Idle Days in Patagonia, by W. H. Hudson

Chapter XI

Sight in Savages

In Patagonia I added something to my small stock of private facts concerning eyes — their appearance, colour, and expression — and vision, subjects which have had a mild attraction for me as long as I can remember. When, as a boy, I mixed with the gauchos of the pampas, there was one among them who greatly awed me by his appearance and character. He was distinguished among his fellows by his tallness, the thickness of his eyebrows and the great length of his crow-black beard, the form and length of his ‘facon’, or knife, which was nothing but a sword worn knife-wise, and the ballads he composed, in which were recounted, in a harsh tuneless voice to the strum-strum of a guitar, the hand-to-hand combats he had had with others of his class — fighters and desperadoes — and in which he had always been the victor, for his adversaries had all been slain to a man. But his eyes, his most wonderful feature, impressed me more than anything else; for one was black and the other dark blue. All other strange and extranatural things in nature, of which I had personal knowledge, as, for instance, mushrooms growing in rings, and the shrinking of the sensitive plant when touched, and will-o’-the-wisps, and crowing hens, and the murderous attack of social birds and beasts on one of their fellows, seemed less strange and wonderful than the fact that this man’s eyes did not correspond, but were the eyes of two men, as if there had been two natures and souls in one body. My astonishment was, perhaps, not unaccountable, when we reflect that the eye is to us the window of the mind or soul, that it expresses the soul, and is, as it were, the soul itself materialised. Some person lately published in England a book entitled ‘Soul–Shapes’, treating not only of the shapes of souls but also of their colour. The letterpress of this work interests me less than the coloured plates adorning it. Passing over the mixed and vari-coloured souls, which resemble, in the illustrations, coloured maps in an atlas, we come to the blue soul, for which the author has a very special regard. Its blue is like that of the commonest type of blue eye. This curious fancy of a blue soul probably originated in the close association of eye and soul in the mind. It is worthy of note that while the mixed and other coloured souls seem very much out of shape, like an old felt hat or a stranded jelly-fish, the pure-coloured blue soul is round, like an iris, and only wanted a pupil to be made an eye.

But the subject of the colour and expression of eyes in man and animals must be reserved for the next chapter; in the present chapter I shall confine myself to the subject of vision in savage and semi-barbarous men as compared with ours.

Here again I recall an incident of my boyhood, and am not sure that it was not this that first gave me an interest in the subject.

One summer day at home, I was attentively listening, out of doors, to a conversation between two men, both past middle life and about the same age, one an educated Englishman, wearing spectacles, the other a native, who was very impressive in his manner, and was holding forth in a loud authoritative voice on a variety of subjects. All at once he fixed his eyes on the spectacles worn by the other, and, bursting into a laugh, cried out, “Why do you always wear those eye-hiding glasses straddled across your nose? Are they supposed to make a man look handsomer or wiser than his fellows, or do you, a sensible person, really believe that you can see better than another man because of them? If so, then all I can say is that it is a fable, a delusion; no man can believe such a thing.”

He was only expressing the feeling that all persons of his class, whose lives are passed in the semi-barbarous conditions of the gauchos on the pampas, experience at the sight of such artificial helps to vision as spectacles. They look through a pane of common glass, and it makes the view no clearer, but rather dimmer — how can the two diminutive circular panes carried before the eyes produce any other effect? Besides, their sight as a rule is good when they are young, and as they progress in life they are not conscious of decadence in it; from infancy to old age the world looks, they imagine, the same, the grass as green, the sky as blue as ever, and the scarlet verbenas in the grass just as scarlet. The man lives in his sight; it is his life; he speaks of the loss of it as a calamity great as loss of reason. To see spectacles amuses and irritates him at the same time; he has the monkey’s impulse to snatch the idle things from his fellow’s nose; for not only is it useless to the wearer, and a sham, but it is annoying to others, who do not like to look at a man and not properly see his eyes, and the thought that is in them.

To the mocking speech he had made the other good-humouredly replied that he had worn glasses for twenty years, that not only did they enable him to see much better than he could without them, but they had preserved his sight from further decadence. Not satisfied with defending himself against the charge of being a fantastical person for wearing glasses, he in his turn attacked the mocker. “How do you know,” he said, “that your own eyesight has not degenerated with time? You can only ascertain that by trying on a number of glasses suited to a variety of sights, all in some degree defective. A score of men with decaying sight may be together, and in no two will the sight be the same. You must try on spectacles, as you try on boots, until you find a pair to fit you. You may try mine if you like; our years are the same, and it is just possible that our eyes may be in the same condition.”

The gaucho laughed a loud and scornful laugh, and exclaimed that the idea was too ridiculous. “What, see better with this thing!” and he took them gingerly in his hand, and held them up to examine them, and finally put them on his nose — something in the spirit of the person who takes a newspaper twisted into the shape of an extinguisher, and puts it on his head. He looked at the other, then at me, then stared all round him, with an expression of utter astonishment, and in the end burst out in loud exclamations of delight. For, strange to say, the glasses exactly suited his vision, which, unknown to him, had probably been decaying for years. “Angels of heaven, what is this I see!” he shouted. “What makes the trees look so green — they were never so green before! And so distinct — I can count their leaves! And the cart over there — why, it is red as blood!” And to satisfy himself that it had not just been freshly painted he ran over to it and placed his hand on the wood. It proved hard to convince him that objects had once looked as distinct, and leaves as green, and the sky as blue, and red paint as red, to his natural sight, as they now did through those magical glasses. The distinctness and brightness seemed artificial and uncanny. But in the end he was convinced, and then he wanted to keep the spectacles, and pulled out his money to pay for them there and then, and was very much put out when their owner insisted on having them back. However, shortly afterwards a pair was got for him; and with these on his nose he galloped about the country, exhibiting them to all his neighbours, and boasting of the miraculous power they imparted to his eyes of seeing the world as no one else could see it.

My Patagonian host and friend, whose intimate knowledge of cards I have mentioned in a former chapter, once informed me that always after the first few rounds of a game he knew some of the cards, and could recognise them as they were being dealt out, by means of certain slight shades of difference in the colouring of the backs. He had turned his attention to this business when very young, and as he was close upon fifty when he imparted this interesting piece of information, and had always existed comfortably on his winnings, I saw no reason to disbelieve what he told me. Yet this very man, whose vision was keen enough to detect differences in cards so slight that another could not see them, even when pointed out — this preternaturally sharp-eyed individual was greatly surprised when I explained to him that half a dozen birds of the sparrow kind, that fed in his courtyard, and sang and built their nests in his garden and vineyard and fields, were not one but six distinct species. He had never seen any difference in them: they all had the same customs, the same motions; in size, colour, and shape they were all one; to his hearing they all chirped and twittered alike, and warbled the same song.

And as it was with this man, so, to some extent, it is with all of us. that special thing which interests us, and in which we find our profit or pleasure, we see very distinctly, and our memories are singularly tenacious of its image; while other things, in which we take only a general interest, or which are nothing to us, are not seen so sharply, and soon become blurred in memory; and if there happens to be a pretty close resemblance in several of them, as in the case of my gambling friend’s half-a-dozen sparrows, which, like snowflakes, were “seen rather than distinguished,” this indistinctness of their images on the eye and the mind causes them all to appear alike. We have, as it were, two visions — one to which all objects appear vividly and close to us, and are permanently photographed on the mind; the other which sees things at a distance, and with that indistinctness of outline and uniformity of colour which distance gives.

In this place I had proposed to draw on my La Plata note-books for some amusing illustrations of this fact of our two sights; but it is not necessary to go so far afield for illustrations, or to insist on a thing so familiar. “The shepherd knows his sheep,” is a saying just as true of this country — of Scotland, at all events — as of the far East. Detectives, also military men who take an interest in their profession, see faces more sharply than most people, and remember them as distinctly as others remember the faces of a very limited number of individuals — of those they love or fear or constantly associate with. Sailors see atmospheric changes which are not apparent to others; and, in the like manner, the physician detects the signs of malady in faces which to the uninstructed vision seem healthy enough. And so on through the whole range of professions and pursuits which men have; each person inhabits a little world of his own, as it were, which to others is only part of the distant general blueness obscuring all things, but in which, to him, every object stands out with wonderful clearness, and plainly tells its story.

All this may sound very trite, very trivial, and matter of common knowledge — so common as to be known to every schoolboy, and to the boy that goeth not to school; yet it is because this simple familiar fact has been ignored, or has not always been borne in mind by our masters, that they have taught us an error, namely, that savages are our superiors in visual power, and that the difference is so great that ours is a dim decaying sense compared with their brilliant faculty, and that only when we survey the prospect through powerful field-glasses do we rise to their level, and see the world as they see it. The truth is that the savage sight is no better than ours, although it might seem natural enough to think the contrary, on account of their simple natural life in the desert, which is always green and restful to the eye, or supposed to be so; and because they have no gas nor even candlelight to irritate the visual nerve, and do themselves no injury by poring over miserable books.

Possibly, then, the beginning of the error was in this preconceived notion, that greenness and the absence of artificial light, with other conditions of a primitive life, keep the sight from deteriorating. The eye’s adaptiveness did not get sufficient credit. We know how the muscles may be developed by training, that the blacksmith and the prizefighter have mightier arms than others; but it was perhaps assumed that the complex structure and extreme delicacy of the eye would make it less adaptive than other and coarser organs. Whatever the origin of the error may have been, it is certain that it has received the approval of scientists, and that they never open their lips on the subject except to give it fresh confirmation. Their researches have brought to light a great variety of eye-troubles, which, in many cases, are not troublesome at all, until they are discovered, named with a startling name, and described in terms very alarming to persons of timid character. Frequently they are not maladies, but inherited defects, like bandy legs, prominent teeth, crushed toes, tender skin, and numberless other malformations. That such eye-defects are as common among savages as among ourselves, I do not say, and to this matter I shall return later on; but until the eyes of savages are scientifically examined, it seems a very bold thing to say that defective colour-sense is due to the inimical conditions of our civilisation; for we know as little about the colour-sense of savages as we do about the colour-sense of the old Greeks. That the savage sight is vastly more powerful than ours was perhaps not so bold a thing to say, seeing that in this matter our teachers were misled by travellers’ tales, and perhaps by other considerations, as, for instance, the absence of artificial aids to sight among the children of nature. The redskin may be very old, but as he sits sunning himself before his wigwam in the early morning he is never observed to trombone his newspaper.

The reader may spare himself the trouble of smiling, for this is not mere supposition; in this case observation came first and reflection afterwards, for I happen to know something of savages from experience, and when they were using their eyes in their way, and for their purposes, I used mine for my purpose, which was different. It is true that the redskin will point you out an object in the distance and tell its character, and it will be to your sight only a dark-coloured object, which might be a bush, or stone, or animal of some large kind, or even a house. The secret of the difference is that his eye is trained and accustomed to see certain things, which he looks for and expects to find. Put him where the conditions are new to him and he will be at fault; or, even on his native heath, set him before an unfamiliar or unexpected object, and he will show no superiority over his civilised brother. I have witnessed one instance in which not one but five men were all in fault, and made a wrong guess; while the one person of our party who guessed correctly, or saw better perhaps, was a child of civilisation and a reader of books, and, what is perhaps even more, the descendant of a long line of bookish men. This amazed me at the moment, for until then my childlike faith in the belief of Humboldt, and of the world generally, on the subject had never been disturbed. Now I see how this curious thing happened. The object was at such a distance that to all of us alike it presented no definite form, but was merely something dark, standing against a hoary background of tall grass-plumes. Our guides, principally regarding its size, at once guessed it to be an animal which they no doubt expected to find in that place — namely, a wild horse. The other, who did not have that training of the eye and mind for distant objects in the desert which is like an instinct, and, like instinct, is liable to mistakes, and who carefully studied its appearance for himself, pronounced it to be a dark bush. When we got near it turned out to be a clump of tall bulrushes, growing in a place where they had no business to grow, and burnt by drought and frosts to so dark a brown that at a distance they seemed quite black.

In the following case the savage was right. I pointed out an object, dark, far off, so low down as to be just visible above the tall grasses, passing with a falling and rising motion like that of a horseman going at a swinging gallop. “There goes a mounted man,” I remarked. “No — a traru,” returned my companion, after one swift glance; the traru being a large, black, eagle-like bird of the plains, the carancho of the whites — ‘Polyborus tharus’. But the object was not necessarily more distinct to him than to me; he could not see wings and beak at that distance; but the trarú was a familiar object, which he was accustomed to see at all distances — a figure in the landscape which he looked for and expected to find. It was only a dark blot on the horizon; but he knew the animal’s habits and appearance, and that when seen far off, in its low down, dilatory, rising and falling flight, it simulates the appearance of a horseman in full gallop. To know this and a few other things was his vocation. If one had set him to find a reversed little “s” in the middle of a closely-printed page the tears would have run down his brown cheeks, and he would have abandoned the vain quest with aching eyeballs. Yet the proof-reader can find the reversed little “s” in a few moments, without straining his sight. But it is infinitely more important to the savage of the plains than to us to see distant moving objects quickly and guess their nature correctly. His daily food, the recovery of his lost animals, and his personal safety depend on it; and it is not, therefore, strange that every blot of dark colour, every moving and motionless object on the horizon, tells its story better to him than to a stranger; especially when we consider how small a variety of objects he is called on to see and judge of in the level monotonous region he inhabits.

This quick judging of dimly-seen distant things, the eye — and mind-achievement of the mounted barbarian on the unobstructed plains, is not nearly so admirable as that of his fellow-savage in sub-tropical regions overspread with dense vegetation, with animal life in great abundance and variety, and where half the attention must be given to species dangerous to man, often very small in size. In some hot humid forest districts, the European who should attempt to hunt or explore with bare feet and legs would be pricked and lacerated at almost every step of his progress, and probably get bitten by a serpent before the day’s end. Yet the Indian passes his life there, and, naked or half naked, explores the unknown wilderness of thorns, and has only his arrows to provide food for himself and his wife and children. He does not get pierced with thorns and bitten by serpents, because his eye is nicely trained to pick them out in time to save himself. He walks rapidly, but he knows every shade of green, every smooth and crinkled leaf, in that dense tangle, full of snares and deceptions, through which he is obliged to walk; and much as leaf resembles leaf, he sets his foot where he can safely set it, or, quickly choosing between two evils, where the prickles and thorns are softest, or, for some reason known to him, hurt least. In like manner he distinguishes the coiled-up venomous snake, although it lies so motionless — a habit common to the most deadly kinds — and in its dull imitative colouring is so difficult to be distinguished on the brown earth, and among grey sticks and sere and variegated leaves.

A friend of mine, Fontana of Buenos Ayres, who has a life-long acquaintance with the Argentine Indians, expresses the opinion that at the age of twelve years the savage of the pampas has completed his education, and is thereafter able to take care of himself; but that the savage of the Gran Chaco — the sub-tropical Argentine territory bordering on Paraguay and Bolivia — if left to shift for himself at that age would speedily perish, since he is then only in the middle of his long, difficult, and painful apprenticeship. It was curious and pitiful, he says, to see the little Indian children in the Chaco, when their skins were yet tender, stealing away from their mother, and trying to follow the larger ones playing at a distance. At every step they would fall, and get pricked with thorns or cut with sharp-edged rushes, and tangled in the creepers, and hurt and crying they would struggle on, and in this painful manner learn at last where to set their feet.

The snake on the ground, coloured like the ground, and shaped like the dead curved sticks or vines seen everywhere on the ground, and motionless like the vine, does not more closely assimilate to its surroundings than birds in trees often do — the birds which the Indian must also see. A stranger in these regions, even the naturalist with a sight quickened by enthusiasm, finds it hard to detect a parrot in a lofty tree, even when he knows that parrots are there; for their greenness in the green foliage, and the correlated habit they possess of remaining silent and motionless in the presence of an intruder, make them invisible to him, and he is astonished that the Indian should be able to detect them. The Indian knows how to look for them; it is his trade, which is long to learn; but he is obliged to learn it, for his success in life, and even life itself, depends on it, since in the savage state Nature kills those who fail in her competitive examinations.

The reader has doubtless often seen those little picture-puzzles, variously labelled “Where’s the Cat?” or “Mad Bull,” or “Burglar,” or “Policeman,” or “Snake in the Grass,” etc., in which the thing named and to be discovered is formed by branches and foliage, and by running water, and drapery, and lights and shadows in the sketch. At first one finds it extremely difficult to detect this picture within a picture; and at last — with the suddenness with which one invariably detects a dull-coloured snake, seen previously but not distinguished — the object sought for appears, and is thereafter so plain to the eye that one cannot look at the sketch, even held at a distance, without seeing the cat, or policeman, or whatever it happens to be. And after patiently studying some scores or hundreds of these puzzles one gets to know just how to find the thing concealed, and finds it quickly — almost at a glance at last. Now the ingenious person that first invented this pretty puzzle probably had no thought of Nature, with her curious imitative and protective resemblances, in his mind; yet he might very well have taken the hint from Nature, for this is what she does. The animal that must be seen to be avoided, and the animal that must be seen to be taken, are there in her picture, sketched in with such cunning art that to the uninstructed eye they form only portions of branch and foliage and shadow and sunlight above, and dull-hued or variegated earth and stones and dead and withering herbage underneath.

It is possible that slight differences may exist in the seeing powers of different nations, due to the effect of physical conditions: thus, the inhabitants of mountainous districts and of dry elevated table-lands may have a better sight than dwellers in low, humid, and level regions, although just the reverse may be the case. Among European nations the Germans are generally supposed to have weak eyes, owing, some imagine, to their excessive indulgence in tobacco; while others attribute the supposed decay to the form of type used in their books, which requires closer looking at than ours in reading. That they will deteriorate still further in this direction, and from being a spectacled people become a blind one, to the joy of their enemies, is not likely to happen, and probably the decadence has been a great deal exaggerated. Animals living in darkness become near-sighted, and then nearer-sighted still, and so on progressively until the vanishing point is reached. In a community or nation a similar decline might begin from much reading of German books, or perpetual smoking of pipes with big china bowls, or from some other unknown cause; but the decay could not progress far, because there is nothing in man to take the place of sight, as there is in the blind cave rats and fishes and insects. And if we could survey mankind from China to Peru with all the scientific appliances which are brought to bear on the Board-school children in London, and on the nation generally, the differences in the powers of vision in the various races, nations, and tribes would probably appear very insignificant. The mistake which eye specialists and writers on the eye make is that they think too much about the eye. When they affirm that the conditions of our civilisation are highly injurious to the sight, do they mean all the million conditions, or sets of conditions, embraced by our system, with the infinite variety of occupations and modes of living which men have, from the lighthouse-keeper to the worker underground, whose day is the dim glimmer of a miner’s lamp? “An organ exercised beyond its wont will grow, and thus meet increase of demand by increase of supply,” Herbert Spencer says; but, he adds, there is a limit soon reached, beyond which it is impossible to go. This increase of demand with us is everywhere — now on this organ and now on that, according to our work and way of life, and the eye is in no worse case than the other organs. There are among us many cases of heart complaint; civilisation, in such cases, has put too great a strain on that organ, and it has reached the limit beyond which it cannot go. And so with the eye. The total number of the defective among us is no doubt very large, for we know that our system of life retards — it cannot effectually prevent — the healthy action of natural selection. Nature pulls one way and we pull the other, compassionately trying to save the unfit from the consequences of their unfitness. The humane instinct compels us; but the cruel instinct of the savage is less painful to contemplate than that mistaken or perverted compassion which seeks to perpetuate unfitness, and in the interest of suffering individuals inflicts a lasting injury on the race. It is a beautiful and sacred thing to minister to the blind, and to lead them, but a horrible thing to encourage them to marry and transmit the miserable defective condition to their posterity. Yet this is very common; and not long ago a leader-writer in one of the principal London journals spoke of this very thing in terms of rapturous approval, and looked forward to the growth of a totally blind race of men among us, as though it were something to be proud of — a triumph of our civilisation!

Pelleschi, in his admirable book on the Chaco Indians, says that malformations are never seen in these savages, that physically they are all perfect men; and he remarks that in their exceedingly hard struggle for existence in a thorny wilderness, beset with perils, any bodily defect or ailment would be fatal. And as the eye in their life is the most important organ, it must be an eye without flaw. In this circumstance only do savages differ from us — namely, in the absence or rarity of defective eyes among them; and when those who, like Dr. Brudenell Carter, believe in the decadence of the eye in civilised man quote Humboldt’s words about the miraculous sight of South American savages, they quote an error. It is not strange that Humboldt should have fallen into it, for after all, he had only the means which we all possess of finding out things — a limited sight and a fallible mind. Like the savage, he had trained his faculties to observe and infer, and his inferences, like those of the savage, were sometimes wrong.

The savage sight is no better than ours for the simple reason that a better is not required. Nature has given to him, as to all her creatures, only what was necessary, and nothing for ostentation. Standing on the ground, his horizon is a limited one; and the animals he preys on, if often sharper-eyed and swifter than he, are without intelligence, and thus things are made equal. He can see the rhea as far as the rhea can see him; and if he possessed the eagle’s far-seeing faculty it would be of no advantage to him. The high-soaring eagle requires to see very far, but the low-flying owl is near-sighted. And so on through the whole animal world: each kind has sight sufficient to find its food and escape from its enemies, and nothing beyond. Animals that live close to the surface have a very limited sight. Moreover, other faculties may usurp the eye’s place, or develop so greatly as to make the eye of only secondary importance as an organ of intelligence. The snake offers a curious case. No other sense seems to have developed in it, yet I take the snake to be one of the nearest-sighted creatures in existence. From long observation of them I am convinced that small snakes of very sluggish habits do not see distinctly farther than from one to three yards. But the sluggish snake is the champion faster in the animal world, and can afford to lie quiescent until the wind of chance blows something eatable in its way; hence it does not require to see an object distinctly until almost within striking distance. Another remarkable case is that of the armadillo. Of two species I can confidently say that, if they are not blind, they are next door to blindness; yet they are diurnal animals that go abroad in the full glare of noon and wander far in search of food. But their sense of smell is marvellously acute, and, as in the case of the mole, it has made sight superfluous. To come back to man: if, in a state of nature, he is able to guess the character of objects nine times in ten, or nineteen in twenty, seen as far as he requires to see anything, his intellectual faculties make a better sight unnecessary. If the armadillo’s scent had not been so keen, and man had not been gifted with nimble brains, the sight in both cases would have been vastly stronger; but the sharpening of its sense of smell has dimmed the armadillo’s eyes and made him blinder than a snake; while man (from no fault of his own) is unable to see farther than the wolf and the ostrich and the wild ass.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38