Want to learn how to see lightning bolts on a sunny day? No? Seriously? Okay fine…whatever. Your loss!
Oh, wait, you said yes? Oh okay, cool. Then I have a little story for you. About lightning bolts. And the Secret of Life.
One of my favourite things in the world is to wander around, uh, basically staring at things. It’s the best. Trees! So cool. Corrugated bark flowing like thick liquid, countless shades of green filtering the invisible sky-light and turning it into a painting for our enjoyment, wind softly singing through branches. Trees are awesome. But this isn’t about trees. Sorry about that. Trees deserve a shout-out though.
I thank my grandpa for this wandering habit. And my mom. They both taught me the joy of just taking it all in.
But it was Tom Brown (of Tracker School fame) who took it up a level. According to Tom, there’s an old Native hunting trick, passed down to him by Stalking Wolf, a Native Elder. You see, when you are hunting, you need to be able to cut through the clutter of visual distraction provided by a complex forest landscape, and pick out the subtle, all-important flicker of a deer’s ear, the flash of a fox’ tail, or the rustle of a fern as a rabbit hops past. You need to be able to pick out movement. But if you look around as hard as you can, trying to look at every tree, every stump, every mound on the forest floor, you will probably end up seeing very little, and end up hungry.
So, you need to train your eyes to ignore all the stationary, boring things in the forest, so that anything moving “pops out”. Tom Brown called this “splatter vision.” It’s one of the coolest things I know.
All you have to do is stop yourself somewhere, and just…..well, stare! Not at anything in particular, but at everything, all at once, without moving your eyes. Become aware of the upper, lower, left and right boundaries of your visual field, and then just stare at all of it. Your vision will go kind of fuzzy and “soft”. You’ll probably be surprised at how much you can actually see, even though you can’t make out fine details of anything. Of course, if Mr/Ms Hottie happens to pass by at that moment and you feel the urge for a more focused look, no problem; once you’ve established splatter vision, you can zoom in and out of it rapidly, taking in individual objects that are important (I don’t know how often you’ll see Mr/Ms Hottie, while hunting in the forest. But you never know! Maybe they’re hunting too…).
But most of the time, it is much cooler to just stay in splatter-mode. You will find, all of a sudden, that most of the stationary objects in the landscape kind of fade out of your vision, almost disappearing. But ANYTHING moving becomes highly salient. With no warning, suddenly you will see movement everywhere, and your visual field will be filled with swaying grasses, fluttering leaves, buzzing insects, and clouds scudding gently along far above. You may even start to feel like you are no longer standing in a landscape of discrete objects, but instead, a humming, throbbing, interwoven, boundary-less, dynamic process of Life.
So, this summer, a friend and I were sitting on the side of Lake Ontario, chatting and looking out across the water. It was sunny, and we were enjoying the dancing sun-sparkles on top of the waves. It was lovely. For whatever reason, I tried slipping into splatter vision mode, and it was super cool. Suddenly the lake was surging and rising and falling, movement everywhere, an ecstatic dance of water and light. I could see lighter blues defining the tops of the waves where they were thinner and the sunlight penetrated more fully, and dark indigos in the troughs between waves. I kind of felt like I was staring at a fractal in motion (fractals, maaaan!), simple and patterned, but complex and highly nuanced as well. Super cool indeed.
And then, I saw the lightning bolts. It hit me like…..errrrr, I was going to say like a bolt out of the blue. So, okay, like that. The sun-sparkles that danced along the tops of the waves now strung themselves together into zipping, zapping strings of light that raced through the water, rising and falling and twisting with the waves.
It was like when a kid swings a sparkler around really fast in the dark, or when you’re at a club and someone’s working their glow-stick magic in your face, and you watch the tracers, and it seems like there’s a stationary line, or circle, suspended in the air. Except, instead of a kid with a sparkler or a guy with HUGE pupils and plastic glow-sticks, it was like the surface of the lake was filled with arcing, racing lightning bolts, zipping around chaotically on the surface of the water, like a thousand light-serpents…..or dragons….or fairies…..or fairies riding dragons, with….ummm, flashlights? Anyway, it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
At first, I was kind of freaked out. “Look!” I exclaimed to my friend. “Do you see the lightning in the water?” She looked at me quizzically, and when I explained I was in splatter vision mode, she stared fuzzily for maybe a minute, and then suddenly it happened for her too. And there we sat, minds cleared of clutter to make room for sheer delight. And that’s it. We just stared.
I realized how fragile the lightning bolts were. When the wind subsided and the water was a little calmer, they disappeared. And when the wind picked up, and it was a little rougher, they also disappeared. There was a sweet spot, a Goldilocks “just right” moment of synchrony between wind, water, sunlight and our vision. If anything deviated too far from that sweet spot, including our attention being attuned “just right”, then the lightning bolts would not exist for us. But when everything was in sync, the simple, stunning, beautiful evanescence of this fairy-dragon light-show was breath-taking.
(Disclaimer: It may be around now that you realize you aren’t going to see any ACTUAL lightning bolts. Well….you can’t always get what you want….hehe….)
At some point, I snapped out of it and realized how weird we probably looked, two people sitting on a rock, staring intently into a tiny patch of frothy, sun-kissed water like it held the Secret of Life. I wondered if anyone passing would think we were on acid or something. But then, I stopped thinking about even that, and stopped caring entirely what any passerby might think. Beauty has that effect on a person.
I’m not sure if there’s any kind of Great Spirit, or Transcendent Sentience, or anything like that. But I hope so. In any case, that day I sent out a genuine prayer of thanks, and it occurred to me that this little patch of sun-kissed water maybe did, after all, hold the Secret of Life?