Thursday, August 13, 2009

The invisibility of near objects

I hosed down the live trap and put it away in the shed, and closing the door behind me stood in the near-darkness breathing in the scent of the morning. Dew lay heavy on the grass, and a drone of crickets and katydids rose and fell with a lulling cadence like breakers on a far shore. In the west clouds roiled and churned, smoky and pale with an embered moon smoldering within. To the east only a faint glow to herald a distant dawn.

As I made my way back to the house, I cut between the garden and the raised bed. Something had been eating our tomatoes and melons, hollowing out the fruit much as a human would, and I wondered if a friend was correct when she suggested turtles as a possible culprit. I’d never seen a turtle in the yard and doubted one could clamber atop the hay bales where the tomatoes are planted, but stranger things have occurred. I thought of the desert tortoises in my parents’ yard and how we used to feed them tomato worms, and then I saw something dark and rounded at my feet.

I stopped and stared at it, trying to make out its shape. It was half-concealed by the broad fronds of squash and zucchini plants, partially balanced on the low rim of the raised bed. My mind’s eye traced the smooth carapace of a terrapin, the short scrambling legs, and I imagined its beak-like mouth raking out huge chunks of our precious homegrown veggies. Stooping lower, I parted a frond to confront the malefactor.

The turtle shape morphed into an enormous cudgel of dark-skinned zucchini, easily 15 inches in length.

How we missed it was anyone’s guess, but it wasn’t the first time such a monster had eluded us. Just last week Lori hauled out a prodigious zucchini that was so heavy it had carved a groove into the grass. Considering that we water every morning and often inspect the garden in late afternoon, it seemed impossible for two observant people to have overlooked them. It’s not as if they’re camouflaged or anything. Nor is our garden overly large.

Rather than pluck it then, I decided to return later to see how noticeable it was in the light of day. As it turned out, it was glaringly, ridiculously obvious.

Perception—how we see the world—is a tricky thing. Light and humidity can play games with vision, turning, as happened to me, a black-billed magpie into a yellow-billed magpie, or an indigo bunting into a lark bunting. We’ve all seen shimmering mirages rising from heat-soaked lowlands, inland oceans conjured from nothing more than refracted light. But missing a zucchini of such size seemed impossible unless we were deliberately diverting our sight. And that clearly wasn’t the case.

Sometimes we see what is not there, and sometimes what is there we do not see. Not long ago I posted a photograph on my Web site of a bluebird perched atop the handlebars of an old rusty bike. A fellow writer from the Gulf, Linda Leinen, wrote about the image on her blog, “The Task at Hand.” The bicycle reminded her of one she rode as a child, but on repeated viewing she was shocked at something she’d missed.

“As I often do with images I enjoy,” Linda wrote, “I went back to look at the photo again, and then two times more. When I returned to look at it a fourth time, I was utterly astonished. There, on top of the bicycle handlebars, was a bluebird. After a moment of disorientation – when had the bird flown in? how did I miss it? surely it wasn’t there before - I succumbed to simple amusement. Obviously Tom had added the bluebird to his bicycle with a little creative photoshopping, perhaps intending to determine who really was looking at his photos. I left a comment – an inquiry about the bird – and received a response. The bird had been there from the beginning. I simply hadn’t seen it.”

Whether from inattention, response to preconceptions, experience, memory triggers or other factors of which we might never fully understand, the fact is we are often as blind as bats.

The older I get, the more I want to blame this phenomenon on reading glasses, or the lack thereof. At an art show several years ago I spotted an Anthony Gude oil painting of a country road bordered on one side with towering cottonwoods lit by a westering sun and on the opposite side low rounded hills receding into the distance. To say the image spoke to me is to do it a disservice; it screamed, it shouted, it shrieked. In a daze I was pulled across the room until I stood before it, my eyes roving every dab of paint, every nuance of light perfectly captured in the drooping leaves, the gentle slopes, the curve of the road as it disappeared around a bend. So real was the painting that I could smell the dust rising from the road and hear a soft hum of cicadas in the trees.

I glanced at the price tag.

“I’m buying this,” I told Lori. “It’s mine.”

“Put your glasses on,” she said, in that matter-of-fact tone wives inflict on obtuse husbands.

Not a little annoyed—after all, how do you put a price on art that resonates so vividly?—I slipped on my spectacles and reread the tag. As if magicked into being, an extra zero had affixed itself to the figure.

For a long moment I said nothing. My eyes registered the additional zero but I had to wait for my brain to catch up.

“Oh,” I said.

When I showed Lori the zucchini, she just laughed and shook her head.

“They turn invisible,” she said.

It was as good an explanation as any.

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