We’ve been taking walks through our woods, my family and I. To my inner Southern child, these Pacific Northwestern woods still seem a place of great magic and mystery. Douglas firs, planted in neat rows intended as Christmas trees many years ago, now overgrown and towering over dark, mushroomy and ferny expanses where the sun only breaks through in places. In the gloomy fringes, chipmunks skitter and songbirds flit just out of sight.
Here, we slow down. Our eyes scan the forest floor, searching for fallen feathers. My kids crowd in to help identify them: barn owl, downy woodpecker, goldfinch. Deer prints in the mud by the stream tell a story. A vole skull peeking out of an owl pellet tells another. We crouch down, heads bent in, peering closely to find each tiny detail. Or we lean far back and squint up, trying to catch a glimpse of the owl who left such a mess around this tree.
Once, we found a hummingbird nest at the edge of the yard. Another day, a barred owl waking slowly in the falling dusk. Tiny mushrooms peek from a rotting log like fairy stepping stones. A three-legged deer and her fawn visit every so often, eating windfall apples in the early morning.
I think of a phrase I heard last month from a favorite author and podcastor, John Green. I pulled over to the side of the road to scribble it down, so as not to forget. In discussing love, hope, and the wonder his children find in a fallen leaf, Green praised “the strange, wonderful joy of attention.” What a marvelous phrase.
The beloved poet Mary Oliver put it this way:
Tell about it.— Mary Oliver
All the owls and deer sound magical, but those sightings are rare. Most days, my daughter is enamored of nothing more than ladybugs or acorns. But these, too, are things of beauty and design. This is the heart of attention, of cultivating curiosity: the mundane is no less wonderful for its commonality. Ladybugs, starlings, and blackberry brambles all come from the same Artist’s hand that made the Northern Lights. They, too, hold wonders.
Of course, the practice of paying attention should not be confined to the natural world, but it is an excellent beginning place whether you live by a forest or a skyscraper. The possibilities are endless, if we learn to see them. Even better, our kids don’t need to be taught this so much as encouraged; we can follow their lead. We can listen when they invite us to look. We can lean in.
In that moment of leaning in, of being astonished, there is a stillness. A stillness of the body, perhaps so as not to frighten a wild animal, but also a stillness of the mind. These moments of letting myself be utterly engrossed in observing feel something like worship. A quiet voice in the back of my mind singing praises to the One who thought of the great blue heron, the geode, the madrone tree. Whether this stillness leads us to outright praise, to imagination and creativity, to improved mental health or not, I believe this discipline to be part of our calling. How can we steward and cherish what we do not see? How can we love what we do not spend time with?
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Hopkins. Yet, we do not need to be poets to see it. All we need is a little time, and the decision to be curious, to lean a little closer, to invite others into this strange, wonderful joy.
There are hundreds of books that can encourage you on your way, but three of my family’s current favorites are:
Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davis. Lovely cut-paper illustrations and poetry tell the story of the seasons through small moments. This is one of our most commonly requested read-alouds, and is a great example of paying attention.
Cabinet of Curiosities: Collecting and Understanding the Wonders of the Natural World by Gordon Grice. A practical guide for the budding naturalist. Wondering how to identify an antler, or how to preserve a sand dollar? Look no further.
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by David Sibley. A good field guide is a great place to start, whether you’re looking for shells or metamorphic rock. We just happen to be rather partial to birds at my house.
What will you tell about today?
Photo by master1305/a>