John Ruskin on "seeing"

Walking St. Cuthbert’s Way, the Scottish Borders country, June 2019.

Walking St. Cuthbert’s Way, the Scottish Borders country, June 2019.

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion — all in one.” — John Ruskin

 I came across these lines from John Ruskin at some point in my travels this summer, and for some reason they stuck with me.  The Transcendentalists of Concord--who are close to my home (geographically speaking) and my heart (spiritually speaking)--spoke often about the importance of vision.  Perception.  One’s angle of seeing. 

That’s probably one reason I love to travel.  When I get out of familiar surroundings, away from the habitual routes I traverse each day, I seem more able to see with fresh eyes.  When I get out of my rut, I seem to see a bit differently.

When Thoreau was living Walden Pond, he wrote about how easy it is for us to fall into ruts:   “It is remarkable,” he wrote, “how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.   I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct.”

Walden Pond, Concord, Mass. (photo by Rich Higgins)

Walden Pond, Concord, Mass. (photo by Rich Higgins)

We do fall into ruts, it’s just part of being human, but for me, leaving home is one way to shake out the cobwebs and find a new angle of vision.  Get a shift in perspective, a slightly different way of perceiving the world and perhaps myself as well.   It helps me to re-order my priorities, get back to basics, and remember what is truly important to me.

The trick, of course, is to bring that fresh new vision into my everyday life.  And, I’m working on that!  But for now, as I re-enter the familiar rhythms of fall, I’m just feeling grateful for the way that travel seems to open up my eyes and help me “see” in new ways.

And so, before the flurry of the year truly begins.  I pause.  I pore through the notebooks I kept on my trip, look at photographs, consider things seen, stories heard, people encountered, new worlds discovered.



I think back on the paths I walked--what British nature writer Robert McFarland calls “the old ways.  In Southern Scotland, I followed the steps of 7th century monk St. Cuthbert.  I returned to the island of Iona off the western coast of Scotland and tried to retrace St. Columba’s footsteps.  And finally, as if drawn by an invisible thread, I returned to the bleak and barren beauty of the Outer Hebrides.

Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, June 2019

Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, June 2019

I’ll be posting my musings on these “old ways” in future blog posts, so stay tuned!

And now, Thoreau’s words in the last chapter of Walden come back to me again:

“The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!

I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.”



Jenny Rankin