Urban Eyes


One of my favorite books of all time is Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses.  I try to keep up with everything that Ms. Ackerman writes, but somehow lost sight that she authored a book in 2014 (The Human Age) about how we shape our environment, and how we, in turn are shaped by our environment.

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There is a passage in her chapter, Nature Pixilated, that is so sumptuous that I’m going to reproduce it in its entirety in order to do it justice.  It is the lay person’s literary analog to the material published by our colleagues, Drs. Nick Despotidis and Noah Tannen.  Ms. Ackerman writes:

“Near- or farsightedness was always assumed to be hereditary.  No more.  In the United States, one-third of all adults are now myopic, and nearsightedness has been soaring in Europe as well.  In Asia the numbers are staggering.  A recent study testing the eyesight of students in Shanghai and young men in Seoul reported that 95 percent were nearsighted.  From Canberra to Ohio, one finds similar myopia, a generation of people who can’t see the forest for the trees.  This malady, known as “urban eyes”, stems from spending too much time indoors, crouched over small screens.  Our eyeballs adjust by changing shape, growing longer, which is bad news for those of us squinting to see far away.  For normal eye growth, children need to play outside, maybe watching how a squirrel’s nest, high atop an old hickory tree, sways in the wind, then zooming down to the runnel-rib on an individual blade of grass.  Is that brown curtsey at the bottom of the yard a wild turkey or a windblown chrysanthemum?

In the past, bands of humans hunted and gathered, eyes nimble, keenly attuned to a nearby scuffle or a distant dust-mist, as they struggled to survive.  Natural light, peripheral images, a long field of view, lots of vitamin D, an ever-present horizon, and a caravan of visual feedback shaped their eyes.  They chipped flint and arrowheads, flayed and stitched hides, and did other close work, but not for the entire day.  Close work now dominates our lives, but that’s very recent, one of the Anthropocene’s hallmarks, and we may evolve into a more myopic species.”

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