Tag Archives: seeing


Somewhere on one of my short runs through the city of Indianapolis I saw a single bagworm sack hanging from the limb of a small, street side, deciduous tree. Was it a maple tree? A pear? Maybe a ginkgo or tulip? I’m not sure. It was a brief image as I passed by on a wintry run. I see it very clearly now, in memory, but I have no idea where it is. I often run out from my office or home in a more or less straight path for two or three miles, but make my way back in a series of dog-leg turns. The little sack, if it’s still dangling from its limb in the wind and ice and snow, could be anywhere on either side of the street for roughly twenty miles of running routes. I doubt I will ever see it again. A woodpecker or crow will likely find it first.

The bagworm hangs suspended in my disjointed memory with tenacity. It does so, in part, because it belongs more in my memory than it does in an urban landscaping tree. Were I a child again in rural Kentucky, I could find hundreds of these in cedar thickets and fence rows. I see them now at eye level, practically in the face, as I tracked various critters through day old snow.

The evergreen bagworm (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis) in winter is a prickly sack of leather encasing the dead body of a mouthless, headless, wingless, legless female moth. And inside her body, itself really just a sack, the shiny little eggs, tapioca pearls, wait for spring. Most home owners with manicured evergreens will consider the moth to be a pest; it is voracious and unsightly. We trimmed them off our cedar Christmas trees with pruning shears. The gut strings of their bags are so tough that they can girdle a small limb … and in a season or two, choke it out to brown.

Here in Indianapolis, recent winters have been mild. The moth is increasing its northern range. In twenty years of living north of the Ohio River, this is the first evergreen bagworm that I have seen. I am sure that there have been many others, especially in the southern part of Indiana, but I have missed them. This December has been cold. If the coming months are colder, the moth may retreat a season or two to the south. What little, aimless sense I have of home follows.

Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis

Shiners, Darts and Daces

Eastern Blacknose Dace

Eastern Blacknose Dace (Rhinichthys atratulus). Ellen Edmonson. (1926-1939) from The Freshwater Fishes of New York.

“Minnows” (not just the Cypriniformes, but any finger-sized and smaller, fresh water fish) exist in fascinating micro-cultures. I have spent hours watching them flit in creek pools no larger than a kitchen sink. And, when the sun hits them, some (particularly the daces and darters) display color patterns (reds, greens, blues, browns, gold, silver and black) seldom seen on a single living organism. One can be so near a minnow, a hand’s depth, and yet separated (by water, size and speed) at a great distance from knowing. This gap bothered me less when I was younger–time was ahead of me and the eyes were sharp. Of all the losses gained in middle age, deteriorating vision is a dull one. I miss the minute differences, the flights of small birds, the progress of moss and fern, the endless throats of tiny flowers. At forty, I now need to hold my minnows up at eye level, in good light, 18 inches from the face. It was for this reason that I finally purchased a minnow trap.

Minnow and crawfish traps consist of wired with one or two funnel-shaped entrances. The minnows swim into the trap through the fat end of the funnel, but struggle to find their way out; their chances of slipping through the narrow neck are … slim. Traps are easy enough to make, and I had planned to build my own, but a moment of honesty about my laziness prompted an impulse buy. (Buying the materials would cost roughly the same.) The trap I purchased appears to be useless for crawfish; so, I have cause to keep “building a crawfish trap” on my to-do list.

I took my store bought trap to Dale Hollow in July. When it was not serving as an impromptu fish basket for our catch of bluegill, I baited it with bread and leftover meats. The oils from the meat attracted a dozen-or-so mid-sized sunfish, all too large for the trap. I suspect that any minnows in the area would have been readily snatched by the sunfish long before finding their way into my basket.

A week later, I had more success at a family reunion. My in-laws own a piece of land with a small creek running through a low pasture. After baiting the trap with a fried biscuit and some fried chicken skins, I lowered the basket near the upstream lip of a culvert pipe. Thirty minutes later (escaping the family chit-chat), I pulled up a half-dozen, flapping little fish. After they stopped jumping (a few seconds), I could see that I had trapped juvenile sunfish, mostly rocks bass, but also a couple of pumpkin seeds.

Adding another fried chicken skin (with a history of heart disease, my in-laws have no business eating the stuff), I moved the trap to the downstream end of the culvert pipe. There, an hour later, the rock bass had escaped. (How?) They were replaced, however, by five, two-inch cyprinids. They were probably common shiners, but I did not have my glasses, guide book, or camera. I think that they were too far upstream to have been (my second guess) juvenile common carp. Do carp hatch in slow, warm and weedy waters only to swim upstream against pencil thin currents?

Moving the trap 50 meters downstream to a deeper, shaded pool proved even more productive. In minutes, the trap collected well over two dozen small fish. A few rock bass again, but most of these were cyprinids, predominately daces. Many looked similar to (and might have been) Eastern Blacknosed Daces; others had red sides and/or irregular black markings–I remember a blot about a third of the way from the head. The trap (loaded with chicken skins and live fish) also attracted other creatures. Crawfish picked at the skins through the wires, but avoided the funneled entrances. I could also see that a few, tiny darters were resting on nearby rocks. Darters are both still and too fast; they perch without moving, but suddenly dart away when disturbed. Near the end of the evening, a small snake arrived and tried its luck at catching minnows near the trap. It seemed frustrated and rose to the surface and did not move for at least twenty minutes; I felt watched.

At dusk the mosquitoes arrived and I pulled in the trap and dumped the whole lot (minnows and chicken skins) in the creek. If they had been crawfish, it would have been time for a small meal.

Seeing and Knowing

One of my regular routes for running takes me along the banks of the Indianapolis Central Canal and the White River in Indianapolis. Even in the coldest weather, a portion of the canal will not freeze. Some of the city’s steam lines spill into the canal and by the time the slow current reaches the river (roughly a half mile down stream) the water is still warm. The canal water entering the river makes an attractive winter-time micro-culture for fish and birds seeking a warm place to meet, greet and eat. This warm-water spot is also very close to the Indianapolis Zoo (local runners call this route the “zoo loop”); so, I wonder, sometimes, if the critters I’ve seen on my runs have actually made a quick stop in honor of those caged and penned nearby. In five winters I have seen carp, coots, cormorants, foxes, grebes, hawks, and shrews—all within the high-traffic heart of a major urban city.

I know that I am not alone in enjoying these sightings. (There are plenty of runners on the zoo loop.) Likewise, I’m probably not alone in lamenting the fact that eye sight dulls with age. I can not see these creatures as well as I once could. For a couple of weeks now, I have seen some ducks, and while I can tell that they are not Mallards, what are they? Divers, yes … but Scaups? Mergansers? Buffleheads? Ring-necks? The seeing-and-not-knowing really kills curiosity … or maybe makes it more desperate. Perhaps the fact that I would probably know, if I could see, makes the desperation worse.

This slow fading of the senses and (even more so) the frustration that accompanies them has really stumped me. I keep wondering why I care. What is it about seeing and knowing that seems so important? Plenty of people fail to identify ducks at fifty meters distance without glasses or binoculars. Plenty of people see Scaup or Ring-neck, but know only “duck”. I am sure these folks live richly–days just as full of meaning.

*   *   *

Now that I have started thinking about seeing and knowing and why they should matter, the questions bob to the surface and refuse to stay down. Recently, John Latta (in Williams’s seeing. Isola di Rifiuti, February 5, 2010) pointed to William Carlos Williams’s comments on the topic. (Williams being only one of an endless list of writers with failing eyesight; I’ve also been reading a lot of Milton lately.) Williams, in a comment to the poet Marianne Moore, noted: “I don’t like not being able to see dust flecks quite so distinctly as formerly—and the grains of pollen in the flowers” (To Marianne Moore, June 2, 1932. The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp, 1984. pg. 124). Latta, however, juxtaposes this with a quotation from the “Prologue” to Williams’s Kora in Hell: Improvisations:

But the thing that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose. It is this difficulty that sets a value upon all works of art and makes them a necessity. The senses witnessing what is immediately before them in detail see a finality which they cling to in despair, not knowing which way to turn” (William Carlos Williams. Kora in Hell: improvisations. Boston: The Four Seas Company, 1920. pg 17)

Thus, Williams would seem to argue against the necessity of “seeing” … because it stifles the imagination? Any five year old in a crowd at the annual city parade, would probably disagree. If we’re merely going to imagine the parade, let’s all stay home. Williams’s mother might have said to him: “Dust flecks? Grains of pollen? You’re a poet, just use your imagination.”

The imagination (whatever that is) is a good thing, and seeing too literally can be a disability. Williams associates overly literal seeing with a kind of hyper-materialism, one that strips a culture of its aesthetic wisdom, if not of its moral and ethical foundations. (I think he would also condemn cliche seeing: “true value is that peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself. The associational or sentimental value is the false” (16). From the Prologue again:

It is to the inventive imagination we look for deliverance from every other misfortune as from the desolation of a flat Hellenic perfection of style. What good then to turn to art from the atavistic religionists, from a science doing slavey service upon gas engines, from a philosophy tangled in a miserable sort of dialect that means nothing if the full power of initiative be denied at the beginning by a lot of baying and snapping scholiasts? (16)

When it comes to rescuing a culture from ignorance and slavery, I have no more faith in the imagination than I do in the senses. Therefore, I’ll beg for both of them, but to what end?

Fungus gnat

Fungus gnat. Drifting across the cornea of my world view …. What grief, that every year millions die and which one for a whiff of amber? (May 19, 2008)