Ancient lines of sight


Elizabeth Dodd wonders about the relationships between seeing, imagination, and landscape @  The essay won's 2010 non-fiction essay contest. 
In the Mind's Eye: Essays across the Animate WorldWhat does a sinuous petroglyph call to mind? I mean the pecked or carved line that curves beckoningly back and forth across the face of the rock, or the top of the boulder, or the shelf in the cliff where someone once crouched twenty feet or so above the canyon floor and hollowed out a small basin the depth of my own cupped hand, making this particular shape that snakes across the Cliff House sandstone I’ve slithered up in order to look out where Andy is measuring sightlines along the southern horizon. What does it look like, this petroglyph stilled in its hint of motion? What does it mean?

There, one analogy appeared effortlessly: snake.

Sometimes I think river or wash, side-winding across sandstone the way a watercourse wiggles along the alluvial plain. Or a journey across landscape, through time, a mapped record plotted on the stiff page of the cliff’s wall. A sine wave, sinus-oidal, the shape taken by my voice, calling back down to where Andy sits taking notes, or the light from the sun that keeps teasing from behind cloud cover, or, a thousand miles away, the waves of the Pacific that haven’t yet dragged into break and foam on the wet beach. Here is the sandstone, each quartz particle locked in conglomerate stasis or chafed into motion, sifting against the cliff where a loose bit of rock shifts under my foot, a wave of adrenalin rushing through me. Here is the figure, waves abraded into the cliff face.

But this week I’ve been reading about the evolution of the eye, the first molecular hints toward what would, hundreds of generations later, become vision, and so I think, opsins. These are the little proteins that snake in and out of the cell membrane of a photoreceptor, where, along with retinal, they facilitate a body’s chemical response to light. “Snake” is the word used in the article I was reading, and though I later came across illustrations I thought were more suggestive of the tight curls formed when you drag decorative ribbon across the scissors’ blade, “snake” spoke to my imagination.
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