No. 49–The Art of Observation

All elements within the collective knowledge of humankind, whether factual or misperceived, are based on the art of observation. Collective knowledge once held the misperception that the sun revolved around the earth till scientific observation proved the opposite. Observing is different from seeing, as in a turn of a phrase, “not being able to see the trees for the forest”.

Many times I’ve witnessed children, on entering the Estuarium, rushing from tank to tank exclaiming “what’s in here – what’s in here – I don’t see anything”! Not every tank has an obvious in-your-face inhabitant. “And you won’t see anything”, I tell them, “till you slow down and take time to observe”. The “O” word often engenders a quizzical stare.

I take great pleasure in adding new words to the vocabulary of children and consider the “O” word the most important one for them to wrap their minds around and put into practice.

Observation is simply attention to detail within a defined field of view. A visual panorama first perceived as a whole is in fact made of multiple elements. Try the following exercise as a demonstration of the principle.

Take a seat on one side of the room and spend a moment scanning the panorama, close one eye, curl the fingers and palm of your hand and hold it to the open eye as you would a small telescope. You are no longer “seeing” the room; instead, as you move your gaze you are able to “observe” the different elements within.

The brain can be trained to focus attention and achieve the same results leaving you free to practice observation with both eyes open. When next able to, scan the panorama of an outdoor setting and take time to note the individual elements. Focus for a time on each, even those in the distance, and note the layered compositional relationships.

Should one of the elements be a tree, walk up to it, observe the color and texture of the bark, watch for the attention catching movement of insects, look for anomalous shapes such as a moth pretending to be tree bark. Take a step back and scan the tree as a whole. Note the shape, color and distribution pattern of the leaves; are there creatures or evidence of them in the branches? What is the nature of the tree to ground interface, is it manicured or natural, is there growth and habitat for small critters or is it largely barren?

The preceding is a condensed example of the act and art of observation which may be practiced anywhere at anytime. And while our broad Lowcountry panoramas may be most pleasing to the eye, it is in the details, as with the tree, that the underlying beauty and mystery are revealed.

A tidal creek on low water offers numerous elements worthy of close observation. The secret is to become motionless as you focus on one small area at a time. Interactions of a number of species may be witnessed in a shallow pool. An exposed creek bank could carry curious tracks that if followed may reveal the maker. If present, fiddler crabs will emerge to go about the business of borough building and feeding while a pair of males, oblivious to your presence, perform kabuki like faints, parries, retreats and stare downs.

Mixed colonies of fouling organisms found on floating docks offer particularly interesting opportunities to observe some intriguing creatures when water movement is at a minimum. The fluffy green and brown filamentary algae are home to tiny amphipods. They may be observed by plucking a small piece and separating the strands with your fingers. Small crabs are found among the hydroids and branching bryozoans (plant like animals). Small translucent shrimp scurry about and seek cover within the colonies.

If one is really into it, some of the most revealing observations are made over time. Port Royal Elementary students involved in an ongoing experimental oyster restoration project have added a new element this year.

Less than 100 yards from the experiment site, the replacement of the old dock at The Sands boat landing this summer has given them the opportunity to observe and record the fouling organism colonization of a pristine surface. They will compile their observations over time and I look forward to presenting them here one day in the future.