Puget Sound is itself located on the southern end of a wider sea – the Salish Sea which stretches north from Washington’s capital city of Olympia, across the Canadian border, and then through the Straits of Georgia that separate Vancouver Island from mainland British Columbia. Once you leave the bigger cities, Puget Sound is a place of old-growth cedars, roving orca pods, soaring bald eagles and, to the far north, grey sea wolves that swim between islands in search of salmon, herring eggs and whale carcasses. A place of moon jellyfish, harbour seals and sea grass. It is my home. I am entwined in and rooted to this place. So I thought that there was just less need for me to see out to the far horizon. I didn’t worry much about it but it did make driving tricky and I needed to avoid unfamiliar roads at night.
My sceptical husband rarely buys off on my mystical explanations for the mildly disturbing and inexplicable. He steadily nudged and prodded me to see a specialist. So off I went one late spring afternoon to a recommended ophthalmologist. She dilated my eyes and peered into my retinas and optic nerves. She flashed white lights, like crinkling cellophane, to the side of each eye, momentarily blinding me. All the while I chatted nervously about my theories on aging and how belonging might serve to narrow one’s vision. Unmoved by my poetic interpretations, she pronounced me legally blind and scheduled cataract surgery for the following month.
From my earliest memory, my vision has been labelled defective. I was told that my eyesight was failing and ‘in need of serious correction’. Toddler-sized cat-eye glasses turned into scraping contact lenses which shifted into disposable thin plastic films that I put in over the sink every morning like a faithful supplicant. I saw the world in a soft, almost Fauvist, haze; the corrections were never quite up to par. I didn’t mind. This welcoming place of mild edges was all I ever really knew.
The ophthalmologist, in her languid manner, was nonetheless a surgery cheerleader. She told me that I would have ‘perfect vision’ soon after the surgery. But I never stopped to ask what perfect vision meant.
In preparation for my gift of ‘perfect vision’, I could not wear my contact lenses for two weeks so that proper measurements of each eye could be taken. My spare glasses were old, scratched and poorly fitting. They fogged up in the Pacific Northwest rains and were easily misplaced. After a day or two I started walking places without them, eventually even hiking up in the Cascade foothills in a semi-blind state. When I did this, when I walked ‘as myself’ and without corrections, the firs were an explosion of pointillist green triangles. The trail was a sinewy grey-brown river. I couldn’t see individual foliage well and one breezy afternoon the air just took on colour itself, the rustling leaves turning into a verdant shimmer that was one and the same with the wind that passed through them. And as I slow-walked through the dripping woods, I started to realise that I might wake up, post-surgery, to a very different world than I had ever known.
And that was, in fact, what came to pass. Two days after the operations, I could see both the crevasse lines of Mount Shuksan and the fine print on bus adverts. But gone was the loose-wool quality of the evening clouds. The velvet blue-green blanketing of the coastal marshlands was no more. It was exciting for certain – to see what others had always seen. But for the most part, rather than exhilarated I felt tense and disoriented. The world I had lived in, the world I believed was true for over 50 years, was shown to be incorrect. Abetted by my severe myopia, I had created a story for myself, a personal mythology of a fecund and soft-focused universe. Now I moved within an angular, sharp and fine-boned landscape. It proved to be a difficult adjustment.
I talked to my ophthalmologist. She discussed the current theories in neuroadaptation and brain plasticity. She assured me that I would soon adjust and that I would forget my past visual limitations.
My old way of navigation was now irrevocably traded for a new and more reductionist view of the land around me.
But I didn’t really want to forget. For I knew that forgetting would turn me into a different person. My old way of navigation was now irrevocably traded for a new and more reductionist view of the land around me. And what I wanted was both. I wanted the ability to read the interstate exit signs as well as the comforting and gradual shift in focus from one thing to another that I had known for over half a century. Yes, I had ‘perfect vision’ and was grateful, but I was also grieving for a way that I had seen the world for 55 years. I was grieving for what had been the ‘perfect to me’ vision, and for how that vision helped me define my world – a world that I had now lost.
My ophthalmologist was, not surprisingly, unhelpful in addressing my distress. I needed to seek answers from another place. And, as is so often the case with such types of questions, my answers arrived from a quite unexpected locale.
A few months after my eye surgeries, I found myself in London. I spent a brisk Thursday morning at the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill. There I saw the Horniman walrus, a century-plus-old taxidermy specimen from Hudson Bay, Canada. Brought to London by Canadian hunter James Henry Hubbard for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in 1886, the walrus was later moved to the Horniman and has remained in the centre of the exhibition hall ever since. It is much loved by local schoolchildren, parents of toddlers, and those drawn to cabinets of curiosities.
What makes this display unique is that the taxidermist had never seen an actual living walrus. He relied on his internal image of a walrus in preparing the specimen. As a result, the stuffed walrus has no skin folds, and appears small-headed and deformed. Its body is grotesquely engorged, like a mangy and elongated pinniped balloon. One can’t stop staring at its eccentric nature. It is a walrus and yet it is not a walrus. At the time, Londoners surely thought that this taxidermy walrus was the truth of what a walrus really was. And, in the absence of outside information, it was the truth of what a walrus really was. Maybe in some way it still is.
That day I realised that the Horniman walrus is more than just a curious stuffed animal. It is also an insight to an older and different way of seeing. It is a view into the world as it was before the dominance of a collectively defined reason as the guiding principle of culture. A world before the advent of universally known ‘truths’ about what things are and widely accepted dictates as to how these truths fit into a larger landscape. A world where subjectivity was more normative and accepted. A world where mystery had a place.
Prior to my surgeries, I saw my surroundings through a hazy veil. The lack of sharp boundaries between objects meant that without strong corrections I couldn’t tell exactly where the line lay between sea and sky. It meant that people were indistinct strangers until they crossed my proximate focal point and were identified as husband, sister, friend and co-worker. This visual ambiguity fostered an increasing curiosity as to what was ‘just out of sight’. I developed idiosyncratic personal interpretations for the large number of things that I could not see. These explanations shaped my personal cosmology and sense of self in ways that I’m just now starting to understand. These stories defined my life.
After the surgeries, my visual world has become more demarcated and reductionist. I can now judge clearly where my stairwell starts and I can recognise my neighbour from over a block away. But with this clarity my environment has lost a degree of mystery and I have lost a piece of myself.
And there is no going back. I have only a dim memory of my former way of being in the world – a memory that will surely fade into obscurity as well. Likewise, as technology races ahead in sophistication, the old ways of viewing the world are waylaid and lost. And soon, the Horniman walrus and its kind notwithstanding, we won’t see them at all.
FAR Tracy Hill
This image is part of Matrix of Movement (2016/17), a research project challenging perceptions of walking post-industrial spaces. It depicts the shifting sandbanks and tidal nature of the Mersey river at the point where people used to cross on foot and horseback. As private ownership fragments the landscape, so local knowledge that was required in order to live on and alongside the river becomes forgotten and lost.
Artist Tracy Hill was born in 1970 in Birmingham, UK. Currently a Research Associate of Artlab Contemporary Print studios at UCLan, she exhibits widely in the UK and internationally.
NEAR Jennifer Brant
Braid III: Wexford County, Ireland
Braid III is part of a series of small interventions that began in 2017. While at a residency, I began to interact with the more-than-human world in ways that are considered tender within human relationships. Braiding is a universal pattern, appearing in all cultures, as well as in non-human occurrences such as rivers and lightning. This artwork attempts to ask questions regarding what can be translated between different beings, whether intention and presence are enough, and how does the grass say no.
Jennifer Brant is an interdisciplinary artist of both settler and indigenous ancestry, whose material-based practice aims to experience, facilitate and chronicle interactions with the more-than-human world. Born and raised on the traditional, unceded territories of the Coast Salish people and the Tla-amin people, she divides her time between Vancouver and a small, off-the-grid island.