“An Eye Made Quiet”: My Exercise in Co-Phenomenology at Summer’s End

While with an eye made quiet by the power

Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,

We see into the life of things.

William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a few Miles above Tintern Abbey”

Between series of posts on vertiginous questions, I am including “respites” that are less heavy philosophically, and more creative and literary: pieces like poems, aphorisms, personal narratives, and fictional short stories, which may or may not be connected to the questions. There will still be some philosophy, of course: it is inextricable from my nature. Enjoy!

McCormick Park. September 22, 2019. Approximately 4 pm.

I am walking down the wide gravel path that rims the oak woodland: notebook in one hand, green smoothie in the other. I recall my last visit in April, and with disappointment look upon the withering effects of a California summer: the verdance of spring replaced by sun-baked, dull-yellow grass and balding oaks. Too many signs of the invasive human species are visible in the background, thanks to the lost foliage: xenophobic fences, hideous powerlines, the loud-red adobe roofs of suburbia.

Then the faint sound of my daughter’s voice enters my awareness from behind. She is sprinting down the path, a purple, raspberry-strawberry-blueberry smoothie in hand. She says she wants to join me, that she is fleeing the play area where my wife is completing homework and a particularly persistent yellowjacket is coveting her smoothie. I hesitate, having anticipated moments of solitude when I could practice phenomenology: a disciplined examination of my experience, a kind of mindfulness. But then I realize the virtue of a collaboration with my daughter, an exercise in what might be called “co-phenomenology.” She is very observant, articulate, and boasts a masterful memory, so I believe she will be an excellent companion in this endeavor.

We march off the gravel path, into the woodland. My daughter (let’s call her “B”) comments on the “crunch of dried, dead leaves beneath our feet.” The skinny dirt trail winds near two teenage girls sharing a hammock, laptops in laps, groovy music audible within twenty feet or so. B thought they were “one old man” at first (I think she even told them that!). The trail descends steeply, gnarly oaken sentinels on either side. I hold B’s hand to keep her from slipping on her traction-less shoes. We search for a shady, relatively comfy place to sit and observe. The retro side of me is proud of using “groovy” and “gnarly” in the same paragraph.

The trail flattens. We encounter an assembly of boulders near the edge of a large meadow. We leave our smoothies and other belongings (except my notebook) on the dry grass nearby and clamber onto a particularly sit-able boulder. B christens it the “Thinking Rock.” I approve.

I ask us to spend a minute or two in silence. The immediate honk of a car horn in the distance strikes me as ironic, and shatters the contemplative mood for a second. I’m finding sights and sounds to be much more salient than smells or tastes or feels. Also, the external is more readily noted than the internal.

There is a cracking of branches behind us—squirrel? Bird? Then the approaching buzz of a mountain bike. The rider sports very serious cycling attire, with a neon-yellow or neon-green stripe, I think. The buzzing fades as the bike swings to our left, out of view. An echo-y bark of a dog punctures the still air, four or five times: “RUH!…RUH!” Is there a more legitimate adjective than “echo-y,” I wonder? Maybe “resounding,” or simply “echoing.” But damn it, I like “echo-y” and I’m going to keep it!

I lean back and gaze upward, squinting. The bright white sunlight is igniting the array of cloud-puffs without bursting through completely. The cotton-ball clouds float behind the fractal silhouettes of trees on a sea of penetrating blue.

Our minute or two of silence has ended. I ask B what she observed. She mentions “the rustling of oak trees next to a graveyard of fallen oaks.” That’s some great imagery, I say. She points out a circular stone structure far away, which she guesses is a well, and a “burnt-brown” lizard camouflaged on the corpse of a tree. The lizard does a few push-ups to show off. B also recalls the “sk-sk-sk of Anna’s hummingbirds” in the canopy above us. Hummingbirds would make great ASMRtists, I think.

The mountain bike buzzes by us, again. A sense of déjà vu creeps over me. Glitch in the Matrix, perhaps?

Around us is a chorus—or cacophony, really—of three or four kinds of birds. There’s the “ee-ee” of one bird, as B aptly puts it. There’s the “wwwang!” of another, I add. I am frustrated trying to capture bird calls with clunky human phonemes.

B points to sunglasses on the grass, with yellow-tinted, Elton-John lenses. We wonder about the fate of their former wearer. Evaporation in the summer heat? Alien abduction? Premillennialist rapture?

I ask to notice what we feel. There’s the warm stillness of the air, slightly humid. The roughness of granite beneath our hands. B describes the “scratchy-soft” moss on our Thinking Rock and the pleasant softness of her t-shirt. I notice heat and sweat on my forehead and legs, and the slight pressure of rock against my rump.

The biker zips by for a third time! This time he waves. Apparently we’ve become a fixture here.

Let’s focus on smells and tastes, I say. B and I shut our eyes and breathe in deeply. Fresh, wild, grassy air fills my nose and lungs. I detect the sweet aftertaste of my kale-apple-pineapple smoothie. I feel tasteless saliva slosh around in my mouth. And I’m struck by the limitations of these two senses, the relative paucity of information they deliver to humans (on a conscious level, at least). I wonder what riches they bestow on other animals, other experiencers on our planet. I wonder what it is like to be a coyote sniffing in the meadow, or a hummingbird slurping up nectar…

B is frowning and swatting at a gang of bugs circling her head. I am suddenly aware of a stinging pressure in my right foot, indicating a lack of circulation. A sense of time’s passage is weighing on me, too. I had told my wife I would be gone for a half hour, but in this immersive observation and reflection, I haven’t been eyeing my phone. It is still adrift on the grass, off the coast of our rocky island.

B pounces down with grace; me, a little less so. I consult my timekeeper: it’s 4:46. Oops! I call my wife apologetically and let her know that coyotes haven’t consumed us. B and I begin our return journey up the steep trail. B comments on “the sudden slip of loose rocks” beneath her feet. I point to the “bullet holes” of a sharpshooting woodpecker on a stump in the distance. More signs of humanity are appearing again: B sees “a stump that looks like an alien dog from a different universe, but is actually a fire hydrant.” I promise her I will include that wonderfully strange statement in my record of our adventures.

Right as we merge onto the wide gravel path, we notice red graffiti sprayed on a concrete culvert. Surprisingly, it’s inspirational: “There is more to Life! Find a purpose.” B reads it the first time as: “There is more to Life! Find a person.” We decide that’s profound, too.

Soon we are approaching my wife, who is perched on a rock and peering intently at her laptop screen, like a red-tailed hawk staring at its prey. On a rock beside her, B’s white tiger stuffed animal is keeping watch for any hangry yellowjackets. My wife looks up, squints at the descending sun behind us, and gives a big smile. 

She is my person. The person I found.

As we walk back to the car, I survey the park once again. The grass is gold-spun in the afternoon light; the shed oak leaves are tokens of the year’s maturation, heralds of Sagacious Autumn. The powerlines in the background stretch like web-strands over red adobe burrows, where curious bipeds, every now and then, reflect on their place in the cosmos.

As for me, I am reflecting on the dizzying wealth of knowledge, insight, and beauty encapsulated in a single hour of experience. An entire library could not contain it, much less this meager record before you. I’m remembering a certain Ireneo Funes, the protagonist of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges (“Funes el memorioso”), whose “percepción y […] memoria eran infalibles.” The narrator goes on to give some examples of Funes’ godlike abilities, here translated into English:

We, at one glance, can perceive three glasses on a table; Funes, all the leaves and tendrils and fruit that make up a grape vine. He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on the 30th of April, 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book with Spanish binding he had only seen once and with the outlines of the foam raised by an oar in the Río Negro the night before the Quebracho uprising.

Jorge Luis Borges, “Funes el memorioso” (Trans. James E. Irby)

What an intolerable curse, but also a supreme blessing, to absorb and retain the nearly infinite details overlooked or forgotten by us typical mortals! Such an extreme is unattainable and probably undesirable. But there is truly more to Life for those who take more than a first or second glance at it—for those who learn to have, as William Wordsworth wrote, “an eye made quiet.”


See my wife’s website, “The Naturalist Next Door,” including a blog and podcast, at https://bethydixon.wixsite.com/photos.

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Published by Eric Cates

Inquire, love, create: the mantra of my existence.

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