Looking, Seeing

By Amy Knight

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The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona


This week I got a new pair of glasses. My prescription didn’t change—I only got new frames—but it brought me back to the last time I got a new prescription. For days I was looking at things that had always been there, seeing things I hadn’t seen before. This included the lovely (the mountains had a sharpness to their peaks, relief of their shadows I had never realized) and the less lovely (faint cobwebs not quite blending into the corners in my living room). It’s a strange experience, and a good reminder that whether or not things exist is not all that related to whether we see them.

So it is not just with vision but with knowledge. A new word learned suddenly appears everywhere. Over the last few weeks, I have learned about things I never knew existed. Before I started this project I of course knew about and could recognize PV panels and rain barrels, although I’ve certainly started seeing them more as I’ve paid more attention. But what’s really striking is the prevalence of things I was clueless about: water harvesting earthworks and passive solar applications.

The construction of things like basins and swales to direct runoff is brand new to me. The idea of shaping the earth so runoff will water a tree—rather than, say, planting a tree with a decorative border encircling it that looks pretty but actually keeps water away from the tree, requiring you to then irrigate to water it—makes perfect sense, but I had never thought about it, and so I had never seen it. Now, when I go for a run, I notice the yards that are constructed this way. It’s not so terribly rare—and there are more of them all the time.

I’ve also started to notice places where these principles are flagrantly ignored, even in new plantings. They’ve just added a median with landscaping in the middle of Campbell Avenue in central Tucson, including planting some brand new trees. Each tree has, around its base, a nice shiny new curb that will practically guarantee that no water will flow over the ground to these plantings. How stupid of them, I think, with my brand new and extremely limited knowledge. (Indeed, for all I know, there are good reasons for doing it this way in this setting. Still, I notice. I wonder.)

This kind of judgment inevitably raises the fear that I am being judged myself. I just learned this, but my habits and choices that ignore simple principles have, like the cobwebs, been there all along, in full view of those who see more clearly. People have been seeing me all along and thinking, how stupid of her.

The shame that comes with this is, I recognize, rooted in vanity. It’s in the performance of goodness, not in goodness itself. True goodness cares only about progress, not about looking good to spectators. If I can make well informed and useful choices going forward, it doesn’t matter in the slightest that I didn’t realize that yesterday. It’s a good thing for all of us that I realized it before tomorrow, and let’s get on with it.

But still. I am not devoid of vanity. (I got those new glasses, didn’t I, when my prescription was still perfectly adequate? And for heaven’s sake, I am chronicling this process in a public forum.)

But before I go beating myself up too much, I note that this particular brand of vanity—wanting to be perceived as doing the right thing, as being well informed and concerned and generous—is not without value. It is less evolved, psychologists tell us, than true morality, but it’s on the right spectrum, going the right direction. There are plenty of people who don’t even see those qualities as important or desirable, who do not strive to display them.

It also serves a practical function. It spurs good behavior, which is a good thing whatever the motivation. If I do the right thing because I know someone is watching me, I have still done the right thing. It calls to mind a study I read once, finding that people using public restrooms washed their hands almost twice as often when there was someone else in the restroom as when they were alone and (they thought) unobserved. Is it so bad that our understanding that we’re supposed to do something, rather than our intrinsic goodness, spurs us to do it, if the end result is to slow the spread of disease, or the draining of our aquifers? That is a victory for the hard-working activists and policymakers who have convinced us, the public, that we have obligations to each other, to our planet, that we can enforce against one another. Maybe they can’t change what’s in our hearts but they can, slowly, change what is perceived as acceptable.

The risk is that vanity will interfere with goodness, by substituting for it and causing me to give up when I’ve achieved only the appearance of responsibility, or by paralyzing me with the fear of looking ignorant. Because the truth is, I am ignorant. I’ll just have to try, day by day, to become a little bit less so.



Amy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at amy@terrain.org or leave a comment here.
Sunset from my balcony

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.