thinking with pictures – metaphors that let you see the subject from new angles

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Reading the land, reading the people

“It is only with the heart that one can truly see, for what is essential is invisible to the eye.” -Fox to the Little Prince, 1943, Antoine St. Exupery

Early morning, springtime – flag at local cafe in downtown St. Johns, Michigan USA

It can be eye-opening to accompany an outdoors expert and find out how the person reads the visible landscape (signs of life, tracks, plants now in bloom, fruits soon to attract certain creatures, and so on), as well as to read the invisible landscape (what recently took place, or soon will do so). Possibly a shaman would also read another layer of invisibility on the landscape, one filled with meanings, dangers, and opportunities. And a person attuned to historical events and contexts could declare certain places to be a “lieu de memoire” (memory place – national, local, or personal).

By training one can learn to see natural and cultural clues better. By practicing one can establish a discipline of seeing well. One can then go forward with renewed vision for what one encounters and regards to be significant, including the ability to recognize a composition to capture with lens and camera.

Gaining visual power to sense, distinguish (resolving power; granularity of detail), and to increase the depth of vision (from near, middle, to background), and the angle of view (degrees of width and height within one’s mind) in one arena also may translate to habits of mind, heart, and voice for the other arenas, too. In other words, a person well able to read a landscape across time, almost like a crime scene filled with clues but now extending many seasons or even generations of engagement from the livelihood activities or recreational purposes on the terrain, perhaps the same person will also be adept at learning to read people’s life trajectory or even their state of preoccupation at the moment of observation. After all, seeing what presents itself is much more than processing patterns and relationships on one’s retina. It is the habit of interpreting the significance of what is present or what is absent and then connecting the new visual information to one’s store of experiences. Only with the heart can one see was is essential about a person, place, or thing. Developing one’s powers of observation, knowledge base, and experiential pool of interactions with people and places is what separates sensory sight from big or deep vision.


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Giving up illusions, giving up meanings

Scouring the rooms and spaces before moving house.

Scouring the rooms and spaces before moving house.

Having a serious financial or health crisis leads to new frame of reference for navigating daily decisions and life events. The relative importance of things like time, fame, possessions then scales back in the light of one’s experiences of mortality (self or other), or with an imminent demise being averted. Likewise the social death or brush with mortality that comes with leaving one’s home and all the routines, familiar services, and the layers of memories gives a new frame of reference, particularly when the move involves downsizing the accumulated documents, possessions, and half-done projects. This photo is the week running up to the annual curbside bulk removal of all except building supplies (or demolition waste), hazardous materials, and recyclables suitable for the weekly trash service.

Long after growing up and moving away, with children of one’s own, there comes a time when one’s own parents stop archiving the traces of one’s growing up years and rather than discarding things like these bedtime pals of long ago, they leave the disposal moment in the hands of the child who now has become parent. But with sufficient storage areas, such things may be postponed until moving day approaches and a strict selection process of what to keep and what to dispose of begins.

Seeing one’s own memorabilia left on the road edge for the trash men to haul away to landfills is sobering and is reminiscent of the observation about a yard sale or an estate sale in which once cherished things become so much debris for those picking through in search of something salable, strange, or amusing. Sobering reminders of one’s limited time on life’s stage help to make the days one has taste that much sweeter as a result. Even a slow walk through cemeteries of the world, ancient or modern, can give a hint of this way of seeing the world, a view that breaks through the dominant illusion of consumer (advertised) wants and needs.

The oppression of consumer lifeways (I buy therefore I am; I consume therefore I exist – more is better; just discard what is unwanted and buy more) and what Thorstein Veblen called Conspicuous Consumption is not limited to industrial scale, mass production, distribution and consumption. The N.W. native peoples of N. America were noted for competitive giving away gifts to feasted guests in the Potlatch. And the extremity of spectacles of Imperial Rome or extravagances in royal courts all across known history also excite the imagination. More recently the film, Affluenza (portmanteau word for Affluence + Influenza) illustrated the glut of material excess. A little before the film there came archaeologists, whose trade is the material traces of past (and present – see William Rathje, et alia, The Garbage Project), writing Use Less Stuff.