The art of observing

4 Oct

“Don’t think. Just observe.”

My first lessons in the ‘field’ were before I was taught any biology, physiology, ecology, any -ology. An old trapper/tracker in Maine was my human mentor. He was short on words and usually answered my questions with another question. Or a quick shrug of his shoulders. He spoke more with his eyes than he did his mouth.

When I asked him to teach me this or that, he swept his arm and hand out at everything before us and said, “That’s your teacher. I’m just an old man.”

It was almost a year before I started to realize what he meant. It came to me during the fall when a secret signal tells the maple trees to start turning orange and red. And when hair on several of the small mammals begin to change color. Leaves on many  annual and perennial plants turn yellow, shrivel and fall off while seeds mature and catch a ride on the winds or by clinging to your pant cuffs and socks.

It becomes harder to walk quietly in the forests on dried leaves and twigs that crunch and snap. You learn to step on tree roots and rocks thrusting above the litter. You might glimpse a deer walking in the forest and see how they slowly place a hoof on mossy spots or bare places in between the leafy carpet. Instead of pushing your way through branches, you twist half your body sideways or bend to move in the spaces in between.

During winter you might find animal tracks in other animal tracks. Or in your tracks. Blazing new trails costs energy; go where someone else has moved the snow. Perhaps you’ll remember to follow the game trails after the snow has melted.

It was a year before I could sit, or lean against a tree or boulder, and not think. I learned to watch and observe; save the thinking for later. I learned to be still. The more still I was, the more silently I moved. The more I didn’t think, the more I learned. With the dismissal of expectations and preconceptions, the more aware and attentive I was. Actually, I became less, and more like my surroundings.

And everything spoke to me. Not in words, but in just being. My environment was my final mentor.

French philosopher Simone Weil wrote:

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of that though, but on a lower level and not in contact with, the diverse knowledge we have acquired, which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain, who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.

In other words, don’t ask or think……….Watch and observe.

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