Sunday, March 05, 2006

`The Pleasure of Looking'

A month ago, at the suggestion of a rock-collecting editor for whom I sometimes work, we drove north to Lake Livingston to hunt for stones and petrified wood along its shore. My 5-year-old has reached the enviable stage in a little boy’s life when science has more to do with looking and finding than knowing. Science, for him, is three parts wonder to one part greed.

A dam cracked during one of last year’s hurricanes and the level of the lake has dropped, exposing banks and beaches. Within two minutes of our arrival, I found a hide scraper fashioned centuries ago from shiny, honey-colored stone. It was lying on the sandy mud, like an exclamation point without the period. I showed it to a fisherman who showed me a perfect arrowhead he had just discovered along the water’s edge. He lives nearby and over the years, without actively looking, has collected spear points, arrowheads and shards of pottery.

For two hours, the four of us moved slowly along the beach, foraging for anything anomalously rare and unusual. We found petrified wood and 15 pounds of pretty, lake-smoothed stones but no more Indian relicts. I have never gone hunting and probably never will but I understand the heightened sense of vigilance and the honing of the senses that must accompany the tracking of game. It lends my mind a clarity and purpose it seldom otherwise possesses.

One of Guy Davenport’s loveliest and most personal essays is “Finding,” collected in The Geography of the Imagination. It describes his family’s weekend outings “to look for Indian arrows,” as they called it. This was in southern South Carolina and northern Georgia, in the 1930s and 1940s. “We were a foraging family,” he writes, “completely unaware of our passion for getting at things hard to find. I collected stamps, buttons, the cards that came with chewing gum, and other detritus, but these were private affairs with nothing of the authority of looking for Indian arrowheads.”

Davenport captures the heightened awareness that accompanies purposeful looking: “What lives brightest in the memory of these outings is a Thoreauvian feeling of looking at things – earth, plants, rocks, textures, animal tracks, all the secret places of the out-of-doors that seem never to have been looked at before, a hidden patch of moss with a Dutchman’s Breeches stoutly in its midst, aromatic stands of rabbit tobacco, beggar’s lice, lizards, the inevitable mute snake, always just leaving as you come upon him, hawks, buzzards, abandoned orchards rich in apples, peaches or plums.

``Thoreauvian, because these outings, I was to discover, were very like his daily walks, with a purpose that covered the whole enterprise but was not serious enough to make the walk a chore or a duty. Thoreau, too, was an Indian-arrowhead collector, if collector is the word. Once we had found our Indian things, we put them in a big box and rarely looked at them. Some men came from the Smithsonian and were given what they chose, and sometimes a scout troop borrowed some for a display at the county fair. Our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.”

That’s it -- ``the search was the thing.” My hide scraper sits in a ceramic bowl with some of the red stones we found at Lake Livingston, collecting dust. I hardly look at it. For me, the pleasure was in the concentrated sense of looking, briefly interrupted by mere finding. Thoreau, the least acquisitive of Americans, understood this, as have Davenport and others – Darwin and Ruskin come to mind. “The pleasure of looking.”

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