Fun with vision enhancement
An April maple, its intricate tangle of latticed branches silhouetted against the sky. Six months of rest, winter-bare—but now, this week, the stark duotone of branch and sky is spangled with glimmers of red: tender, vibrant tree-flowers speckle the crowns of all the maples in these woods. Across the field, this hint-of-red brightens the undulating skyline of the forest. And right here, arcing over the trail, the branches fifteen feet above are likewise bursting forth with brilliant bits of crimson. So celebratory, so alluring—yet just out of reach, a tad too far away to really see. This calls for some Vision Enhancement!
A quick probe into the daypack; aha, yes. There we go. And wow, what an exuberant outpouring it is! Spilling from tiny flaring petals, three or four thin stalks droop downward, each one opening into another miniature flowering knobbule that culminates with a final looping bit of plant-flesh, curving like a cat’s claw—this whole elaborate flaring-forth radiant in the exact same shade of rich red (perhaps just slightly tinged toward salmon), and each of these little flowers tucked in close to several others, all tumbling together in a jumble.
I pan slowly up, past similar clusters of bright blooms scattered throughout the twiggy expanses of the maple here beside me . . . then slip for a few moments into hyper-3D, sliding through the vivid depth of field that’s one of the special joys of playing around with binoculars: slowly fingering the focus knob, dropping ever deeper into the tangle, skipping from flower to flower, branch to branch, each blurry background layer, in turn, coming into sharp relief then gradually softening again into a smudge of diffuse color as the next cluster behind rolls into prominence.
Swimming through the web of the tree this way is other-worldly, and before long, disorienting. I find myself dropping the lens from my eyes, readjusting again to the bigger picture—ah, yes, this tree beside a trail along an edge of the field, ringed by the red-speckled forest canopy shining in the bright sun against a blue sky wisped with high clouds. Now each of those crimson specks has literally come into focus, in delightful detail; the intimate connection that came alive in the lenses ripples across and around this meadow, into the nearby distance of the flowering forest rolling away to the horizon—thanks to these few moments of enhanced visual immersion in the tangle of springtime rebirth right here above me.
I’ve come to enjoy the ways that a few moments with a pair of binoculars can enhance my experience of place, of knowing and appreciating the countless beings whose bodies and interactions combine to become a landscape. Zooming in to explore the details—of a leaf, of the supple dance of meadow grass, of the edges of a cloud passing overhead—enlivens and enriches the ways that I then feel the presence the whole.
Once in a while, I turn to binoculars for their more typical use of getting a better look at an animal in the middle distance. On this day, they came in handy for scanning a flock of turkeys across a sloping field, and to clarify that the creature scuffling about in a hollow was not some sort of weasel, but instead a surprisingly nimble woodchuck (I hadn’t expected they’d be so quick or so long and seemingly slim when scampering through the dry leaves). A couple other times, I pulled them out for altogether optional closer looks at creatures that were very nearby: another woodchuck nibbling green grass just fifteen feet away (filling the field of view, its fur shimmered in the sun and breeze), and a dazzlingly emerald beetle on a stone bench (moving gradually to within three feet, the magnified view revealed its fierce mouth parts, pale off-white, and mesmerizingly huge eyes).
Far more often, though, I find myself pulling out the Visual Enhancement Device just for a bit of perceptual fun: to dip into a patch of woods duff and see what’s there (tiny new green sprouts, perhaps a snail sliding along its way, always an intricate patchwork of color and texture in the leaves and needles); playing with the focal distance to scan from close to far; and very often, getting a better look at the details in trees—on this day, several other early blooms, including a tree draped with flimsy, fuzzy catkins and another one full of Seussian puffballs perched at the ends of tiny branchlets.
The binocs I tend to carry on hikes are compact and light; they sacrifice a bit of power but more than pay that back with the very neat trick of being able to focus in on things as close as 20 inches away, which basically turns them into magnifying glasses—for nearby viewing, they work better than my aging naked eyes. I usually only reach for them once or twice on a hike, if that—though it’s also not all that uncommon that dipping into enhanced vision mode will trigger me toward them more regularly for the duration of that day. Still, the trick—as with photography, another visual-immersion practice—is to not overdo it, and to remember to pause as I put them down again, and take a moment to let whatever detail I’ve been absorbed in to find its place again within the larger context of the landscape I’m moving through. And, as alluded to earlier, to notice that this particular delightful expression of the place is also out there, similarly embodied within the big-picture panorama surrounding me.
Now the late afternoon sun is angling low through the woods, which shine with the soft glow that so often accompanies the end of a rewarding ramble on the land. My pace slows; I’m lingering, delaying the inevitable return to the trailhead less than a hundred yards ahead. The new leaves of a bush catch my eye, brilliant in the gentle sunlight: bright spring green, still unfurling and rimmed with a magenta-red border that I imagine will fade as the chlorophyll kicks fully into gear. So young and fresh and beautiful. . . . And, oh!, just beyond, shimmering in the sun, a perfect spiderweb, perhaps nine inches across, the fuzzy little weaver smack-dab in the center. Surely this calls for a final moment of visual enhancement! And how: with a bit of magnification, the concentric threads reveal a previously invisible wonderland of iridescent colors—rose; magenta; teal; orange-red (subtly speckled in the texture of the silk)—and the shimmering that to the naked eye appeared slightly yellowish-white is now bursting forth with a dusty-gold sheen that flashes and dances around one side of the web.
Some of the iridescent wash of colors (the reds, magentas) match that leaf-fringe that first caught my eye. So of course I spin the focus knob, zeroing in on a leaf here, then again the web behind, and past it to other leaves in the sun, back to linger in the shifting colors of the web as it trembles in a barely-perceptible breeze. A scuffling sound, and—woah, what?!—a brown blur in the background. . . . spin that wheel, and, yowsa!, another woodchuck, head poking up over a dirt slope just behind all the web-and-leaves action. Metal tags crimped to both ears, it stares directly down at me—and at only a few feet away, its adorably fierce face nearly fills my view. I revel in the grace of this grand finale, meandering between groundhog and iridescent web and sun-glowing leaves; at each depth of view, the others blur almost (but not quite) beyond recognition. It’s an alignment of the stars, all here in the couple of yards beside the trail. Dropping the lenses, I breathe with the wonder of the moment. What a world!
This little natural tableau sits among those fields and maples and the beetle and the turkeys, all this sprawling alongside a tidal river here on the northern edge of Casco Bay, the forests rolling away inland also coming alive, twigs bursting forth with flowers, with new leaves, with the promise of summer soon to come. One more time, I lift the glass to my eyes and lose myself in the teal and magenta and orange shimmerings of this modest little spiderweb tucked into a nondescript bush that’s breathing itself alive once again right here in its forever place.