Wednesday, 28 October 2009


"Lens", as the word is commonly used, has to do with vision. It has been adopted as a metaphor for interpretation of what we look at (ie. looking at something--a landscape, a piece of art, a text we're reading or an interaction with another person--through a certain lens).

Today my Wild East and Beyond class took a trip to Orford Ness, a shingle (rock) spit (formation, like a barrier island) off the eastern coast of England and a very, very short boat ride from a town called Orford.

The ness, or the island as it's known locally, is a national nature reserve managed by the National Trust. It has not always been a nature reserve, though. For several decades, through the first, second and cold wars, it was a Ministry of Defense research and test site. Investigations into the use of radar, planes as weapons, and bombs were conducted. In the visitor's information center, which has several rooms worth of information in the form of posters, is a decommissioned atomic bomb. ****

Tidbits: Orford has been described as a medieval new town, commissioned by Henry II. Ness means nose. The spit is the largest vegetated single spit in Europe, is important to migrating birds, and it has sheep (five varieties) and hares on it.

We were very lucky to have tour fantastic tour guides for this adventure, Duncan, of the National Trust, and Robert Macfarlane, author and lover of the outdoors. There were plenty of cautions given in getting there. Duncan warned us not to believe what we hear about it. Rob warned us about the challenges of interpreting what we would see as we walked around. No single lens, he said, works for all of Orford, meaning that it's a complicated, multipurposed and repurposed landscape that requires the application of a range of knowledge if one is to be able to understand what one sees there. The range of knowledge one might pull from includes (but is by no means limited to) geography; geology; ecology; zoology; history; military history, machinery, technology, and terminology; land/nature management; geomorphology, oceanography (including knowledge of currents, tides and waves); botony; architecture; chemistry; ornithology; and physics.

My first thought was thank goodness the brain can manage or apply multiple lenses at a time. The more "lenses" we have at our disposal, the more we can "see" into or take away from our experiences. Our lenses are created and sharpened by our knowledge. The more we know, the more we can recognize, the more we can talk about. For writers, I think these two abilities--to recognize something and then communicate it--are especially important.

My second thought was that no one lens is capable of fully explaining anything and how exciting it is that there are these lenses, potentially a limitless number of them and likewise limitless combinations of them, and that as a result there's a limitless number of ways we can experience something. That's why two people looking at the same thing can come away with different ideas, different feelings, having taken note of different things. That's why I can listen a song today that I heard five years ago and hear a different a story in it or finally understand what the singer was singing about.

There's a trend in academia (an understandable one) to dismantle vision or understanding or knowledge into separate lenses. In theory, this happened so that the lenses could be further developed and sharpened. A discipline establishes itself as separate from others by creating a distance, by saying, this is what we'll study and what we won't study and these are the tools we'll use to study them and this is how we're different from that. A result of this separating is that it has created silos of knowledge. These silos are then subdivided with specialties and sub-specialties. A danger, and a very real consequence, of this siloing-off of knowledge is that the silos, the lenses, stop working together and the flow of knowledge is stymied.

I think literature has been known to build bridges between silos. A historical novel, for example, borrows from the history silo. The science fiction genre incorporates in its title a mixing. Poetry can borrow from any number of things in an effort to achieve an exactitude or preciseness in its language. I think precision is a key issue. As a writer, ones medium is words. Words have weight, they carry definitions, connotations, histories. The more precise one's language, in theory, the more successful one can be at communicating. The more lenses a writer has at his disposal, the more he'll see, the larger his knowledge, the larger his vocabulary, the better he'll be at talking about it.

In Rob's book, The Wild Places, he frequently combines lenses, and builds bridges to these siloed areas of knowledge. Indeed, this breakdown of silos, a reestablishing of a connection or communication between disciplines, is one of the most exciting characteristics of his book and other books we're reading and I think it acknowledges that no one lens on its own is up to the task of providing a holistic view of nature (environment, landscape, the natural world, earth, etc.). He employs the knowledge or language from non-literary fields to explain, to convey, the share, the recreate his experience in literary form. He borrows from optometry when he describing how one's eyes adapt to darkness, from geology when he talks about rocks, from zoology and ornithology when he talks about animal species he encounters, and from history and anthropology when he talks about people and land use. It's a functional use of different disciplines. In a text which has the goal of locating and visiting remote and wild places and then sharing about those places in a way which people can be pulled into and relate to, in writing for a general audience, the more lenses he uses, the more he can say, the more he can see, the more he can share and provide avenues for people, diverse in their interests, to come into and relate to the text. I think there's also something to be said for site specific language. In describing a mountain, one can describe a specific mountain, talking about how it was formed, how old it is, what vegetation and wildlife if any exists on it. It makes it more concrete, more exact. One could argue that some of the types of knowledge he employs are more accessible to the common reader than others and so some lenses or lens combinations that he asks us to try on are more successful than others. But, without a question, this text invites the reader to stretch his knowledge, to try on these different lenses and see new possibilities in these landscapes, much in the same way that the experience of these adventures makes Rob see his own local space in a new way--discovering wilderness in a local sense.

In dealing with a literature that dips into a variety of silos, I find myself wanting to visit those silos and sharpen those lenses which I'm asked to try on so that I can actively take part in the words I'm reading. It's hard not to stop every few pages in The Wild Place and look something up. It makes it difficult to treat this book as a complete, self-contained text and makes me question how much explaining and educating, how much training of the eye/development of the lense an author must do to bring the audience up to speed with the precision of the language that he's using. I suppose the simple answer is as much as it takes.

One of the tasks we've been charged with in this module and the course is to develop a critical vocabulary/terminology for it and to try and label it. It's an interesting mental exercise. As thinking about it as lenses, how many can we successful apply? Each book differs. Some, like The Wild Places, are broad in terms of their scope and consider all aspects of nature, and some are much more specific, like The Peregrine which is about a bird and it looks at the rest of nature through that lens.

How do we define this literature: psychogeography, travel writing, new nature writing? How do we describe to our friends and family what we're reading and what we're writing? What other pieces of terminology can we use, create or borrow to speak generally and critically about it. I'm not sure yet, but we're working on it.The Great Light. The Orford Ness Lighthouses.

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