Learning to See from Thoreau

by Richard Higgins, author of Thoreau and the Language of Trees

I once sat in an old barn to soak up the quiet before heading in the woods. A rusty iron hay rake hung from the rafters, and light poured through warped boards. One minute turned into three, then five. As I sat motionless, the swallows that scattered when I entered slowly returned. Soon dozens of them were pecking ever closer to my feet, oblivious to me. I was enjoying my sudden intimacy with nature when the devil whispered in my ear, “Hey Saint Francis, what about a photo?” My camera was next to me. I thought if I could just slide my hand out and drag it to me ever so slowly, the birds would be none the wiser. I moved a finger to start—and every single bird flew off as if I had yelled “OK everybody, say cheese!”

For much the same reason, I used to wonder if carrying a camera in the woods ruined the purpose of a walk. Was I out to experience the beauty of trees or to shoot them? Thoreau helped me shed that ambivalence.

We only truly see, he said, when we look. “The scarlet oak must, in a sense, be in your eye when you go forth,” he wrote in “Autumnal Tints.” “We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads.” Even the hunter “must take very particular aim, and know what he is aiming at….So it is with him that shoots at beauty.” He may wait all day but won’t bag it “if he does not already know its seasons and haunts, and the color of its wing—if he has not dreamed of it.” When he has, “he flushes it at every step.”

Thoreau knew what he was aiming at and was always ready to see it. His eye was sharp, but, more important, his soul was able to appreciate beauty. That was the inner “film” that let him receive its impression. “There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate—not a grain more.” Seeing a beautiful tree isn’t about capturing anything, but about wanting to see it and letting it in. Ansell Adams, who saw the world much like Thoreau did, agreed. You don’t take a photo of nature, he said. You make one with it.

I think that, over the years, taking a camera into the woods has actually increased my desire to see the miraculous things nature presents and made me more inclined to notice the expressions, character and beauty of trees.

One tree that I see might remind me of others I have known or photographed for this book—Big Guy, Doubletree, Hutchins Oak, Soldier Pine, Davis Elm or Shadow Tree. Or it might call to mind other trees I have seen in a certain light or in a certain stance, and make me hope to see something similar. I go off trails, down ravines and up hills because I never know what I will see—but I want to find out. In the woods right after a snow storm, I am sometimes so excited that I fairly race from one favorite haunt to another.

Seeing the possibility of a photograph in a particular tree or thinking about where to stand or how to frame it can now produce a second reaction in me. I pause and really look at it, take in its wonder. On those occasions, the camera in hand is telling my eye to be ready to see. If I’m lucky, I’ll carry that image in my mind.


Richard Higgins is a former longtime staff writer for the Boston Globe, the coauthor of Portfolio Life: The New Path to Work, Purpose, and Passion after 50, and the coeditor of Taking Faith Seriously. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Christian Century, and Smithsonian. He lives in Concord, Massachusetts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *