Sensory Perception

Text & photo by Virginia Parker Staat

Writing is like painting with words, the paper is the canvas, the pen is the brush, the words are the colors and the verbs, nouns and adjectives are the blending of the hues that add depth to the picture you are creating.  ~  Reed Abbitt Moore

baobab tree
The magnificent and wondrous baobab, or tree of life.

On our recent visit to the Kimberly region of Australia, we discovered the baobab. These trees are truly magnificent with their massive, bottle-shape trunks, spreading crowns, and finger-like branches. They only reside in the drier regions of Africa, Madagascar, and northern Australia. Known as trees of life, a single baobab can hold 120,000 liters of water in the fibrous pith of its trunk and branches. In times of drought, Bushmen poke holes in its trunk to draw out the water while animals chew on the baobab branches, using them like straws to drink. 

We were so entranced by the baobab that David asked his sister Roberta if we could commission her to paint one for us. Roberta is an amazing and accomplished Plein Air painter. She flatly told us no. Although her answer was disappointing, her reasoning made complete sense to me. 

Roberta told us she could only paint something she knew. I asked her to explain her process. Whenever she paints, Roberta first needs to spend time with her subject. If it is a tree, she stands under it. She looks at it from a distance and from all sides. She needs to observe the way the air smells, the feel of the bark, and the texture of the soil beneath the tree. She watches the way the tree sways in the wind. She listens to the rustle of its leaves. She looks closely at the plants and landscape surrounding the tree. She wants to hear stories about it and observe how others react to it. Finally, she uses her camera to capture what she has learned so that when she returns to her studio she can recall the entire sensual experience. 

Although I didn’t recognize it until Roberta’s explanation, in many ways, her approach to painting is similar to my approach to writing about a specific place or thing. I need to know it personally. I am tactile and want to touch. I want to use all my senses to absorb my subject matter. 

To be successful outdoor writers, I believe we must take the same artistic approach as a painter to understand our subjects before we begin writing. We must immerse ourselves on an experiential level in order to successfully draw word pictures with our pen like an artist uses a brush to create paintings. These vivid word pictures evoke emotion and connection in our readers. 

When we immerse ourselves in our subject, we use all of our sensory perceptions. In Writing about Nature, John Murray describes this approach to writing: “Above all, look for texture, color, lines, shadowing, and movement in the same way an artist does. Search for those important details that make the scene singular. At the same time, look for images that will make the scene familiar to your readers.”Our nature experiences don’t need to be as exotic as standing under a baobab tree. Backyard experiences can be just as sensual. When outdoor writers focus on their subjects in an artistic way, we utilize all of our senses to form word pictures that come alive for our readers. In the process, we can better impart our stories, connect with and challenge our readers, share our experiences, advocate for nature, and, most importantly, engage our readers’ imagination to see our subjects with new and focused eyes.