The Art of Seeing has to be Learned … and Relearned

There’s a malady, I believe, that is connected to the spirit. Not to the brain, not to the body. It’s a malady that envelops you, unfathomable, and in the moment, unfixable. A malady that is not of you, but is created by you for not being really in you. For being outside of you.

When trying, but failing, to see myself out of the dark, I refer to the wisdom of certain writers to whom I return again and again. One of them is Annie Dillard, whose narrative nonfiction has, on me, the effect of adularescence: by presenting a new angle that illuminates me from the inside, her words gently coax out a light that overshadows the gloom.

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf,” she writes. “We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”

I’m starting to realize that often it’s when I don’t “see,” or when I’m not present, the pall quietly sets in. We must somehow taker a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it … My landscape, my whole landscape, in the present moment is a dreamland. I’m living a dream first dreamt when I read Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, when I was twenty-one years old. Only this dream far surpasses my younger self’s dream. I have married the man with whom I fell for around the same time as I read her book. Together we live on a farm in Africa, evolving, gradually, among the rhythms of a place and her native people. Among its grace and its violence. Among its mystery. Our pathways are mapped through the red-hot Kalahari sand underneath our feet in which, defying all odds, we seem to thrive. Mostly.

I falter when my vision moves out of the now and into the past, or the future. I look back and it’s as if I’m being stalked by grinding familial patterns, often triggered by careless conversations with those whose words and actions forged the gullies of erosion on my path into adulthood. I look to the future and I panic, because those same familial patterns convince me that the road ahead is treacherous. Neither are real; neither are rational.

As Dillard says, “All I can do is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes. … The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance.”

Nothing brings me more into the present moment than moving through a whispering banana plantation, among thigh-high grass, or under an archway of entangled tree limbs. Strolling through the jumble that is my garden, breathing in the scent of the galangal flowers. Losing myself while watching the Paradise Flycatchers construct their eggcup nests in the branches of teak trees around our house. Collecting fresh eggs from underneath a sitting hen. Admiring the massive mottled trunk of the mongongo tree in my kitchen while I cook.

Trees have a curious relationship to the subject of the present moment, believes Dillard. “There are many created things in the universe that outlive us, that outlive the sun, even, but I can’t think about them. I live with trees. There are creatures under our feet, creatures that live over our heads, but trees live quite convincingly in the same filament of air we inhabit, and, in addition, they extend impressively in both directions, up and down, shearing rock and fanning air, doing their real business just out of reach. A blind man’s idea of hugeness is a tree. They have their sturdy bodies and special skills; they garner fresh water; they abide.”

My commitment to myself for 2018 is to consciously work at “abiding.” Here. Now. In love, in safety. With my sturdy body and special skills. With Chris.

Annabel Hughes Aston is a writer and an award-winning chef in Livingstone, Zambia. She is the creator of "bush gourmet" cuisine.


  • Beautiful, Bella, ……..and a reminder to us all xox

    • Thank you, Bridgey … much love to you. xo

  • Ahhh buddy this is my favorite piece ever!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! So well done!

    • Thank you, Deon! All the best to you for 2018 … x

  • Love this, Annabel. I read a lot of Annie Dillard in my early twenties and it resonated so much, as does this blog entry. I’m entering a new romance – a promising, trusting, allowing one – and am learning to let go, let be, ABIDE. Thanks and love, Jen.

    • Much gratitude, Jen. Abiding is a challenge, but keep watching those trees. 🙂 Wishing you all good things in your new romance. How exciting! xo

  • Fresh & utterly delightful Annabel. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much, Karen! 🙂

  • Lovely piece! ???

    • Much gratitude! 🙂

  • Another inspiring piece of writing xx

    • I always love hearing from you, Margie. Thank you for your kind note. xo

  • Wonderful piece. Calm abiding in the abundance of nature. We are already so blessed if we only take the time to notice it 🙂

    • Thank you for your lovely comment. Yes. We are indeed so very blessed. All the best to you, Annabel

  • Superb, thoughtful piece, with much that resonates for this reader who spent many a (younger) year looking for the bobbejaan behind the boulder! But the trees, yes, they keep us rooted and they have so much to teach us.
    AND you have galangal in your garden – lucky you 🙂

    • So much gratitude, Katherine, for your wonderful comment. We are surrounded by teak trees here, and we share them with creatures above and below. Lucky, lucky us. 🙂 Regarding the galangal, we don’t eat the roots so much as the flowers. Their fragrance is out of this world, but they taste of ginger. We use them for plating at The Elephant Cafe!

  • Divine writing and photography dear Annabel x

    • Thank you, Helen … high praise indeed from someone who I respect and love so much. Happy 2018 … and much love to you both. xo

  • Such a lovely piece, this, Annabel. You write so descriptively, in a way that incites emotion.

    • Lovely to hear from you, Zsa Zsa … and thank you very much for this super-kind comment. So hope you are well! xo

Comments are closed.