Perception, Defined | Science | Smithsonian
"The questions is not what you look at, but what you see." - Henry David Thoreau(Jessica Heisch)

Perception, Defined

The renowned author of A Natural History of the Senses visits Florida's Morikami Japanese Gardens to examine the astonishing wealth of human perception

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Our senses are beloved explorers who bring us news from the rich but dangerous world outside the citadel of the body. But, in their calmer hours, we also enjoy pampering and rewarding them, and that’s why I’ve come to a favorite refuge of mine, a garden designed for sensory delight.

In the light quickening before dawn, a large pond lies still, its surface wrinkled like animal hide. In this phantom hour, no birds fly or sing. Standing on the knoll overlooking the pond is like pausing in a gallery before a canvas, absorbing its overall impression before measuring it with the eyes’ calipers or picking out details.

Strolling through the fragrant pine grove, I pause to savor a piquant scent that oozes from leaves and bark, and even the atmosphere itself, a delicate fertile world-in-bud smell, as raw sensations become golden nuggets of perception. We seem born to cherish aromatic memories, which help us navigate, find food, detect danger, bond with loved ones. But we don’t need to enjoy jasmine and gardenia, now leadening the air with scent. We’re lucky to inhabit such a fragrant planet.

Following the footpath in reverse for a change, just to keep my senses on their toes, I enjoy the crunchy feel of leaves and twigs underfoot, the loud buzz-whine of cicadas, rock formations almost animal in their poses. The soundscape includes the gentle trickling of water from a bamboo spout, its babble muffled by rocks below.

At last the sky blues up and softens, resembling the felt of piano hammers or fedoras (the eyes remember what the hands have held), and empty seedpods tremble on the willows (the eyes remember what the ears have heard). Listening with my eyes and seeing with my ears, I hear the flicker of wind through the small dainty leaves of a black olive tree.

Then as orange-gold scales of light glint around the pond, the first koi appears, a foot-long yellow carp, swimming straight and fast. A turtle lifts its head, peers, submerges in a ripple of water. Across the pond a wooden bench catches the sunlight, its emptiness made visible, suggesting all the people who have rested there. In my mind’s eye, where all the senses rally, I can imagine the feel of parking weary muscles and bones, and note its location.

Sliding my hand along a weathered fence, I enter a walled meditation garden. Wooden benches invite one to sit where blinding sun stings the eyes, and so one instinctively closes them, a first step toward meditation. There I unpack a thermos of green tea and drink in the dry landscape: swirling gravel that conjures up the complexity of wild water, with several pitted rock islands—each a mountain in miniature with gullies, mesas and the hard crumpled sheen that cliffs achieve.

Crunchy peanut butter and ginger preserves on barley bread for breakfast. As I lift my teacup in both hands and drink, cup and fingertips become part of the eye-grasp, part of the stone garden. A distant gonging drifts over the walls. Sounds may float in, but the purpose of the walls is to channel prayers to heaven.

I add mine: “Life, I bow to you,” I say, silently. As two boat-tailed grackles race past my ear, I hear separate wing beats, the syncopated flap of someone shaking out damp sheets. Do they recognize the wing-cadence of a mate or friend, as we do known footsteps? Strolling on, in time I enter two rows of tall old bamboo trees, creaking like badly hinged doors as they sway. At the entrance knoll, I find an ensemble of young trees standing like marionettes, their arms trussed up parallel to the sky. The dawn is a golden warbler singing light. The looming rays, reflecting off a metal roof, now hurl sun balls across the water, where one dazzling orange koi leaps into the dangerous air, as if suddenly spat out.

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