April 27, 2011

Quiet eyes -- from Tom Brown Jr. to Hall and Oates

While Quiet eyes is not in fact a Hall and Oates song it is a strange and seldom talked about trick used by experienced bird watchers. The concept is probably familiar to athletes, skiers, hunters, and animal trackers but it happens so subconsciously that few people acknowledge it. I first learned about the concept of “splatter vision” in Tom Brown Jr.’s book, Tracker. Brown’s idea was that most people miss the story in front of them because they are actually looking too closely. Brown recommends taking in the entire scene at once by relaxing the eyes and employing splatter vision. Through splatter vision the viewer can read the landscape for signs of animal life larger than single footprints. Complete stories unfold as path ways in the grass and scenes of predator and prey in the sand. This type of viewing also lets the peripheral vision develop and the scene becomes wider and brighter.
The Tracker

As it is to trackers, splatter vision or quiet eyes is also helpful to bird watchers. With the migration season underway bird watchers are looking for birds that are smaller, faster, and more numerous and then, as if to mock the birdwatchers, leaves pop out and complicate the issue even further. With a strained neck, and pollen raining down into open eyes the whole scene is made comical by a chorus of noises both avian and (if you find yourself in Mt. Auburn Cemetery) human. What results is a neck-bent and watery-eyed sneezing lurch from tree to tree.

What is lost in this frantic chase is the important fact that warblers are relentlessly active. These tiny drips of yellow are in the midst of a transnational journey and are eating bugs, fruits, flies, and nectar at a voracious rate. Warblers flit through the canopy, bounce from limb to limb and turn over leaves in the understory looking for food. They are in constant movement and movement it turns out is easy to see when standing stationary using quiet eyes.

To achieve quiet eyes or splatter vision simply let the eyes go soft and unfocused and suddenly the tree canopy, an infinitely complicated interlace of leafy crowns is flattened and the eye no longer studies each branch and leaf but instead skims the scene looking for quivers and shakes. The whole landscape turns to a bowl of mint jelly, wind can be seen as waving sheets moving through the branches, bugs and airplanes flying near and far become related as tiny black specs moving in either a smooth or frenetic direction,  and the bounce of warblers in branches stands out.

Using quiet eyes is not natural and takes practice. We are trained to constantly focus and refocus on the near than far. We need to read faces, read street signs, read books, and the tiny keys on our phone, rarely do we relax our eyes and let the world pour in at once and perhaps we should.

1 comment:

Tim Hirzel said...

3 bonus points for making reference to Tom Brown, Hall and Oates, and Mint Jelly in the one excellent post!

Is there splatter hearing too?

Speaking of which, we were hearing many single chirps in the fog overhead the other night. This is all the migrants? Did the fog bring them down close to the ground, or are they always that close? I guess that's a question to test with the clear weather coming this weekend!

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is an educator, bird watcher, and writer fascinated by the intersections of place, people, nature, and culture. He works for Mass Audubon and lives in the heart of Massachusetts. For questions or comments please contact: alexanderjosephdunn@gmail.com

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