Becoming a Transparent Eyeball

Often a good example brings about fresh understanding.  As I wrapped up my teaching of Transcendentalism this year, I had a chance to watch Free Solo, which recently won an Oscar for best documentary.  It was incredible, in the very real sense of the word, but I also found that I had a new reference point for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous metaphor, “I become a transparent eyeball.” 

Some context, first.  In a nutshell, Emerson wanted to build an appreciation for the positive role that nature plays in our lives.  In his essay Nature, Emerson sees the natural world as a restorative force, one freely available to everyone.  He writes about nature making us feel younger and renewing our faith in the world.  It’s easy to take this for granted today, because this seems so obvious, but in 1836, that viewpoint was radical. 

Take the forests of Pennsylvania, for instance.  The whole state of Pennsylvania, Penn’s Woods, was almost entirely covered in trees.  Nearly 29 million acres of virgin forest stood here at one time.  By 1900, about two thirds had been clear-cut, stripped bare right to the ground.  Nature represented a commercial resource.

Emerson fought against that mindset, writing about becoming a “transparent eyeball” in the woods.  This metaphor suggests a deep connection to nature that’s still new for people in the middle of the 1800s, for a transparent eyeball blends into the landscape, becoming one with its surroundings. It’s neither agricultural nor industrial, and the metaphor suggests a kind of harmlessness because the eyeball can’t be seen—it’s “transparent.”  Of course, even calling himself an “eyeball,” suggests that he’s more passive observer than active participant.  He doesn’t go into nature with a chainsaw or the thought of filling an empty wallet, but rather a sense of wonder.

So that brings me to Alex Honnold, the climber at the center of the documentary film Free Solo.  His story is fascinating, in part, because Honnold represents a kind of ultimate observer. He has spent his life climbing mountains. For Honnold, however, the pinnacle of his universe is the free solo, climbing alone without any ropes.  The danger is obscene. Imagine clinging to a bluff 3000 feet above the ground, and any false move, any mistake plummets you to your death.  That’s how Honnold spends much of his time.

After watching Free Solo, I can say that Honnold is not only about taking extreme risks.  He’s about observing something so carefully, so exactly, that the danger dissipates over time.  The movie chronicles his free solo ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, and as I watched the film, I could see his sport was built on keen observation of natural environments.  Indeed, he becomes Emerson’s transparent eyeball.  In his quest, he attends to every single depression, every minute change in the rock face during his climb.  It took him weeks of practice to learn his route up the mountain, to observe every detail along the way, memorizing the holds and body positions to be able to make the climb without the aid of ropes.  And when he finally does it, his connection to the mountain can be seen in his unhesitatingly sure movement to the top. To say awe inspiring is an understatement.

And at the end of the day there’s nothing left behind on the mountain.  It’s clean.  It’s non-destructive.  It’s transparent, like Emerson says, in contrast to those who scale Everest every year, leaving behind all the human signs of their presence.  In Honnold’s world, there are no ladders, no permanent rigging, no air canisters left behind on the mountain.  He’s touching the rock face with his bare hands and pushing his toes into tiny holds overlooked by most of us, and that’s the greatness of his climbing.  He’s able to see something in nature that many of us cannot even imagine.

I sketched the drawing featured with this week’s post. Every year, as my students read excerpts from Emerson’s Nature, I include an assignment where they must illustrate a piece of figurative language and then explain its meaning. My sketch alluded to some classroom happenings, such as one student’s love for fancy shoes and another student’s Walt Whitman test, which I had misplaced for a time. The axe in the stump is from another famous metaphor, the speckled-axe in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, which my students learned about earlier in the year. Like good real life examples, drawings also push us toward deeper meanings.