I vividly remember when I learned that my grandfather was becoming blind. Macular degeneration had destroyed all but his peripheral vision, and to see me when we spoke, he looked away from me. It was an eerie experience for a young boy. As grandfather’s vision disappeared, his precious wood-carving tools began to gather dust in the basement and his well-loved books sat silent on their shelves.
But my grandfather never seemed upset as his vision faded. I’d sit next to him in the living room, gazing out the huge picture window, and he’d say, “Here come the chickadees.” The first time he did this, I felt a little embarrassed for him because the feeders were empty except for a pair of cardinals. But a moment later, as if my grandfather were some mystic seer, his predication came true and the chickadees flickered down out of the sky.
He could predict which birds would come to the feeders with uncanny accuracy. He wasn’t psychic, of course. Rather, he was hearing birds perched in trees across the yard as they discussed how they’d approach the feeders. But the sounds that were so clear to his ears seemed inaudible to me. The loss of his sight had helped him pay more attention to his other sensory impressions – impressions that I ignored because I relied so heavily on sight.
I had forgotten the lessons of my grandfather’s blindness until my wife and I stepped outside the other day and were confronted with a remarkable cacophony. It was the busy chirping of a horde of goldfinches that had just come to the feeders.
As we stood there enfolded by an almost deafening symphony, I closed my eyes and suddenly remembered my grandfather’s ability to predict the coming of the birds. It made me wonder how much of the world passes us by, lost because our senses have grown complacent.
As writers, Rebecca and I often spend much of our day in front of a computer, with a bright glare in our eyes and the computer’s hum in our ears. Often, it’s not until we step outside that our senses begin to wake up, and if we sit outside long enough, the world begins to come to life: birdsong and wind’s caress, dripping icicles and billowing clouds, a hawk spreading its feathers into the rising air of a thermal. These are hints of the bounty available to our senses when we take the time to step out into nature.
As Rebecca and I went back inside to sit down to our computers, I silently thanked my grandfather. He had turned his blindness into a gift, inspiring a young boy to realize that the world is bigger and more mysterious than we usually think. Nature is uniquely qualified to compliment my grandfather’s teachings – next time I go for a walk, I think I’ll take a bit more time to pay attention to the sounds, smells, vision and sensations around me.
As Helen Keller suggested, the gifts of our senses can lead us to beautiful discoveries. For me, the sound of the goldfinches led me back to a memory of my grandfather, and his lessons bring me full circle to nature, where I discover what it really means to see, even when my eyes are closed.
This story first appeared in the Wild About Nature blog. Author Kenyon Whitman is an adventure and mindfulness instructor who runs ReWildU.com in Wisconsin.