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Cultivating the Capacity to Observe the Natural World

This fall I have taken to recording some of my observations of the natural world in a journal. I find this practice to be instructive and rewarding because it enables me to document new discoveries and to reflect upon capacities that I would like to cultivate. The following observations are excerpts from my journal….

Observations 9/11/2010

 

            The air today is still. The bumblebees and I are relishing the last of summer’s warmth. Goldenrod marches stiffly down the southwestern slope with spotted knapweed in pursuit. I watch a bumblebee with bulging pollen sacks as he moves among the flowers. The flattened, dried grasses to my right are behaving strangely—murmuring amongst themselves and reaching into the air. There is, I suspect, some small animal tunneling beneath them. I watch in silent anticipation as the originator of the murmuring moves closer. Then she or he turns and circles up the hill. Flies dance about my head, alighting now and again to explore the terrain about my face. I am tempted to flail but fascination holds me in its steady grip until my tunneling friend returns. She emerges perhaps two feet from my leg, her bright eyes shining. For a moment she busies herself near the entrance of the tunnel. Then, spotting me, she leaps into the welcoming embrace of the grasses and disappears with astonishing speed. Below me is an anthill toward which I amble after determining that the mouse will not return. The ants are marching up and down their home. I loose sight of them as they plunge beneath the grass line. Caught as I am in the supposition that are seeking food, I mistrust my eyes which tell me that they are returning with dirt, pebbles, and dead material from plants. Eventually it dawns upon me that they are enlarging their home and placing pieces of the former interior upon the roof. The fact that I nearly ignored my observations in order to align reality with my assumptions causes me to reflect upon the extent to which presuppositions must color all of my encounters with the world. How, I wonder, might I drop all stories, explanations, and objectives in order to approach each event and each life with openness, curiosity, attentiveness, and wonder?  

 

Observations 10/17/2010

 

            Today the light seems to have taken up residence in the leaves. I find myself on a sunny road where delicate witch hazel blossoms march beside fiery oak. Sharp silhouettes of hemlock rise to meet the sky. The under-story is alive with motion and song. I sit until my presence is forgotten and birds begin to alight near me. As I am still rather clumsy with binoculars, stillness is the only reliable tool in my possession. A golden crowned kinglet lands upon a shrub near me. Beneath me, two harvest men are mating above a carpet of wintergreen. The forest is sheltering the memory of last night’s coolness but the sun is making its presence known near the road and insects are visiting lingering blossoms. I study the layers of color, activity, and beauty unfolding all around and resolve to savor more fully this gift which is life. Ambling back through the woods, I stumble upon a turkey feather which I missed in my initial haste to arrive somewhere. Beside a giant tree there is a deep pool where minnows are darting about. Watching as leaves offer their brilliance to the stream, I reflect upon the transience and continuity of life. No matter how far our culture has fallen from the embrace of the earth and no matter how many times I have failed to listen to the natural world and to my heart, there is a system of relationships out of which we cannot fall. Sometimes I construe my personal failures and the failures of our society as evidence that I and we do not belong to this incredible beauty that sustains us. But if the earth teaches anything, it is that in death everything feeds and becomes a hundred different lives. And so, perhaps the death of our cultural intimacy with the earth will fuel a hundred new methods of inquiry and intimacy as we rekindle and reinvent sustainable and harmonious ways of coexisting with other living beings. That possibility fuels my desire to acquire additional knowledge and to cultivate additional skills. Of late I have been reading two books by Paul Rezendes: Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs and The Wild Within: Adventures in Nature and Animal Teachings. With the aid of these two excellent works, I have become increasingly conscious of the stories nibbled into hemlock cones and acorns. I have also been reminded of the importance of moving silently. External silence, as Rezendez observes, is a product of the internal stillness and harmony which enable one to hear the sometimes subtle voices of the natural world.  

 

Observations 11/11/2010

 

            I have taken to walking home in the sheltering embrace of darkness. The new moon has been emitting little light so I have been learning to cultivate and rely upon senses other than sight. Each night I realize anew how alien the discourse of stones and logs has become to my feet which are accustomed to information provided by eyes and brain. But I am learning to move slowly and to read the shape of the earth. Because the trail is quite packed, it is relatively easy to determine when I have strayed off course onto the soft carpet of mosses, needles, and leaves which cover the forest floor.   There is still enough light to illuminate recently fallen leaves and so I am able to minimize the crunching of my footsteps. Still I generally move swiftly enough to frighten small rodents beside the trail who disappear into the undergrowth with indignant squeaks. The calling of barred owls follows me toward the warmth of home. Tonight there is a large bird perching in a dead snag some distance from the trail. I do not know enough yet to determine what kind of bird this is so I resolve to position myself in the woods one evening in order to watch in silence as night falls.  

 

– Goldenrod, Fall 2010 Intern