Learning to Look: Making Meaning in the World

By John Coward

Biographer Ron Powers once said that Mark Twain was an “enormous noticer.” That term has stuck with me for many years, probably because I always took pride in my own ability to survey a scene and notice things that other people did not see.  I’m no Mark Twain, of course, but Twain and I both worked for a time as newspaper reporters, a job where noticing is a useful skill. It’s also a useful skill for essayists, poets, novelists, and other writers, because careful observation can capture the essence of a person or a place. When observations are converted into language by a skilled wordsmith, something magical can happen—words can make meaning out of the ordinary experiences of daily life.

I was reminded of the powers of careful observation this spring while reading the Osage writer John Joseph Mathews. In his 1945 book, Talking to the Moon, Mathews wrote about his time on the Osage Prairie, not far from Pawhuska, Oklahoma. For years, Mathews lived in a one-man sandstone house he called “The Blackjacks.” He lived as deliberately as he could as part of nature, observing the currents of the seasons and contemplating his place in the larger world. Mathews’s life among the prairie chickens and the coyotes produced some lyrical and moving prose. Writing about the spring, which the Osage call the Little-Flower-Killer Moon, Mathews noticed the small changes to the land:

These little flowers are those that grow close to the earth and even appear before the grass has begun to sprout, in some years even before the snows stop falling. These are the Johnny-jump-up, the spring beauties, and hundreds of others that I cannot name, which grow on the ridges and on the burned-over places on the prairie, where they make the black, desolated spots gay with their beauty.

In this and other passages, Mathews took note of the vital place where he lived. He used his time alone on the prairie to ride and hunt, to be in the world physically—his way of making meaning of his existence. Consider this passage, a moment when Mathews reflects on the hidden forces in nature where “the pig eyes of a bear may be nervously on me from the rimrock above”:

I am small and overpowered by the primitive forces, but there is no fear. Instead there is only the true freedom that man can feel; the serenity that comes with the absence of emotion and the complete absence of man’s pitiful urge to express himself; the only complete contentment.

My thoughts come like breezes that move through the pines and in their passing leave nothing to disturb; leave no seed that may swell and burst into resolve, demanding action. No matter how sharp or interesting, they are lost with my spirit in my oneness with the earth about me.

In solitude, in nature, among the creatures of the plains, Mathews finds something greater. The open fields, the scrawny blackjacks—dull and uninspiring at first glance—open up to beauty. At his isolated cabin, Mathews lived close to the earth, though he struggled to get his feelings down in words. There was, he wrote, “too much that was inexpressible.” Yet Mathews carried on at his cabin for ten years, finding larger meanings on his small patch of prairie:

Often I ride to a point on the edge of the canyon just before sundown and sit listening to this indescribable song that seems to express all the yearning of the human spirit; the song that asks the eternal question “Why?” so softly, so sadly, so submissively as the day ends.

Like Twain, Mathews was an “enormous noticer,” a writer who could see, experience, and find meaning in the natural world in all its subtle, devastating, and glorious forms.

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).





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