Point Reyes National Seashore, California“Whenever the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one through the appearance of whatever it is one is scrutinizing.” John Berger
When my cousin, Don, asked me where I wanted to walk while I was visiting him in the Bay Area, I had only one answer: Point Reyes. I’d first saw those redwood forests, undulating hills of scrub, those cliffs and long beaches, while camping with my parents in the sixties, and then again in college when for a time I lived in Berkeley. In my mind, I have held images of those vast stretches of coastal lands though no doubt they have merged with other coasts and seascapes I’ve seen in my travels. Seeing them again has made me wonder why it is that we find such pleasure in gazing at expanses of land and water.
The first few days in the Bay Area, my eyes began to adjust to the sights of the sea and the hills. Driving about, walking up and down the streets and through the parks in San Francisco, the eye must take in more and more than in the Midwest. The landscape has layers, and a simple glance offers a foreground and then seemingly an expanding background, as the horizon takes you further and further away from the place where you are. There’s a visual hiccup for those not used to the vistas, and I had to stop and adjust my glance, once tripping on a curb as I was struck by the clouds filling in the bay and covering the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s not that street life in San Francisco or Berkeley isn’t interesting, but again and again I found myself drawn to the longer view.
At Point Reyes, I was lost in conversation with my cousin as we meandered through the succession of plant communities toward the hidden shore. When I wasn’t thinking of what my cousin was saying, I was thinking of how easily conversation can come sometimes while walking with those we know well. Subjects and emotions emerge from the land and silences naturally arise between bends along the trail and glances off into the hills and foggy skies. The randomness of ideas and memories bring relief to our scripted inner stories and concerns, and there’s such a relief in that.
I thought, too, of just feeling my body walking; something that I’ve learned to do, knowing walks are rare and our steps through landscapes are finite. The sensations of walking in a given land are like a certain musical score that I have to listen to very carefully to appreciate.
And then, there it is, the seascape, immediately arresting my inner monologue as I was thinking of something to say to my cousin. I stopped. Began to walk, and stopped again. Thought of taking a photograph, but then let my eyes succumb to the seductive powers of the vistas of land and sea. The eye moves or is pulled to far reaches of distant forms—cliffs or rocks in the sea or banks of fog lifting over the golden hills, then the eye runs along the curve of the shore, like a child having to experience the entire length, and when you finally feel yourself take a breath, you notice the careening gulls break the static picture or realize that only a few yards before you a bush is of a color you’ve never really seen before. The whole landscape seems to have been illuminated and infused with energy, making you think that up until now you’ve been walking like some kind of zombie. What happens when we see these vast spaces open and open out before us? What causes us to feel so alive? Is it the sea and our ancient memories of it? Is it the liberation of our gaze? Is it that our perceptual organs are more fully tested? Is it that the visual data is so vast and nuanced that the mind must break its patterns of seeing and analyzing? Or is it the light itself that magically alters something within us, making us feel or imagine the space with its color and texture within our body.
I’ve often hiked among the Dunes in Indiana for something of the same feeling: that moment of perceptual shock, when the vast blue of Lake Michigan spreads literally as if we are creating it, flooding the flatness with our eyes, the water taking us to the far ends of the horizon as we stand on top of the two-hundred foot dunes. We have little topographical variation here in the Midwest, so these moments while hiking are rare and wonderful. It’s not the same looking out your condo window on the 45th floor in Chicago, as enjoyable as it is. The view must be there before the naked eye. We must feel ourselves apart of the landscape. There once were miles of dunes along the Lake, some towering as high as 300 feet, but of course these lands were sacrificed to industry and the political careers of men when the park was created not long after Point Reyes. (Both are National Parks devoted to America's shores.) And I thought about this, taking in the miles of unobstructed views in this National Seashore of Point Reyes, and how valuable it is to walk and gaze and expand our limited horizons.