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This Issue: Sitting Still to See

One of my primary reasons for subscribing to The New York Times is Verlyn Klinkenborg's column, The Rural Life. Though his short essays appear only occasionally, I look for them every day—as if I were checking the mailbox for a letter from a friend. They are, after all, like a good conversation, food for thought.

Klinkenborg writes most often from his farm in upstate New York, where he keeps horses and mends fences and goes out to watch and listen and breathe the open air. In fewer than 500 words, he conjures up a sense of his place and what he's doing, what he's noticed, and how his observations have shaped his thinking.

What Klinkenborg renders in The Rural Life is akin to what writers, photographers, and artists offer in our Sense of Place photo and literary essays. Now, as you sit down to converse with the contributors to this fourth annual Sense of Place issue, consider a couple of thoughts gleaned from The Rural Life:

In his essay called "What the Land Says," Klinkenborg writes: "I value the land for its silence, its freedom from language. … After a dozen years on this farm, I can name most of the plants and nearly all the birds. But what's the word for the wake the pileated woodpecker leaves as it dips, flying across the pasture? How can I imagine that land speaks in a language when I'm surrounded by animals whose wordless attention is at least as great as mine?"

In another essay, "Really Looking," Klinkenborg observes: "Again and again, I find myself trying to really look at what I'm seeing. It happened the other afternoon, high on a nearby mountain. A dragonfly had settled on the denuded tip of a pine bough. It clung, still as only a dragonfly can be. Then it flicked upward and caught a midge and settled on the bough again, adjusting precisely into the wind. I see the dragonflies quivering through the insect clouds above my pasture, too. I always notice that there's no such thing as really looking.

"What I want to be seeing is invisible anyway: the prehistoric depth of time embodied in the form of those dragonflies, the pressure of life itself, the web of relations that bind us all together. I find myself trying to witness the moment when the accident of life becomes a continued purpose. But this is a small farm, and, being human, I keep coming up against the limits of what a human can see."

Every observer bumps up against those limits. One late September Sunday, I walked alone in a forest and came to a small lake. An overturned aluminum boat and a portable dock were the only signs of human visitors. Standing on the muddy shore, I began to notice things—raccoon tracks and empty snail and mussel shells, water striders skittering on the lake surface, a turtle poking its nose up against a lily pad.

I stepped onto the dock, scanned the far shore, and deciphered the shapes of Canada geese and a pair of swans, which I presumed to be trumpeters. OK, I thought, I might as well stay a while and see what else I might see. So I sat down atop the boat, took out my binoculars, and watched. A bald eagle called and soared with its talons outstretched, then disappeared into the woods. After a while, an eagle's call resounded, and a pair of eagles flew out of the woods and settled side by side on the uppermost branch of a dead tree directly across the water from where I sat. To my left, two feet away, a sandpiper nonchalantly poked around in the shallows. To my right, in the distance, swam a grebe-shaped bird.

After perhaps an hour, I got up to leave. My vision seemed blurry. I took off my glasses to rub my eyes and saw that the lenses had been smudged, apparently by my eyelashes pressing against them as I pushed into my binoculars—trying to really see.

Kathleen Weflen, editor

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