Eyes and No Eyes
by Dr. John Aiken and Mrs. Anna Letitia Barbauld
OR, THE ART OF SEEING
"Well, Robert, where have you been walking this afternoon?"
said Mr. Andrews to one of his pupils at the close of a holiday.
R. I have been, sir, to Broom Heath, and so around by the
windmill upon Camp Mount, and home through the meadows by the
Mr. A. Well, that's a pleasant round.
R. I thought it very dull, sir; I scarcely met with a single
person. I had rather by half have gone along the turnpike road.
Mr. A. Why, if seeing men and horses is your object, you would,
indeed, be better entertained on the high road. But did you see William?
R. We set out together, but he lagged behind in the lane, so I
walked on, and left him.
Mr. A. That was a pity. He would have been company for
R. O, he is so tedious, always stopping to look at this thing
and that! I had rather walk alone. I dare say he is not got home
Mr. A. Here he comes. Well, William, where have you been?
W. O, sir, the pleasantest walk! I went all over Broom Heath,
and so up to the mill at the top of the hill, and then down among
the green meadows by the side of the river.
Mr. A. Why, that is just the round Robert has been taking, and
he complains of its dullness, and prefers the high road.
W. I wonder at that. I am sure I hardly took a step that did
not delight me, and I brought home my handkerchief full of
Mr. A. Suppose, then, you give us some account of what amused
you so much. I fancy it will be as new to Robert as to me.
W. I will, sir. The lane leading to the heath, you know, is
close and sandy, so I did not mind it much, but made the best of my
way. However, I spied a curious thing enough in the hedge. It was an
old crab-tree, out of which grew a great bunch of something green,
quite different from the tree itself. Here is a branch of it.
Mr. A. Ah! this is mistletoe, a plant of great fame for the
use made of it by the Druids of old in their religious rites and
incantations. It bears a very slimy white berry, of which birdlime
may be made, whence its Latin name of viscus, It is one of
those plants which do not grow in the ground by a root of their own,
but fix themselves upon other plants; whence they have been humorously
styled parasitical, as being hangers-on or dependants. It was the
mistletoe of the oak that the Druids particularly honored.
W. A little further on I saw a green woodpecker fly to a tree,
and run up the trunk like a cat.
Mr. A. That was to seek for insects in the bark, on which they
live. They bore holes with their strong bills for that purpose, and
do much damage to the trees by it.
W. What beautiful birds they are!
Mr. A. Yes; they have been called from their color and size,
the English parrot.
W. When I got upon the open heath, how charming it was! The
air seemed so fresh, and the prospect on every side so free and
unbounded! Then it was all covered with gay flowers, many of which
I had never observed before. There were at least three kinds of
heath (I have got them in my handkerchief here), and gorse, and
broom, and bell-flower, and many others of all colors, that I will
beg you presently to tell me the names of.
Mr. A. That I will readily.
W. I saw, too, several birds that were new to me. There was
a pretty grayish one, of the size of a lark, that was hopping about
some great stones; and when he flew he showed a great deal of white
above his tail.
Mr. A. That was a wheat-ear. They are reckoned very delicious
birds to eat, and frequent the open downs in Sussex, and some other
counties, in great numbers.
W. There was a flock of lapwings upon a marshy part of the
heath, that amused me much. As I came near them, some of them
kept flying round and round just over my head, and crying "pewit"
so distinctly one might almost fancy they spoke. I thought I should
have caught one of them, for he flew as if one of his wings was
broken, and often tumbled close to the ground; but, as I came near,
he always made a shift to get away.
Mr. A. Ha, ha! you were finely taken in, then! This was all an
artifice of the bird's to entice you away from its nest; for they
build upon the bare ground, and their nests would easily be observed,
did they not draw off the attention of intruders by their loud
cries and counterfeit lameness.
W. I wish I had known that, for he led me a long chase, often
over shoes in water. However, it was the cause of my falling in with
an old man and a boy who were cutting and piling up turf for fuel,
and I had a good deal of talk with them about the manner of preparing
the turf, and the price it sells at. They gave me, too, a
creature I never saw before,—a young viper, which they had just
killed, together with its dam. I have seen several common snakes,
but this is thicker in proportion and of a darker color than they are.
Mr. A. True. Vipers frequent those turfy boggy grounds, and I
have known several turf-cutters bitten by them.
W. They are very venomous, are they not?
Mr. A. Enough so to make their wounds painful and dangerous,
though they seldom prove fatal.
W. Well—I then took my course up to the windmill on the
mount. I climbed up the steps of the mill in order to get a better
view of the country round. What an extensive prospect! I counted
fifteen church steeples, and I saw several gentlemen's houses peeping
out from the midst of green woods and plantations; and I could
trace the windings of the river all along the low grounds, till it was
lost behind a ridge of hills. But I'll tell you what I mean to do,
sir, if you will give me leave.
Mr. A. What is that?
W. I will go again, and take with me Carey's county map, by
which I shall probably be able to make out most of the places.
Mr. A. You shall have it, and I will go with you, and take my
W. I shall be very glad of that. Well—a thought struck me,
that as the hill is called Camp Mount, there might probably be some
remains of ditches and mounds with which I have read that camps
were surrounded. And I really believe I discovered something of
that sort running round one side of the mount.
Mr. A. Very likely you might. I know antiquaries have described
such remains as existing there, which some suppose to be
Roman, others Danish. We will examine them further, when we
W. From the hill I went straight down to the meadows below,
and walked on the side of a brook that runs into the river. It was
all bordered with reeds and flags, and tall flowering plants, quite
different from those I had seen on the heath. As I was getting
down the bank co reach one of them, I heard something plunge into
the water near me. It was a large water-rat, and I saw it swim
over to the other side, and go into its hole. There were a great
many large dragon-flies all about the stream. I caught one of the
finest, and have him here in a leaf. But how I longed to catch a
bird that I saw hovering over the water, and every now and then
darting down into it! It was all over a mixture of the most beautiful
green and blue, with some orange color. It was somewhat less
than a thrush, and had a large head and bill, and a short tail.
Mr. A. I can tell you what that bird was—a kingfisher, the
celebrated halcyon of the ancients, about which so many tales are
told. It lives on fish, which it catches in the manner you saw. It
builds in holes in the banks, and is a shy, retired bird, never to be
seen far from the stream where it inhabits.
W. I must try to get another sight of him, for I never saw a bird
that pleased me so much. Well—I followed this little brook till
it entered the river, and then took the path that runs along the bank.
On the opposite side I observed several little birds running along the
shore, and making a piping noise. They were brown and white, and
about as big as a snipe.
Mr. A. I suppose they were sandpipers, one of the numerous
family of birds that get their living by wading among the shallows,
and picking up worms and insects.
W. There were a great many swallows, too, sporting upon the
surface of the water, that entertained me with their motions. Sometimes
they dashed into the stream; sometimes they pursued one another
so quick, that the eye could scarcely follow them. In one
place, where a high, steep sandbank rose directly above the river, I
observed many of them go in and out of holes with which the bank
was bored full.
Mr. A. Those were sand martins, the smallest of our species of
swallows. They are of a mouse-color above, and white beneath.
They make their nests and bring up their young in these holes, which
run a great depth, and by their situation are secure from all
W. A little further on I saw a man in a boat, who was catching
eels in an odd way. He had a long pole, with broad iron prongs at
the end, just like Neptune's trident, only there were five instead of
three. This he pushed straight down among the mud, in the deepest
parts of the river, and fetched up the eels, sticking between the
Mr. A. I have seen this method. It is called spearing of eels.
W. While I was looking at him, a heron came flying over my
head, with his large flagging wings. He lit at the next turn of the
river, and I crept softly behind the bank to watch his motions. He
had waded into the water as far as his long legs would carry him,
and was standing with his neck drawn in, looking intently on the
stream. Presently he darted his long bill as quick as lightning into
the water, and drew out a fish, which he swallowed. I saw him
catch another in the same manner. He then took alarm at some
noise I made, and flew away slowly to a wood at some distance,
where he alighted.
Mr. A. Probably his nest was there, for herons build upon the
loftiest trees they can find, and sometimes in society together, like
rooks. Formerly, when these birds were valued for the amusement
of hawking, many gentlemen had their heronries, and a few are still
W. I think they are the largest wild birds we have.
Mr. A. They are of a great length and spread of wing, but their
bodies are comparatively small.
W. I then turned homeward across the meadows, where I stopped
awhile to look at a large flock of starlings, which kept flying about
at no great distance. I could not tell at first what to make of them;
for they rose all together from the ground as thick as a swarm of
bees, and formed themselves into a kind of black cloud, hovering
over the field. After taking a short round, they settled again, and
presently rose again in the same manner. I dare say there were
hundreds of them.
Mr. A. Perhaps so; for in the fenny countries their flocks are
so numerous, as to break down whole acres of reeds by settling on
them. This disposition of starlings to fly in close swarms was observed
even by Homer, who compares the foe flying from one of his heroes to a
cloud of stares retiring dismayed at the approach of the hawk.
W. After I had left the meadows, I crossed the corn-fields in
the way to our house, and passed close by a deep marle pit. Looking
into it, I saw in one of the sides a cluster of what I took to be
shells; and upon going down, I picked up a clod of marle, which
was quite full of them; but how sea-shells could get there, I cannot
Mr. A. I do not wonder at your surprise, since many philosophers
have been much perplexed to account for the same appearance. It is not
uncommon to find great quantities of shells and relics of marine
animals even in the bowels of high mountains, very remote from the sea.
They are certainly proofs that the earth was once in a very different
state from what it is at present; but in what manner and how long ago
these changes took place can only be guessed at.
W. I got to the high field next our house just as the sun was
setting, and I stood looking at it till it was quite lost. What a
glorious sight! The clouds were tinged purple and crimson and
yellow of all shades and hues, and the clear sky varied from blue to
a fine green at the horizon. But how large the sun appears just as it
sets! I think it seems twice as big as when it is overhead.
Mr. A. It does so; and you may probably have observed the
same apparent enlargement of the moon at its rising.
W. I have; but pray what is the reason of this?
Mr. A. It is an optical deception, depending upon principles
which I cannot well explain to you till you know more of that
branch of science. But what a number of new ideas this afternoon's
walk has afforded you! I do not wonder that you found it
amusing; it has been very instructive, too. Did you see nothing
of all these sights, Robert?
R. I saw some of them, but I did not take particular notice of
Mr. A. Why not?
R. I don't know. I did not care about them, and I made the
best of my way home.
Mr. A. That would have been right if you had been sent of a
message; but as you only walked for amusement, it would have been
wiser to have sought out as many sources of it as possible. But so
it is—one man walks through the world with his eyes open, and
another with them shut; and upon this difference depends all the
superiority of knowledge the one acquires above the other. I have
known sailors, who had been in all the quarters of the world, and
could tell you nothing but the signs of the tippling-houses they
frequented in different ports, and the price and quality of the liquor.
On the other hand, a Franklin could not cross the Channel, without
making some observations useful to mankind. While many a vacant,
thoughtless youth is whirled throughout Europe without gaining
a single idea worth crossing a street for, the observing eye and
inquiring mind find matter of improvement and delight in every
ramble in town or country. Do you, then, William, continue to
make use of your eyes; and you, Robert, learn that eyes were
given you to use.