Lance Mannion at Fox Island, outside Fort Wayne, Indiana, a hundred years ago.
When we lived in Indiana, because, once you got out of town, there was nothing much to look at in the distance but more distance, I developed the habit of looking in close. This was when I started stocking up on guide books, learning the names of birds and trees and wildflowers, and wandering about with binoculars, which, I know, are a tool for looking into the distance, but I mostly pointed them at nearby bushes and up into trees I was standing at the base of and overhead telephone wires and the far banks of streams I could practically step across. Our apartment in Fort Wayne was at the edge of the city and it was a short walk out of the urban into the suburban and then into the country and farmland, which, in that part of Indiana, is usually just another word for cornfield. The landscape wasn’t as flat as I liked to complain it was but to eyes trained by a boyhood and youth spent in the Mohawk Valley of Upstate New York, with summers in the Adirondack Mountains and along the Atlantic seashore, it was…undramatic. I wouldn’t get very far in my walks before I was bored with the view and ready to turn around and head home.
There just is no here here, I thought, with apologies to Oakland and Gertrude Stein.
I don’t remember when it dawned on me that although the landscape might be featureless it was not lifeless and I might find my walks more interesting if I started looking at that life.
I said this was when I started learning the names of birds and trees and wildflowers. But what really happened is that I started to see birds and trees and wildflowers.
When you are standing on top of hill, looking out over the treetops of a woods that fills the valley below, it seems enough to know that those trees are maples. But when you are standing next to a tree you have to make adjustments in your thinking, your remembering, and your seeing, that is if you’re confronted with the fact that this tree is a maple too but it’s a silver maple and those trees you grew up taking for granted were sugar maples and there’s a difference. There are differences. The leaves aren’t quite the same shape. The bark has a different texture, a slightly different color. And if you are standing under a silver maple you are probably standing on what used to be a farm. Farmers planted them or left them standing in their fields as shade trees. Oh, and sugar maples are hardier. You don’t want a silver maple in your yard. They have a tendency to rot from within. What looks like a sturdy old tree that could stand up to a winter gale might be as hollow as a drain pipe and ready to snap in a spring breeze and come crashing down on your house.
Similarly, I learned that what I took for flocks of blackbirds---as in birds that happened to have black feathers---were flocks of red-winged blackbirds and starlings and grackles and cowbirds, which aren’t even black but brown, the females, at any rate, males are brown-headed, and that every yellow flower in the grass that wasn’t a dandelion wasn’t a buttercup either.
These discoveries were thrilling, but since regret seems to be one of my default emotions, they also had me kicking myself. Why hadn’t I seen any of this before? How could I have been so oblivious? How had I gotten so far in life without knowing that all of this was right in front of my eyes, if only I’d bothered to look?
It wasn’t Indiana that was boring, it was that I was boring myself.
Maybe I was a little harsh. What it was, likely, was that growing up where there were bends in every road and hills on the horizons, I’d learned to be on the lookout for what was around the bend or over the hill, which was usually another bend or another hill. I took it for granted that over there was very different from right here and, intrigued, was in a hurry to get over there to see. It didn’t occur to me that here might be an interesting place to explore.
In Indiana, here and there were pretty much the same place.
Roger Ebert grew up in Illinois, which has even more here and less there than Indiana, so he learned to look at here up close early, mostly while on his knees or stretched out on his stomach in the grass, peering at things---squirming things, swimming things, wriggling things, hopping things, slithering things---that would go unnoticed unless you got your nose right down next to them.
In my grandmother's back yard, I spent long periods frozen in immobility, a salt shaker clutched in my hand. My Uncle Bob had treacherously told me that if I could shake salt on the tail of a Robin Redbreast, I could catch it. This kept me out of his hair. There were robins everywhere, hopping on the grass, cocking their heads to the side, listening for the slithering sound that might betray a worm. I haven't seen a robin in a long time. I suppose there must be about as many around today, but my life isn't calibrated to see them…
On your knees or your stomach, the world revealed a hidden population. One day at Dougie Pierre's house, we climbed under the bridge over the Boneyard Creek to catch crawdaddies. We did catch a couple, using a kitchen sieve, and kept them in a Mason jar full of water, where I suppose they must still be. I had waded in the Boney a dozen times and never seen a crawdaddy. After I saw them, I waded no more. They're always up to something.
If you’re in the habit of thinking of Ebert as a movie critic, you should make a point of reading his blog where you will learn to think of him a writer who happens to write a lot about movies. This post, A natural history, is a good one to start with. But it’s about more than robins, snakes, tomato bugs, and crawdaddies, so be sure to follow the link at the end.