Oh September light! From now until the dreary dark of November there’s the most beautiful ache in the air.
This phrase from a poem I can’t remember: “…back to my careless senses…” Care-less senses? Easy, unthinking senses. And that word back. Back to where exactly?..
I experience plants mostly through my eyes. For example these past few weeks goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) kept calling to me, shouting really, into my eyes, “Us! Right here! In the ditch, a whole phalanx of us. Or here beside the river: our curling-over fronds, our holding of the light. Look at our yellowy gold! Streams of us, lakes of us, islands of us.”
I am always wondering what is this plant, or that one? There are the leaves: fern-like, or succulent, lobed or oval, smooth edged or toothed, opposite or alternating… The leaves help with identification. But the best way to know who is standing there in the ditch is to see the flower: its colour, shape and size. Once you know a plant, you know it. That is, mostly…hopefully.
But that doesn’t come close to capturing the experience of looking closely at a plant, sharp edged in the bright air, the uncanny sense that the plant is looking back at you, not exactly looking, more like reflecting itself back at you, aware somehow of your gaze.
The other morning my dog Sierra and I strolled along the river. I shut my eyes and tried to walk sightless: sharp dune grass on the left, river on the right, tide coming in. I slowed to a creep, bare feet groping along the sand, wary of empty crab shells, what my grandsons and I call “crunchers” for the satisfying sound when you stomp on them. I tried to get back to my careless senses, sans sight. Hard cool sand, spongy over the seaweed, screech of a tern as it slanted down the wind, wind that pushed softly on my body, riffled up little waves at the river’s edge. I heard those waves, felt that wind. Another step, and another, but it was too hard to go on; I opened my eyes. Sierra’s white muzzled face in the dune grass. I saw her seeing me.
Perception and the problem with words
But sight’s just the beginning of experiencing a plant; there’s perception. In order to perceive plants it is better to be alone because you have to be quiet. It’s hard to perceive anything in the midst of cognitive dissonance (i.e. conversation). Plus sometimes senses overlap and you need to feel the fineness of that. There were those tiny wild apples by the side of the road, for example. I picked one and bit a chunk. My eyes had said that this small reddish orb with its brown warts was a regular wild apple; my tongue said so too at first, but then the sharp bitterness of crab apple crept in. Where are the words for taste?
That’s the problem with writing about the senses—words! A friend and I were out walking in a meadow a few days ago and I asked her to give me a word for the sound of the crickets all around us. There’s chrrrr, I said, but that’s not right. She suggested reeeeeeee. But that doesn’t capture the pumping communal rhythm of crickets, the vibration, the serrated edge of their wing song…
When it comes to describing sensory experience, words are just plain inadequate!