Making the Landscape Move through You

One day when I was in college, I drove my older brother around in a car. He was (and is still, for all I know) a skilled photographer. As he took pictures, I remarked again and again, “Why are you wasting film on that?” His answer was that what seems mundane to me may be fascinating to a photographer. “A photographer views his world differently,” he said. I didn’t really understand him.

Fast forward to about ten years ago. My eyesight was terrible. I had had two surgeries to repair a detached retina in my left eye. The result was that the vision from my left eye was blurry and far more nearsighted than my right. Given that my vision in my right eye was something like 20/400 this was a significant problem. To make matters worse, my post-surgery vision while passable was also severely deficient in depth perception. (Before the retina detachment, while wearing my glasses, I could see well enough to hit medium speed pitches at the local batting cages. After, I couldn’t put the bat on the ball if my life depended on it. Was I low, high, early, late? I just could not tell.)

Then I got lucky. I got cataracts.

Before the surgery my lenses were cloudy. This made it very hard to see at night and put a yellowish tinge on everything I saw. The surgery (which takes ten minutes per eye under light sedation) involves removing your lens (one eye at a time) and replacing it with a man-made lens. Since your lens is being replaced, you can replace it with a lens of a different power. So a more powerful corrective lens went in my bad, left eye than the lens lens that went into my right eye. The result was literally awesome.

(Digression: my father was an ophthalmologist. Often when walking in a shopping mall or other public place, someone would walk up to him and thank him profusely. I thought these people were bonkers, but now I had a first hand understanding of where they were coming from.)

The replacement lenses got me to 20/100 or so in both eyes so I still wear glasses, but my fully corrected vision is, well, eye opening.

One day, after getting my new glasses, I was standing in the opening to my shed facing the yard. A passing shower was dropping rain on my back yard but half the sky was clear allowing the evening sun to strike the raindrops at an angle. My new eyes saw these raindrops as shining silver droplets; they seemed like tinsel falling through the air. I had never seen anything like it.

Normally, when we move through a landscape we focus broadly. We see everything as a whole. We correctly perceive ourselves passing through the landscape as things we see leave our focus and move behind us.

Lately while riding my bike I’ve started playing with how my eyes focus on the world I am passing through. I pick out an object like an tree limb overhanging the trail and focus my attention on it. This causes the limb to take on a separate place in the visual field, not unlike the 3-D effect of a Viewmaster. The rest of my visual field is slightly out of focus. I notice that when I do this eye trick as I ride, it seems like the landscape is moving and I am staying still. As if, the landscape is moving through me.

My commute is really beautiful, but I have ridden the Mount Vernon Trail to and from DC several thousand times. I can practically ride it with my eyes closed. Now, however, my little perception experiment is opening my eyes to an entirely different perspective.

I can’t help but wonder if I would have been able to pull off this visual stunt with normal, healthy eyes.