Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Kati Standefer on David James Duncan and the Art of Seeing

I used to read “Birdwatching as a Blood Sport” in the sauna at the North Boulder Rec Center, on winter days when my feet wouldn’t warm. In that dim light—the wooden benches gleaming with years of oil, the hot rocks glowing faintly red—every word was delicious, almost holy. I’d explode out of the dark chamber onto the cool, tiled poolside, gulping water, wiping sweat off my face with a towel—and immediately want to go back in.

“Why, with our eyes open, don’t we simply see every well-lit object?” I read aloud when the sauna was empty, the glue-binding of my book melting until it was just a husk for loose pages. “For I have sometimes looked at a living object, even a beloved object, and have seen illusions, shadows, nothing at all…”

The essay is about birds. It is about the birds Duncan killed by accident, the birds he saved, the birds he tried to save but could not. It is also not about birds. At its heart, the essay is really about seeing—the intentionality of our seeing. Its repercussions.

The human eyeball, Duncan reminds us, can theoretically take in everything around us. Every scratch in the table, every car passing by, every freckle on a lover’s body. And yet it does not. What we notice is, in many ways, a choice—“a form of selection and a form of projection”—some inner light illuminating or ignoring what physically passes before us. To Duncan, the question becomes, “How to see more? How to see more clearly?... Because without such control—without a reliable, directable inner source—I frighten myself.”

In “Birdwatching as a Blood Sport,” the difference between seeing and not-seeing is life or death. The grebe Duncan did not set back in the water, became, days later, a shredded carcass. The adult pygmy owl he recognized on the highway, took off running towards, and then chipped out of harm’s way with his foot “rose inches over the crisscrossing headlights and car roofs, crossed both lanes, left the highway and vanished.” If seeing—recognizing—other beings, human or otherwise, is the precondition to responding, then of course seeing is a blood sport.

For the first time in my life, I have been watching birds this winter, from my new desert home in Tucson, Arizona. While snow buries the mountains up north, cardinals and sparrows take refuge in my mesquite and juniper trees. Gila Woodpeckers rail into telephone poles and hummingbirds rest upon the line. There is something about noticing them that splits me with joy; in the dark of morning, when I wake, I listen for a single chirp, a song to urge me forward. “Good morning birds,” I say into the cavern of my house, and tiptoe onto the porch to watch them carouse the gravel, pecking and hopping, scattering when I come close. Sometimes I chat with them; sometimes I sing back. Always, when I notice the birds, I notice as well a sweetness in myself—an intentionality where my eyesight once swung around recklessly, blind.

“Out of our eyes we exhale a light or a darkness that is the spirit in which we perceive,” Duncan writes, a line so beautiful my chest hurts. “This visual exhalation, this personal energizing and aiming of perception, is the eyes’ speech. It is a shaping, it is something we make, as surely as words are a shaping of air. I feel responsible for my vision. My eye-speech changes the world.”

When I left the sauna on those gray winter days—sweated clean of toxins, warm and flushed—my eyes always felt both sharper and gentler. I walked back into the world quieter and more aware, like a woman leaving a chapel, a woman who has prayed. And perhaps for me, an hour in the sauna with Duncan’s essay was a sort of prayer. It was an hour in which I understood commonality, responsibility; an hour in which I remembered the love we may all act out of, if we see.

For, as Duncan writes, “The life that terrifies me and the life I adore are one life.”


Kati Standefer is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona.


  1. Beautiful description, Kati. We all need to spend more time considering perception--both what we perceive and what we fail to perceive. In my case the sight of birds does not split me with joy; as a cat owner, the birds I usually see are in the mouths of cats as the varmints drag the fowls into my living room. But that too is another case of perception, prize for one, victim for another.

  2. I want to marry this post.

  3. This post makes me think deeper in editoring my essays. Perception is a useful tool in developing a written piece of material to get your point accross. Oh well, I must return to my rewrites and that's a joy in my world.