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My daughter, Susie, is a scant five feet tall. She went to the University of North Carolina at the same time as six-foot-six-inch Michael Jordan. One day, they both got in an empty dorm elevator together. The door closed; one looked up, one looked down and they both spontaneously started laughing. 

Scale is important.

And no matter how many times you’ve seen Monet’s waterlilies in books, on computer screens or in slide shows, you are not prepared for the wallop they have in person at the Orangerie. They spread out across your vision from one peripheral side to the other.

Scale matters.

In 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts photographed the “Blue Marble” Earth from roughly 18,000 miles, giving us an image of the wet, watery ball we live on. It looks small and vulnerable — and it is, in the immensity of space. But it also gives a misleading impression of the scale of the planet.

Scientists may measure scale with numbers and exponents, but each of us, personally, can only conceptualize size and distance against our bodies and senses. Who of us can tell the immediate difference between 1011 and 1110? Which is the larger number? But between your fingers, you can tell which of two grains of sand is larger, merely by feel. 

In 2008, I drove from Phoenix, Ariz. to Reidsville, N.C., over a weekend, a trip of about 2,200 miles, or roughly 1/11th of the circumference of the globe. I left after work on a Friday and pulled in to Reidsville on Monday morning. I was hauling ass, as they say. On the Sunday, I drove 900 miles. The trip was exhausting, but gave me a palpable sense of the size of the world. I could feel it, because I drove over it.

(And, by the way, the world is not flat: I could see the great grain elevators of the Midwest rise from the curved horizon before me and, after I passed, watch them settle, like the setting sun, behind me.)

In 1989, I flew from Phoenix to South Africa, a flight that spent some 40 hours in the air. The popular image is that if you dig straight down in your back yard in America, you eventually hit China, but this isn’t so. Directly opposite Phoenix on the Great Blue Marble is a spot in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of South Africa. 

So my flight was literally to the antipodes. (It took so long because in that apartheid era, I had to take an especially roundabout route to my destination: Phoenix to Philadelphia, changing flights to Frankfurt, Germany, changing again to a South Africa Airlines flight that, because of opposition to apartheid, was not permitted to overfly most other nations in Africa, and so, had to fly out over the Atlantic, refuel in the Azores, and cruise over the water all the way to Namibia before finally landing in Johannesburg.) It took Lindbergh 33 hours to cross just the Atlantic.

Such a trip really gives you a sense of the scale of the planet.

Before air travel, however, such a voyage would take months, not hours, providing an even more body-interior feel for the distance. In 1967, I took a trans-Atlantic ocean liner to Europe, and the monotony of the unchanging sea, day to day, made the earth seem even larger. My trip took four days and a bit. It took Columbus more than two months to cross the Atlantic.

The point I am making with all this travel tale, is that scale, whether looking at Picasso’s Guernica, or watching the odometer while driving from Bangor to Seattle, is that scale is felt in the body, it is measured by human proportions. As Protagoras recognized in the Fifth Century BC, “Man is the measure of all things.”

When we look out at the night sky and realize we are at the bottom of a seemingly infinite and dark well, we can be awed, but we cannot feel in our bodies the inestimable size of the cosmos.

Yes, we can speak of it in abstractions. We can point out that Voyager I, now in interstellar space, is traveling at a speed of 17,000 miles per second — which would take about a second and a half to circle the Earth — and will cover 325 million miles in a year. Yet, at that speed, it would take it  some 45 thousand years to reach the nearest star. There is no way you can process that scale in your paltry human skin. We can talk in big words, like billions and trillions, but outside of abstract mathematical numbers, can you actually feel the difference between a billion miles and a trillion? They are meaningless words. You might as accurately call it a “gazillion.”

Do not misunderstand me. Humans have been amazing at understanding the cosmos intellectually. We can calculate the orbit of a satellite within what seems like a few inches. But I am not talking here about abstract reasoning.

There is a limit to the human imagination. We can calculate overwhelming numbers, but in terms of body knowledge — being able to physically conceptualize — such numbers turn into little more than words. 

We can use the math for engineering and for science, but we must recognize that our puny minds cannot get their arms around such boggling numbers. We are limited by the evolution of our human brains, which grew to process the daily income of sense data. We can feel the road under us as we speed along the interstate; we cannot feel the gap between Earth and Alpha Centauri. We can name it, but we cannot feel it. 

All trans-human scales are metamorphosed into a single size: Infinite, or might-as-well-be. It is what we feel when we turn our eyes up toward Orion or the Milky Way.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on the Spirit of the Senses website Oct. 2, 2018

The best gift a writer can get is proof that his words are being read, and not just read, but understood. (When I was writing for the newspaper, too often I heard from readers who complained about what they thought I wrote and not what I actually wrote. Every writer has had this experience.)

The other day, I received such a gift, a small one, not meant to be anything important, but it was completely meaningful to me. This gift was from an old and dear friend who I only see once or twice a year, and to our lunchdate, she brought a 3-by-5 notecard on which she had scribbled with every color green she could extract from her colored pencil set. I doubt she knew how much that meant to me. 

It was a gloss on my most recent blog essay, in which I had mentioned how many greens I saw in the foliage in the woods and garden I was visiting, and also how many greens Paul Cezanne had managed to generate in his paintings. The card she plopped down on the table was meant to be a casual joke, but to me, it was very much more than that. We don’t always know the significance of what we do. 

But it set me to thinking about those greens — blue-green, yellow-green, sea-green, leaf-green (not enough words for the varieties of hue) — and made me take my camera out to the garden again to gather my own set of greens. Nature gushes with them. 

There are three qualities that make an image: shape, color and texture. (Leaving aside the question of what you name the subject of a picture: “That’s a house;” “That’s a car;” “That’s my Aunt Philomela at the beach house in Boca.”) Shape can be defined by outline. Color and texture fill those outlines in and what is more, if you are making an image in black and white, texture (stippling, crosshatching, scribbling) can substitute for color. Each of these elements can be as much a delight to the eye as harmony is to the ear or flavor to the palate. 

And so, I walked through the yard drinking in the greens and pointing my camera to arrange the patterns of shape, color and texture to try to make a kind of visual mixed salad for the eye. 

In the afternoon, I drove out into the countryside and stopped near the Mayo River — barely a river — that I had once canoed down maybe 50-plus years ago, hitting white water on the way (if the canoe had capsized, I doubt the water would have gotten higher than my knees). Along the banks were further salad greens. I gathered them all in my lens. 

The pleasure later that evening was editing the photographs, collating those shapes and textures and those luscious greens. “No white nor red was ever seen/ So am’rous as this lovely green.”

Many years ago, the professor I studied under commented offhandedly that nature never made a bad color combination. Any two colors found in nature, he said, could be placed side by side for a satisfying esthetic treat. Salmon red and pea green. The blue and yellow of a spiderwort flower. The orange and black of a monarch butterfly. 

Humans are quite capable of jarring our eyes with garish mismatches — gaze down any “Miracle Mile” for its signage — but nature, he said, is always right. Of course, our pleasure in the color-matches of nature should probably be laid at the feet of natural selection: We have evolved to love those colors and perhaps we shouldn’t be too glib about assuming that nature had us in mind when she plopped the buttercups next to the violets along the highways. 

 The riot of greens I saw and photographed played off against each other, making color combinations as rich in greens as the roadside flowers made of whites and yellows. 

And the various textures of leaf surface made their own contrasts. 

And the lights and darks, as shadow and light hit the foliage, gave them visual depth. 

Deep in one image, the bright green leaves nearer the surface hid the shadowed poison ivy, almost hidden in a cavern of green.

Leaves come in varieties of all of them. And when you layer one next to another, the contrast can keep the eye interested. 

In the process, I found myself drinking in not just the colors, but the varied shapes, creating patterns and textures that delighted my eye. 

Shape against shape, color against color, texture against texture: the analog of variety in the world, a variety that means we can never grasp it all — there is too much. 

One gets to know the plants in the woods near where you live, perhaps even name them: Duchesnia, Tradescantia, Helianthus, Ranunculus. They are part of what makes your home territory comfortable and familiar. Clovers, mosses, ferns, plantains, dandelions.  

And there is excitement when you enter a new biome and come across new greens, like the gray-green greasewood of the Sonoran Desert or the euphorbias of South Africa, each with its idiosyncratic shades and tints. 

Before the photographs from space showed us the dominant blue of our world, the Earth was traditionally called a “green planet.” It is green that makes life possible. Without it, the planet would be bare rock surrounded by the blue sea. 

Each time I visit this part of the state, I can’t help but set myself a task — a kind of art project, to try to organize a different way of seeing. A few days ago, my task was to look straight down at the ground to see what it looked like. I made more than a hundred photographs I could use. After I wrote that blog entry, and after my friend gave me her gift, I began a second project, to see how many greens I could find, how many leaf shapes and contrasts I could photograph.

These that I’m presenting here are just a small sample. But I hope they are worth looking at, at least as a tasting menu of delicious green.

Click any image to enlarge