greatly curved one: It would be the equivalent of looking at the world through a glass paperweight. We assume that insects and animals don't see very well, but birds can see the stars, some butterflies can see in the ultraviolet range, and some jellyfish create their own light to read by. Bees can judge the angle at which light hits their photoreceptors, and therefore locate the position of the sun in the sky, even on a partly cloudy day. There are orchids that look so much like bees that bees try to mate with them, spreading pollen in the process. This intricate and extreme adaptation wouldn't work if bees' vision were poor. The reason movies appear to be continuous is that they move at about twenty-four frames per second, whereas we process images at fifty to sixty per second. When we watch a movie, we're actually watching a blank screen for about half the time. The rest of the time, many still photographs are flashed one after another, each slightly different and yet related to the preceding one. The eye dawdles over each photograph just long enough to slur into the next one, and they seem to be a single continuously moving picture. The eye persists in linking up the separate images. Bees, on the other hand, are used to images flashing at three hundred per second, so Lawrence of Arabia would be just a series of stills to them. It used to be thought that a bee's "waggle dance" included semaphore instructions for how to get to the great feeding places the bee had just been to; but now scientists think that the waggle dance also conveys messages in touch, smell, and hearing. Although it's true that bees can see in ultraviolet, they're weak on the red end of the spectrum, so a white flower looks blue to a bee, and a red flower is of little interest. Moths, birds, and bats, on the other hand, adore red flowers. Flowers that look drab and simple to us -- nothing but white petals -- to a bee may be lit up like a billboard flanked by neon signs pointing the way to the nectar. Bulls don't have color vision, so the bright red of the matador's cape could just as easily be black or orange. Red is for the benefit of the human audience, which finds the color intrinsically arousing and also suggestive of the soon-to-be-flowing blood of either the bull or the matador. The bull just focuses irritably on the large object moving in front of the man and charges.
The Boran people of Kenya are led to honeybees' nests by the pantomiming of a bird, the African honey guide (Indicator indicator). If the Boran are in the mood for honey, they whistle to call the bird. Or, if the bird is hungry for honey, it flies around the Boran, alerting them with its "tirr-tirr-tirr. " Then it disappears briefly, apparently to check on the whereabouts of a honeybee nest, and returns to guide them with short flights and repeated calls. When the bird gets to the nest, it flies down to indicate the right spot and changes its call. Skillfully, the Boran break into the nest and take honey; they leave plenty for the bird, which would otherwise find the nest hard to invade. German ornithologists at the Max-Planck-Institut, who spent three years studying this strange symbiotic relationship, discovered that it takes the tribesmen almost three times as long to find honey without the help of the honey birds. Apparently, the birds also guide honey badgers in a similar way. Animals' eyes may be quick and keen, but few eyes are as probing as those of the artist, another species of hunter, whose prey lives in both the outer world and the inner tundra.
In his later years, Cezanne suffered a famous paroxysm of doubt about his genius. Could his art have been only an eccentricity of his vision, not imagination and talent guarded by a vigilant esthetic? In his excellent essay on Cezanne in Sense and Nonsense, Maurice Merleau-Ponty says: "As he grew old, he wondered whether the novelty of his painting might not come from trouble with his eyes, whether his whole life had not been based upon an accident of the body." Cezanne anxiously considered each brush stroke, striving for the fullest sense of the world, as Merleau-Ponty describes so well:
We see the depth, the smoothness, the softness, the hardness of objects; Cezanne even claimed that we see their odor. If the painter is to express the world, the arrangement of his colors must carry with it this invisible whole, or else his picture will only hint at things and will not give them in the imperious unity, the presence, the insurpassable plenitude which is for us the definition of the real. That is why each brush stroke must satisfy an infinite number of conditions. Cezanne sometimes pondered for hours at a time before putting down a certain stroke, for, as Bernard said, each stroke must "contain the air, the light, the object, the composition, the character, the outline, and the style." Expressing what exists is an endless task.
Opening up wide to the fullness of life, Cezanne felt himself to be the conduit where nature and humanity met -- "The landscape thinks itself in me ... I am its consciousness" -- and would work on all the different sections of a painting at the same time, as if in that way he could capture the many angles, half-truths, and reflections a scene held, and fuse them into one conglomerate version. "He considered himself powerless," Merleau-Ponty writes, "because he was not omnipotent, because he was not God and wanted nevertheless to portray the world, to change it completely into a spectacle, to make visible, how the world touches us." When one thinks of the masses of color and shape in his paintings, perhaps it won't come as a surprise to learn that Cezanne was myopic, although he refused glasses, reputedly crying "Take those vulgar things away!" He also suffered from diabetes, which may have resulted in some retinal damage, and in time he developed cataracts (a clouding of the clear lens). Huysmans once captiously described him as '"An artist with a diseased retina, who, exasperated by a defective vision, discovered the basis of a new art." Born into a different universe than most people, Cezanne painted the world his slightly askew eyes saw, but the random chance of that possibility gnawed at him. The sculptor Giacometti, on the other hand, whose long, stretched-out figures look as consciously distorted as one could wish, once confessed amiably: "All the critics spoke about the metaphysical content or the poetic message of my work. But for me it is nothing of the sort. It is a purely optical exercise. I try to represent a head as I see it."
Quite a lot has been learned in recent years about the vision problems of certain artists, whose eyeglasses and medical records have survived. Van Gogh's "Irises" sold at Christie's in 1988 for forty-nine million dollars, which would surely have amused him, since he sold only one painting during his lifetime. Though he was known for cutting off his ear, Van Gogh also hit himself with a club, went to many church services each Sunday, slept on a board, had bizarre religious hallucinations, drank kerosene, and ate paint. Some researchers now feel that a few of Van Gogh's stylistic quirks (coronas around streetlamps, for instance) may not have been intentional distortions at all but the result of illness, or, indeed, of poisoning from the paint thinners and resins he used, which could have damaged his eyes so that he saw halo effects around light sources. According to Patrick Trevor-Roper, whose The World Through Blunted Sight investigates the vision problems of painters and poets, some of the possible diagnoses for Van Gogh's depression "have included cerebral tumour, syphilis, magnesium deficiency, temporal lobe epilepsy, poisoning by digitalis (given as a treatment for epilepsy, which could have provoked the yellow vision), and glaucoma (some self-portraits show a dilated right pupil, and he depicted coloured haloes around lights)." Most recently, a scientist speaking before a meeting of neurologists in Boston added Geschwind's syndrome, a personality disorder that sometimes accompanies epilepsy. Van Gogh's own doctor said of him: "Genius and lunacy are well known next-door neighbors." Many of those ailments could have affected his vision. But, equally important, the most brilliant pigments used to include toxic heavy metals like copper, cadmium, and mercury. Fumes and poisons could easily get into food, since painters frequently worked and lived in the same rooms. When the eighteenth-century animal painter George Stubbs went on his honeymoon, he stayed in a two-room cottage, in one room of which he hung up the decaying carcass of a horse, which in free moments he studiously dissected. Renoir was a heavy smoker, and he probably didn't bother to wash his hands before he rolled a cigarette; paint from his fingers undoubtedly rubbed onto the paper. Two Danish internists, studying the relationship between arthritis and heavy metals, have compared the color choices in paintings by Renoir, Peter Paul Rubens, and Raoul Dufy (all rheumatoid arthritis sufferers), with those of their contemporaries. When Renoir chose his bright reds, oranges, and blues, he was also choosing big doses of aluminum, mercury, and cobalt. In fact, up to 60 percent of the colors Renoir preferred contained dangerous metals, twice the amount used by such contemporaries of his as Claude Monet or Edgar Degas, who often painted with darker pigments made from safer iron compounds.
According to Trevor-Roper, there is a myopic personality that artists, mathematicians, and bookish people tend to share. They have "an interior life different from others," a different personality, because only the close-up world is visually available to them. The imagery in their work tends to pivot around things that "can be viewed at very close range," and they're more introverted. Of Degas's myopia, for example, he says:
As time passed he was often reduced to painting in pastel rather than oil as being an easier medium for his failing sight. Later, he discovered that by using photographs of the models or horses he sought to depict, he was able to bring these comfortably within his limited focal range. And finally he fell back increasingly on sculpture where at least he could be sure that his sense of touch would always remain true, saying, 'I must learn a blind man's trade now,' although he had always in fact had an interest in modelling.
Trevor-Roper points out that the mechanism which causes shortsightedness (an elongated eye) affects perception of color as well (reds will appear more starkly defined); cataracts, especially, may affect color, blurring and reddening simultaneously. Consider Turner, whose later paintings Mark Twain once described as "like a ginger cat having a fit in a bowl of tomatoes." Or Renoir's "increasing fascination for reds." Or Monet, who developed such severe cataracts that he had to label his tubes of paint and arrange colors carefully on his palette. After a cataract operation, Monet is reported by friends to have been surprised by all the blueness in the world, and to have been appalled by the strange colors in his recent work, which he anxiously retouched.
One theory about artistic creation is that extraordinary artists come into this world with a different way of seeing. That doesn't explain genius, of course, which has so much to do with risk, anger, a blazing emotional furnace, a sense of esthetic decorum, a savage wistfulness, lidless curiosity, and many other qualities, including a willingness to be fully available to life, to pause over both its general patterns and its ravishing details. As the robustly sensuous painter Georgia O'Keeffe once said: "In a way, nobody sees a flower really, it is so small, we haven't time -- and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time." What kind of novel vision do artists bring into the world with them, long before they develop an inner vision? That question disturbed Cezanne, as it has other artists -- as if it made any difference to how and what he would end up painting. When all is said and done, it's as Merleau-Ponty says: "This work to be done called for this life."
In a study in which men were asked to look at photographs of pretty women, it was found they greatly preferred pictures of women whose pupils were dilated. Such pictures caused the pupils of the men's eyes to dilate as much as 30 percent. Of course, this is old news to women of the Italian Renaissance and Victorian England alike, who used to drop belladonna (a poisonous plant in the nightshade family, whose name means "beautiful woman") into their eyes to enlarge their pupils before they went out with gentlemen. Our pupils expand involuntarily when we're aroused or excited; thus, just seeing a pretty woman with dilated pupils signaled the men that she found them attractive, and that made their pupils begin a body-language tango in reply. When I was on shipboard recently, traveling through the ferocious winds and waves of Drake Passage and the sometimes bouncy waters around the Antarctic peninsula, the South Orkneys, South Georgia, and the Falklands, I noticed that many passengers wore a scopolamine patch behind one ear to combat seasickness. Greatly dilated pupils, a side effect of the patch, began to appear a few days into the trip; everybody one met had large, welcoming eyes, which no doubt encouraged the feeling of immediate friendship and camaraderie. Some people grew to look quite zombielike, as they drank in wide gulps of light, but most seemed especially open and warm.  Had they checked, the women would have discovered that their cervixes were dilated, too. In professions where emotion or sincere interests need to be hidden, such as gambling or jade-dealing, people often wear dark glasses to hide intentions visible in their telltale pupils.
We may pretend that beauty is only skin deep, but Aristotle was right when he observed that "beauty is a far greater recommendation than any letter of introduction." The sad truth is that attractive people do better in school, where they receive more help, better grades, and less punishment; at work, where they are rewarded with higher pay, more prestigious jobs, and faster promotions; in finding mates, where they tend to be in control of the relationships and make most of the decisions; and among total strangers, who assume them to be interesting, honest, virtuous, and successful. After all, in fairy tales, the first stories most of us hear, the heroes are handsome, the heroines are beautiful, and the wicked sots are ugly. Children learn implicitly that good people are beautiful and bad people are ugly, and society restates that message in many subtle ways as they grow older. So perhaps it's not surprising that handsome cadets at West Point achieve a higher rank by the time they graduate, or that a judge is more likely to give an attractive criminal a shorter sentence. In a 1968 study conducted in the New York City prison system, men with scars, deformities, and other physical defects were divided into three groups. The first group received cosmetic surgery, the second intensive counseling and therapy, and the third no treatment at all. A year later, when the researchers checked to see how the men were doing, they discovered that those who had received cosmetic surgery had adjusted the best and were less likely to return to prison. In experiments conducted by corporations, when different photos were attached to the same resume, the more attractive person was hired. Prettier babies are treated better than homelier ones, not just by strangers but by the baby's parents as well. Mothers snuggle, kiss, talk to, play more with their baby if it's cute; and fathers of cute babies are also more involved with them. Attractive children get higher grades on their achievement tests, probably because their good looks win praise, attention, and encouragement from adults. In a 1975 study, teachers were asked to evaluate the records of an eight-year-old who had a low IQ and poor grades. Every teacher saw the same records, but to some the photo of a pretty child was attached, and to others that of a homely one. The teachers were more likely to recommend that the homely child be sent to a class for retarded children. The beauty of another can be a valuable accessory. One particularly interesting study asked people to look at a photo of a man and a woman, and to evaluate only the man. As it turned out, if the woman on the man's arm was pretty, the man was thought to be more intelligent and successful than if the woman was unattractive.
Shocking as the results of these and similar experiments might be, they confirm what we've known for ages: Like it or not, a woman's face has always been to some extent a commodity. A beautiful woman is often able to marry her way out of a lower class and poverty. We remember legendary beauties like Cleopatra and Helen of Troy as symbols of how beauty can be powerful enough to cause the downfall of great leaders and change the career of empires. American women spend millions on makeup each year; in addition, there are the hairdressers, the exercise classes, the diets, the clothes. Handsome men do better as well, but for a man the real commodity is height. One study followed the professional lives of 17,000 men. Those who were at least six feet tall did much better -- received more money, were promoted faster, rose to more prestigious positions. Perhaps tall men trigger childhood memories of looking up to authority -- only our parents and other adults were tall, and they had all the power to punish or protect, to give absolute love, set our wishes in motion, or block our hopes.
The human ideal of a pretty face varies from culture to culture, of course, and over time, as Abraham Cowley noted in the seventeenth century:
Beauty, thou wild fantastic ape
But in general what we are probably looking for is a combination of mature and immature looks -- the big eyes of a child, which make us feel protective, the high cheekbones and other features of a fully developed woman or man, which make us feel sexy. In an effort to look sexy, we pierce our noses, elongate our earlobes or necks, tattoo our skin, bind our feet, corset our ribs, dye our hair, have the fat liposuctioned from our thighs, and alter our bodies in countless other ways. Throughout most of western history, women were expected to be curvy, soft, and voluptuous, real earth mothers radiant with sensuous fertility. It was a preference with a strong evolutionary basis: A plump woman had a greater store of body fat and the nutrients needed for pregnancy, was more likely to survive during times of hunger, and would be able to protect her growing fetus and breastfeed it once it was born. In many areas of Africa and India, fat is considered not only beautiful but prestigious for both men and women. In the United States, in the Roaring Twenties and also in the Soaring Seventies and Eighties, when ultrathin was in, men wanted women to have the figures of teenage boys, and much psychological hay could be made from how this reflected the changing role of women in society and the work place. These days, most men I know prefer women to have a curvier, reasonably fit body, although most women I know would still prefer to be "too" thin.
But the face has always attracted an admirer's first glances, especially the eyes, which can be so smoldery and eloquent, and throughout the ages people have emphasized their facial features with makeup. Archaeologists have found evidence of Egyptian perfumeries and beauty parlors dating to 4,000 B.C., and makeup paraphernalia going back to 6,000 B.C. The ancient Egyptians preferred green eye shadow topped with a glitter made from crushing the iridescent carapaces of certain beetles; kohl eye liner and mascara; blue-black lipstick; red rouge; and fingers and feet stained with henna. They shaved their eyebrows and drew in false ones. A fashionable Egyptian woman of those days outlined the veins on her breasts in blue and coated her nipples with gold. Her nail polish signaled social status, red indicating the highest. Men also indulged in elaborate potions and beautifiers; and not only for a night out: Tutankhamen's tomb included jars of makeup and beauty creams for his use in the afterlife. Roman men adored cosmetics, and commanders had their hair coiffed and perfumed and their nails lacquered before they went into battle. Cosmetics appealed even more to Roman women, to one of whom Martial wrote in the first century A.D., "While you remain at home, Galla, your hair is at the hairdresser's; you take out your teeth at night and sleep tucked away in a hundred cosmetic boxes -- even your face does not sleep with you. Then you wink at men under an eyebrow you took out of a drawer that same morning." A second-century Roman physician invented cold cream, the formula for which has changed little since then. We may remember from the Old Testament that Queen Jezebel painted her face before embarking on her wicked ways, a fashion she learned from the high-toned Phoenicians in about 850 B.C. In the eighteenth century, European women were willing to eat Arsenic Complexion Wafers to make their skin whiter; it poisoned the hemoglobin in the blood so that they developed a fragile, lunar whiteness. Rouges often contained such dangerous metals as lead and mercury, and when used as lip stain they went straight into the bloodstream. Seventeenth-century European women and men sometimes wore beauty patches in the shape of hearts, suns, moons, and stars, applying them to their breasts and face, to draw an admirer's eye away from any imperfections, which, in that era, too often included smallpox scars.
Studies conducted recently at the University of Louisville asked college men what they considered to be the ideal components in a woman's face, and fed the results into a computer. They discovered that their ideal woman had wide cheekbones; eyes set high and wide apart; a smallish nose; high eyebrows; a small neat chin; and a smile that could fill half of the face. On faces deemed "pretty," each eye was one-fourteenth as high as the face, and three-tenths its width; the nose didn't occupy more than five percent of the face; the distance from the bottom lip to the chin was one fifth the height of the face, and the distance from the middle of the eye to the eyebrow was one-tenth the height of the face. Superimpose the faces of many beautiful women onto these computer ratios, and none will match up. What this geometry of beauty boils down to is a portrait of an ideal mother-- a young, healthy woman. A mother had to be fertile, healthy, and energetic to protect her young and continue to bear lots of children, many of whom might die in infancy. Men drawn to such women had a stronger chance of their genes surviving. Capitalizing on the continuing subtleties of that appeal, plastic surgeons sometimes advertise with extraordinary bluntness. A California surgeon, Dr. Vincent Forshan, once ran an eight-page color ad in Los Angeles magazine showing a gorgeous young woman with a large, high bosom, flat stomach, high, tight buttocks, and long sleek legs posing beside a red Ferrari. The headline over the photo ran: "Automobile by Ferrari ... body by Forshan." Question: What do those of us who aren't tall, flawlessly sculpted adolescents do? Answer: Console ourselves with how relative beauty can be. Although it wins our first praise and the helpless gift of our attention, it can curdle before our eyes in a matter of moments. I remember seeing Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, and thinking him astoundingly handsome. When I saw him being interviewed on television some months later, and heard him declare that his only interest in life was playing bridge, which is how he spent most of his spare time, to my great amazement he was transformed before my eyes into an unappealing man. Suddenly his eyes seemed rheumy and his chin stuck out too much and none of the pieces of his anatomy fell together in the right proportions. I've watched this alchemy work in reverse, too, when a not-particularly-attractive stranger opened his mouth to speak and became ravishing. Thank heavens for the arousing qualities of zest, intelligence, wit, curiosity, sweetness, passion, talent, and grace. Thank heavens that, though good looks may rally one's attention, a lasting sense of a person's beauty reveals itself in stages. Thank heavens, as Shakespeare puts it in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind."
We are not just lovers of one another's features, of course, but also of nature's. Our passion for beautiful flowers we owe entirely to insects, bats, and birds, since these pollinators and flowers evolved together; flowers use color to attract birds and insects that will pollinate them. We may breed flowers to the pitch of sense-pounding color and smell we prefer, and we've greatly changed the look of nature by doing so, but there is a special gloriousness we find only in nature at its most wild and untampered with. In our "sweet spontaneous earth," as e. e. cummings calls it, we find startling and intimate beauties that fill us with ecstasy. Perhaps, like him, we
notice the convulsed orange inch of moon
and our pulse suddenly charges like cavalry, or our eyes close in pleasure and, in a waking faint, we sigh before we know what's happening. The scene is so beautiful it deflates us. Moonlight can reassure us that there will be light enough to find our way over dark plains, or to escape a night-prowling beast. Sunset's fiery glow reminds us of the warmth in which we thrive. The gushing colors of flowers signal springtime and summer, when food is plentiful and all life is radiantly fertile. Brightly colored birds turn us on, sympathetically, with their sexual flash and dazzle, because we're atavists at heart and any sex pantomime reminds us of our own. Still, the essence of natural beauty is novelty and surprise. In cummings's poem, it is an unexpected "convulsed orange inch of moon" that awakens one's notice. When this happens, our sense of community widens -- we belong not just to one another but to other species, other forms of matter. "That we find a crystal or a poppy beautiful means that we are less alone," John Berger writes in The Sense of Sight, "that we are more deeply inserted into existence than the course of a single life would lead us to believe." Naturalists often say that they never tire of seeing the same mile of rain forest, or of strolling along the same paths through the savanna. But, if you press them, they inevitably add that there is always something new to behold, that it is always different. As Berger puts it: "beauty is always an exception, always in despite of. This is why it moves us." And yet we also respond passionately to the highly organized way of beholding life we call art. To some extent Art is like trapping nature inside a paperweight. Suddenly a locale, or an abstract emotion, is viewable at one's leisure, falls out of flux, can be rotated and considered from different vantage points, becomes as fixed and to that extent as holy as the landscape. As Berger puts it:
All the languages of art have been developed as an attempt to transform the instantaneous into the permanent. Art supposes that beauty is not an exception -- is not in despite of -- but is the basis for an order.... Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally.... the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.
Art is more complex than that, of course. Intense emotion is stressful, and we look to artists to feel for us, to suffer and rejoice, to describe the heights of their passionate response to life so that we can enjoy them from a safe distance, and get to know better what the full range of human experience really is. We may not choose to live out the extremes of consciousness we find in Jean Genet or Edvard Munch, but it's wonderful to peer into them. We look to artists to stop time for us, to break the cycle of birth and death and temporarily put an end to life's processes. It is too much of a whelm for any one person to face up to without going into sensory overload. Artists, on the other hand, court that intensity. We ask artists to fill our lives with a cavalcade of fresh sights and insights, the way life was for us when we were children and everything was new.  In time, much of life's spectacle becomes a polite blur, because if we stop to consider every speckle-throated lily we will never get our letters filed or pomegranates bought.
Unbeautiful things often delight our eyes, too. Gargoyles, glitz, intense slabs of color, organized tricks of light. Sparklers and fireworks are almost painful to watch, but we call them beautiful. A flawless seven-carat marquise diamond is pure scintillation, which we also call beautiful. Throughout history, people have crafted nature's rudest rocks into exquisite jewelry, obsessed with the way in which light penetrates a crystal. We may find diamonds and other gems visually magnificent, but seeing them the way we do is a recent innovation. It was only in the eighteenth century that the newly improved art of gem-cutting produced the glittery stones full of fire and dazzle we admire. Before that, even the crown jewels appeared dull and listless. But in the eighteenth century faceted cuts became fashionable, along with plunging necklines. In fact, women often wore jewels pinned to the necklines of their gowns so that each might draw attention to the other. Why should a gem strike us as beautiful? A diamond acts like a bunched prism. Light entering a diamond ricochets around inside it, reflects from the back of it, and spreads out its colors more ebulliently than through an ordinary glass prism. A skilled diamond cutter enables light to streak along inside the stone's many facets and shoot out of the jewel at angles. Turn the diamond in your hand, and you see one pure color followed by another. Variety is the pledge that matter makes to living things. We find life's energy, motion, and changing colors trapped in the small, dead space of a diamond, which one moment glitters like neon and the next spews out sabers of light. Our sense of wonder ignites, things are in the wrong place, a magical bonfire has been lit, the nonliving comes to life in an unexpected flash and begins a small, brief dance among the flames. Watching faces or fireworks or a spaceship launch, the dance is slower, but the colors and lights grow achingly intense as they surround and upstage us in a fantasia of pure visual ecstasy.
A huge glittering tower sparkles across the Florida marshlands. Floodlights reach into the heavens all around it, rolling out carpets of light. Helicopters and jets blink around the launch pad like insects drawn to flame. Oz never filled the sky with such diamond-studded improbability. Inside the cascading lights, a giant trellis holds a slender rocket to its heart, on each side a tall thermos bottle filled with solid fuel the color and feel of a hard eraser, and on its back a sharp-nosed space shuttle, clinging like the young of some exotic mammal. A full moon bulges low in the sky, its face turned toward the launch pad, its mouth open.
On the sober consoles of launch control, numbers count backward toward zero. When numbers vanish, and reverse time ends, something will disappear. Not the shuttle -- that will stay with us through eyesight and radar, and be on the minds of dozens of tracking dishes worldwide, rolling their heads as if to relieve the anguish. For hours we have been standing on these Floridian bogs, longing for the blazing rapture of the moment ahead, longing to be jettisoned free from routine, and lifted, like the obelisk we launch, that much nearer the infinite. On the fog-wreathed banks of the Banana River, and by the roadside lookouts, we are waiting: 55,000 people are expected at the Space Center alone.
When floodlights die on the launch pad, camera shutters and mental shutters all open in the same instant. The air feels loose and damp. A hundred thousand eyes rush to one spot, where a glint below the booster rocket flares into a pinwheel of fire, a sparkler held by hand on the Fourth of July. White clouds shoot out in all directions, in a dust storm of flame, a gritty, swirling Sahara, burning from gray-white to an incandescent platinum so raw it makes your eyes squint, to a radiant gold so narcotic you forget how to blink. The air is full of bee stings, prickly and electric. Your pores start to itch. Hair stands up stiff on the back of your neck. It used to be that the launch pad would melt at lift-off, but now 300,000 gallons of water crash from aloft, burst from below. Steam clouds scent the air with a mineral ash. Crazed by reflection, the waterways turn the color of pounded brass. Thick cumulus clouds shimmy and build at ground level, where you don't expect to see thunderheads.
Seconds into the launch, an apricot whoosh pours out in spasms, like the rippling quarters of a palomino, and now outbleaches the sun, as clouds rise and pile like a Creation scene. Birds leap into the air along with moths and dragonflies and gnats and other winged creatures, all driven to panic by the clamor: booming, crackling, howling downwind. What is flight, that it can take place in the fragile wings of a moth, whose power station is a heart small as a computer chip? What is flight, that it can groan upward through 4.5 million pounds of dead weight on a colossal gantry? Close your eyes, and you hear the deafening rat-a-tat-tat of firecrackers, feel them arcing against your chest. Open your eyes, and you see a huge steel muscle dripping fire, as seven million pounds of thrust pauses a moment on a silver haunch, and then the bedlam clouds let rip. Iron struts blow over the launch pad like newspapers, and shock waves roll out, pounding their giant fists, pounding the marshes where birds shriek and fly, pounding against your chest, where a heart already rapid begins running clean away from you. The air feels tight as a drum, the molecules bouncing. Suddenly the space shuttle leaps high over the marshlands, away from the now frantic laughter of the loons, away from the reedy delirium of the insects and the openmouthed awe of the spectators, many of whom are crying, as it rises on a waterfall of flame 700 feet long, shooting colossal sparks as it climbs in a golden halo that burns deep into memory.
Only ten minutes from lift-off, it will leave the security blanket of our atmosphere, and enter an orbit 184 miles up. This is not miraculous. After all, we humans began in an early tantrum of the universe, when our chemical makeup first took form. We evolved through accidents, happenstance, near misses, and good luck. We developed language, forged cities, mustered nations. Now we change the course of rivers and move mountains; we hold back trillions of tons of water with cement dams. We break into human chests and heads; operate on beating hearts and thinking brains. What is defying gravity compared to that? In orbit, there will be no night and day, no up and down. No one will have their "feet on the ground." No joke will be "earthy." No point will be "timely." No thrill will be "out of this world." In orbit, the sun will rise every hour and a half, and there will be 112 days to each week. But then time has always been one of our boldest and most ingenious inventions, and, when you think about it, one of the least plausible of our fictions.
Lunging to the east out over the water, the shuttle rolls slowly onto its back, climbing at three g's, an upshooting torch, twisting an umbilical of white cloud beneath it When the two solid rockets fall free, they hover to one side, like bright red quotation marks, beginning an utterance it will take four days to finish. For over six minutes of seismic wonder it is still visible, this star we hurl up at the star-studded sky. What is a neighborhood? one wonders. Is it the clump of wild daisies beside the Banana River, in which moths hover and dive without the aid of rockets? For large minds, the Earth is a small place. Not small enough to exhaust in one lifetime, but a compact home, cozy, buoyant, a place to cherish, the spectral center of our life. But how could we stay at home forever?
In our mind's eye, that abstract seat of imagining, we picture the face of a lover, savor a kiss. When we think about him in passing, we have various thoughts; but when we actually picture him, as if he were a hologram, we feel a flush of emotion. There is much more to seeing than mere seeing. The visual image is a kind of tripwire for the emotions. One photo can remind us of an entire political regime, a war, a heroic moment, a tragedy. One gesture can symbolize the wide angles of parental love, the uncertainty and disorder of romantic love, the fun-house mirrors of adolescence, the quick transfusion of hope, the feeling of low-level wind shear in the heart we call loss. Look at a grassy hillside, and you can remember immediately what freshly cut grass smells like, how it feels when it's damp, the stains it leaves on your jeans, the sound you can make blowing over a grass blade held just so between your thumbs, and other assorted memories associated with grass: picnicking with the family; playing dodge ball in an orchard in the Midwest; herding cattle from the dusty New Mexico desert up to high fields of lush green to graze; hiking through the Adirondacks; making love in a grassy field at the top of a hill, on a hot, breezy summer day, when the sun, shining through the clouds, lights one part of the hillside at a time, as if it were a room in which the lamp had been turned on. When we see an object, the whole peninsula of our senses wakes up to appraise the new sight. All the brain's shopkeepers consider it from their point of view, all the civil servants, all the accountants, all the students, all the farmers, all the mechanics. Together they all see the same sight -- a grassy hillside -- and each does a slightly different take on it, all of which adds up to what we see. Our other senses can trigger memories and emotions, too, but the eyes are especially good at symbolic, aphoristic, many-faceted perceiving. Knowing this, governments are forever erecting monuments. Generally they don't look like much, but people stand in front of them and rush with emotion anyway. The eye regards most of life as monumental. And some shapes affect us much more than others.
For example, I've been following the space program closely for the past twenty years, and learning with robust delight about the solar system, thanks mainly to the Voyager spacecraft, which have been sending back home movies of Earth's closest relatives. What a lovely shock it's been to discover that half the planets have rings: not just Saturn, but Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune, and maybe even Pluto. And all the rings are different. Jupiter's dark, narrow rings contrast with Saturn's bright broad ribbons. Uranus's obsidian rings have baguette moons in tow. The solar system has quietly been running rings around all of us. How magical and how poignant. Few symbols have ever meant as much to us, regardless of our religion, politics, age, or gender, as rings. We give rings to symbolize infinite love and the close harmony of two souls. Rings remind us of the simple cells that were the oldest version of life, and the symphony of cells we now are. We reach for the rings on merry-go-rounds. Rings halo what is sacred. We draw rings around things to emphasize them. Sports often take place in the magic ring of the playing field. A sensory kaleidoscope unfolds in the circus ring. Rings symbolize the infinite: We are only ever beginning to end. Rings signal a pledge made, a vow taken. Rings suggest eternity, agelessness, and perfection. We chart time on the face of a clock, as points along a ring. On playgrounds, children shoot marbles into a chalked circle; they are prime movers, acting out planetary mechanics. We bring the world into focus with the globes of our eyes, worlds within worlds. We treasure the well-rounded soul we think we see in a loved one. We believe that, just as a strong circle can be made out of two weaker arcs, we can complete ourselves by linking our life to someone else's. We who crave the no-loose-ends, deathless symmetry of a ring praise the wonders of the universe as best we can, traveling along the ring of birth and death. The Apollo astronauts returned to earth changed by seeing the home planet floating in space. What they saw was a kind of visual aphorism, and it's one we all need to learn by heart.
Picture this: Everyone you've ever known, everyone you've ever loved, your whole experience of life floating in one place, on a single planet underneath you. On that dazzling oasis, swirling with blues and whites, the weather systems form and travel. You watch the clouds tingle and swell above the Amazon, and know the weather that develops there will affect the crop yield half a planet away in Russia and China. Volcanic eruptions make tiny spangles below. The rain forests are disappearing in Australia, Hawaii, and South America. You see dust bowls developing in Africa and the Near East. Remote sensing devices, judging the humidity in the desert, have already warned you there will be plagues of locusts this year. To your amazement, you identify the lights of Denver and Cairo. And though you were taught about them one by one, as separate parts of a jigsaw puzzle, now you can see that the oceans, the atmosphere, and the land are not separate at all, but part of an intricate, recombining web of nature. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, you want to click your magic shoes together and say three times: "There's no place like home."
You know what home is. For many years, you've tried to be a modest and eager watcher of the skies, and of the Earth, whose green anthem you love. Home is a pigeon strutting like a petitioner in the courtyard in front of your house. Home is the law-abiding hickories out back. Home is the sign on a gas station just outside Pittsburgh that reads "If we can't fix it, it ain't broke." Home is springtime on campuses all across America, where students sprawl on the grass like the war-wounded at Gettysburg. Home is the Guatemalan jungle, at times deadly as an arsenal. Home is the pheasant barking hoarse threats at the neighbor's dog. Home is the exquisite torment of love and all the lesser mayhems of the heart. But what you long for is to stand back and see it whole. You want to live out that age-old yearning, portrayed in myths and legends of every culture, to step above the Earth and see the whole world fidgeting and blooming below you.
I remember my first flying lesson, in the doldrums of summer in upstate New York. Pushing the throttle forward, I zoomed down the runway until the undercarriage began to dance; then the ground fell away below and I was airborne, climbing up an invisible flight of stairs. To my amazement, the horizon came with me (how could it not on a round planet?). For the first time in my life I understood what a valley was, as I floated above one at 7,000 feet. I could see plainly the devastation of the gypsy moth, whose hunger had leeched the forests to a mottled gray. Later on, when I flew over Ohio, I was saddened to discover the stagnant ocher of the air, and to see that the long expanse of the Ohio River, dark and chunky, was the wrong texture for water, even flammable at times, thanks to the fumings of plastics factories, which I could also see, standing like pustules along the river. I began to understand how people settle a landscape, in waves and at crossroads, how they survey a land and irrigate it: Most of all, I discovered that there are things one can learn about the world only from certain perspectives. How can you understand the oceans without becoming part of its intricate fathoms? How can you understand the planet without walking upon it, sampling its marvels one by one, and then floating high above it, to see it all in a single eye-gulp?
Most of all, the twentieth century will be remembered as the time when we first began to understand what our address was. The "big, beautiful, blue, wet ball" of recent years is one way to say it. But a more profound way will speak of the orders of magnitude of that bigness, the shades of that blueness, the arbitrary delicacy of beauty itself, the ways in which water has made life possible, and the fragile euphoria of the complex ecosystem that is Earth, an Earth on which, from space, there are no visible fences, or military zones, or national borders. We need to send into space a flurry of artists and naturalists, photographers and painters, who will turn the mirror upon ourselves and show us Earth as a single planet, a single organism that's buoyant, fragile, blooming, buzzing, full of spectacles, full of fascinating human beings, something to cherish. Learning our full address may not end all wars, but it will enrich our sense of wonder and pride. It will remind us that the human context is not tight as a noose, but large as the universe we have the privilege to inhabit. It will change our sense of what a neighborhood is. It will persuade us that we are citizens of something larger and more profound than mere countries, that we are citizens of Earth, her joyriders and her caretakers, who would do well to work on her problems together. The view from space is offering us the first chance we evolutionary toddlers have had to cross the cosmic street and stand facing our own home, amazed to see it clearly for the first time.
1. Among the many fibs of vision are optical illusions. A puddle forms on the highway in front of you. But, unlike a real puddle, it keeps moving farther away as you approach it. Because it is a hot summer day, with a layer of hot air sitting below a layer of cold air, a reflection (of the sky) is cast onto the road. The word "mirage" slowly forms in your mind. Its etymology means "to wonder at." When we look at something red, the lens of our eye adjusts to the same shape it needs for seeing something green that is closer. When we look at something blue, the lens changes in the opposite direction. As a result, blue things appear to recede into the background, and red things seem to leap forward. Red things seem to be contracting, while blue ones seem to be spreading out. Blue things are thought to be "cold," while pink things are thought to be "warm." And because the eye is always trying to make sense of life, if it encounters a puzzling scene it corrects the picture to what it knows. If it finds a familiar pattern, it sticks to it, regardless of how inappropriate it might be in that landscape or against that background.
2. From the Latin pupilla, "a little doll." When the Romans looked into one another's eyes, they saw a doll-like reflection of themselves. The old Hebrew expression for pupil is similar: eshon ayin, which means "little man of the eye."
3. Because albinos lack a dark layer of cells behind the retina, more light travels around inside their eyes and colors often seem to them quieter and more diluted.
4. Oliver Sachs tells of a sixty-five-year-old artist who survived a car accident only to discover that his color vision had entirely vanished because of a brain injury. Human flesh appeared "rat-colored" to him, and he found food ghastly and inedible without color.
5. From Latin iris, rainbow + essence, becoming. The combination -esc- converts words from a static state to one of motion and process: putrescence, adolescence, luminescence.
6. An alkaloid extracted from henbane and various other plants of the nightshade family, scopalamine has also been used as truth serum. What a perfect cocktail for a cruise: large pupils continuously signaling interest in everyone they see, and a strong urge to be uninhibited and open to persuasion.
7. As Laurens van der Post observed among the Bushmen of the Kalahari, "I saw the reason why poetry, music and the arts are matters of survival -- of life and death to all of us.... The arts are both guardians and makers of this chain; they are charged with maintaining the aboriginal movements in the latest edition of man; they make young and immediate what is first and oldest in the spirit of man."
1. This exercise in semantic gymnastics, so off-putting to the average reader, is utterly unnecessary. To say that the apple is actually every color but red is the result of a choice of categories that could easily be made in the opposite way, i.e., by defining an animal's "reflected" color as its true color, and the non-reflected color as the colors it is not. In fact, since there is no such thing as defining a color by exclusion, i.e., "all colors other than red," and since no creature sees this posited color of "everything but red," the author has created a category without a referent, a meaningless concept that people of good sense intuitively reject.