An exercise in observation


Below is something I wrote for a workshop. The assignment was to stand outside for 15 minutes and note everything that you percieved with your senses.

The loudest sound I heard was a sound between a plop and a plunk that came from my shoulders. Some of these sounds were louder than others. It was rain hitting my jacket. The larger drops made an almost popping noise as they hit the wet canvas surface of my coat. In closer to my ears was a sound of a different pitch. It sounded like droplets of water hitting urethane foam. This was the sound of water droplets hitting my fleece hat. I took my hat off for little while and there was a huge change in the soundscape. The higher pitched noises of the drops on the hat were gone. The rain hitting my hair made no sound that I could hear. But then I could feel the cold of the water; not right away but slowly, gradually, as enough of it got through the hair and down to my scalp. Eventually enough collected to start running down my forehand. At that point the water was already warmer. I put my hat back on.

I noted six separate birdcalls. They were repeated at varying intervals. Sometimes one bird called simultaneous to another (I saw several dozen birds). One bird called regularly with the same short burst of sound, repeated nearly a dozen times - then a pause. Others would call one phrase, and then wait. It was not possible to determine whether the various calls came from the same bird, or if another bird was answering or imitating. There was no larger pattern to their calling that I could discern, no identifiably rhythm or superstructure to their voices; the sounds were unpredictable.

The sound of the running water formed a background to the other noises. It was regular, almost rhythmical, except it was entirely structurally chaotic. White noise is what they call it - the differences in sound are so subtle that and so close together - with so many layers of randomness - that the ear hears it almost as a single tone. With effort it was possible to isolate one blurble or gurgle that was discernibly louder or more prominent than the others, but mostly they blended one into and over the other so that they were featureless.

Occasionally I would hear a car on the road (about 600 feet away). These were heard mostly by the sound of their tires as they moved through the water on the street; the engines were inaudible. Once I heard a truck. This I identified by the sound of the engine - a diesel - as it strained on the downshift. It was faint - mostly drowned out by the stream and the steady plop of raindrops on my shoulder - but it protruded enough to be noticed.

The wind hit my left cheek more than my right. Every once in a while it would shift for a moment, but mostly it came from my left. Even after I had been indoors for fifteen minutes, I could still feel my left cheek to be cooler than my right when I put my hand to my face. Otherwise I was comfortably warm - my three layers and down jacket saw to that, plus my wool long underwear and wool socks inside insulated boots. The wind did not blow strongly enough to be felt under my clothing, or even to move my clothing perceptibly. Only my face felt this (my hands were in the pockets of my jacket).

I did not smell anything worth noting. The air was fresh with scent rain, and my jacket gave off a certain faint scent released by being wet, but otherwise there was nothing my nose could pick up.

I did not feel much beyond the wind on my cheek. The typical effort at standing was involved, but the ground was level, and nothing disturbed my balance. My clothing stayed warm, and my hat kept the rain off my face. My hands stayed in my pockets the whole time.

I saw many things: to my left a branch was dripping. It was one of a pair. It was broken, so that the end was sudden where the branch was still fairly thick. Its twin continued, and had an upward direction towards the end. This one ended in a more general direction. Water dripped off of it at a rapid rate. No sooner had one drop fallen than immediately another would form, and this one too would fall; perhaps five or six per second. Yet the drops remained distinctly formed up to the release. A little more water, and the drops would have formed in the air as the water streamed off the branch, but this was not yet the case.

The stream was higher than usual. The ripples from the raindrops formed a complex pattern of interaction with the ripples from the submerged rocks. The whole surface was in constant motion; it was not possible to fix it conceptually even for a moment. It flowed from one shape to another in every fraction of a second. The general contours remained fixed within certain limits, but the specific shape changed continually. The water was a dirty grayish color. About half way across the stream the color of the sky was more visible than the color of the water ? a pale but intense light gray (perhaps a 10% gray in a printer's intensity chart). This color merged into the dark gray along the contours of the ripples; the closer the ripple was to the horizontal the more it took its color from the sky; the more the surface tilted to the vertical, the more it became a dark gray. Parts of the bottom of the stream were visible ? the near side where the water was shallower. Smaller and larger rocks made up about half of the surface area, and were light gray to medium gray. The soil on the bottom of the stream was partly dark brown, and partly a yellow ochre. This was muted by the gray of the water.

The dominant color of the whole scene was a reddish brown. This was the color of the trees, as well as the wet and rotting leaves left over from last autumn. There was actually very little color contrast between the various types of trees; in the rain they were all slight variations of the reddish brown. Their barks differed; some had ridges that ran more in a horizontal pattern, others more to the vertical. Some had more smooth areas, others were completely ridged. A tree to my right had water pouring down one small section, from high up all the way down to the ground. The water made a thin sheet over the bark, which was mostly smooth with some horizontal striations. The water rippled over the striated portions, and the rippling made long vertical bulges in the surface of the streaming water.

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This page contains a single entry by Daniel Hindes published on March 29, 2004 10:19 PM.

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