It’s easy to think that observing the world around you is a simple natural function, a survival trait inherited from Pleistocene ancestors. Over the years I’ve noticed that there seem to be several modes of observation distinguished by varying degrees of granularity and attention.
Here’s an analogy from the digital imaging world. As the resolution of a digital photo is decreased, blockiness or pixelization becomes evident. The amount of detail, which is equivalent to the amount of information, decreases along with the resolution.
Our attention to detail while observing the world around us varies widely depending upon previous experience and one’s general state of mind. When your mind is abstracted and distracted you don’t perceive much, usually just a blocky low-resolution version of the world. I call this minimal form of perception the Cartoon World. Every scene, object or organism in that blocky world exists as a stripped-down simulacrum of the “real” world, leached of all but the details essential for navigation and survival. This version of the world is crude but functional, and seems to be the pattern used by developers of real estate in this country. Expanses of anonymous green vegetation with smooth vehicular paths winding through them. But who wants to live in an environment which resembles a video game from the ’90s?
Sometimes “running on autopilot” is welcome, such as when driving along a lightly-traveled and familiar road. One part of your mind can dream, reminisce, and speculate while another part monitors the road, looking out for quickly-approaching objects and other anomalies. While taking a walk the penalties for immoderate abstraction are less severe and one’s fancy can be given free reign. Nevertheless, while I’m walking there is always a part of my mind looking out for unusual visual patterns which might signify a plant or other organism which is new to me. Of course, you can’t notice anomalies unless you have a basic knowledge of the creatures which share the landscape with you!
Readers might well welcome a return to experiential accounts rather than idle theorizing. Here’s an example:
The other day, one of those balmy, sunny winter days common in these subtropical latitudes, I was traversing a canyon slope not far from our house on the north edge of Bisbee. I enjoy seeing how the vegetation changes as I make my way up the slope. At about seven thousand feet the manzanita begin to taper off and the piñon pines, alligator junipers, and ocotillos begin to appear among the ubiquitous evergreen oaks. Radial clumps of thorn-tipped agave, sotol, and yucca are scattered between the clumps of short and gnarled trees, but much of the surface is barren, crumbling expanses of decomposed granite and schist which only support plant life during the monsoon season..
I was on a deer and javelina trail when I encountered what seemed to be yet another multi-trunked oak, with widely-extended branches hugging a precious pool of shade. Something didn’t look right, though. The leaves were too long and their color unfamiliar, and the bark of the smaller branches showed curling red patches which reminded me of manzanita bark. Gradually it dawned on me that I was looking at an Arizona Madrone, a species I have mostly seen along creeks and rivers accompanied by sycamores. Later I learned that madrones grow on dry oak-juniper scrub-desert slopes as well as along streams. The stream-side trees are tall and straight, like most conifers, while the desert members of the species grow much like contorted scrub oaks.
Here is a shoot with buds and leaves. The leaf-stalks and branchlets always have some shade of reddish-brown shading into peach tones, a pleasing contrast to the greens of the leaf surfaces.
The bark of the trunks is gray and blocky, resembling the bark of certain oaks, but as the branches ramify and become smaller patches of red and orange appear:
The bark peels and curls just as the bark of the closely-related manzanita does. It’s as if the outer bark conceals vital reddish flesh within:
This arboreal encounter made my day, and as I walked back my mind was filled with speculations. Why is there only one madrone growing on that entire expanse of canyon slope? Were there more at one time? Perhaps the species was favored by firewood-cutters back in the day?
I was almost home when I saw a familiar corner post, a section of telephone pole which someone had laboriously embedded in the rocky slope back when sure-footed cattle risked their lives for what little grass grows here. I stopped and examined the weathered top surface of the pine pole, which was pleasingly illuminated by the afternoon sun. The weathering process, mostly just strong sunlight, had abraded away the softer spring-wood portion of the annual rings, leaving ranks of sharp blades of summer-wood. A pleasant miniature landscape to explore for a while!