Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.Mary Oliver
I notice small things. This probably started when I started birding and identifying plants in college. Little brown birds become wrens, those spikey white flowers in a bog become bog orchids, rocks in a canyon tell stories.
As I slow down and notice things around me, the world becomes less chaotic. When my cell phone is left behind and the portal to insanity shut off I can sit on the porch step and notice the honey bees probing in the flowers of autumn joy sedum and the variety of clouds in the sky. Noticing helps me to be a more imaginative writer and artist.
A book, The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker, recently came to my attention via Austin Kleon’s blog. I checked it out from the library recently and have been impressed by the plethora of unique activities that will get the novice and experienced noticer into prime form. Enjoy taking a color walk, documenting odd things from a road trip like gas stations, writing a review of manhole covers or fire hydrants, start drawing, write a field guide to the dogs in your neighborhood, write a poem about the items for sale in the check out line of a store, stop talking and inventory what sounds you hear.
If you need help downshifting into observation mode this book has the tools to do so. Who needs Facebook and Instagram for entertainment when one knows how to notice? As a new hardback it’s around $15, or check it out from the library as I did. Everyday life will become full of new adventures.
There was this magnificent great horned owl that lived in the hayloft of the barn, part of the old farmstead that became the Nature Conservancy field station on the Zumwalt Prairie in NE Oregon. A month ago I spent a week there as a participant of the Outpost writing workshop sponsored by Fishtrap, a non-profit writing organization located in Enterprise (see my previous post, Writing the Zumwalt Prairie).
Occasionally we would see this stately bird from its perch at the hayloft’s opening scanning for prey and looking down on us sternly from above.
Owls are unique in that they can rotate their heads 180 degrees in each direction. Their feathers are constructed in such a way to facilitate silent flight and their eyes are 35 X more sensitive than the human eye needing only 5% of the light we require. Add to that their extremely acute hearing and you have an extremely adept hunter.
Since owls typically swallow their prey whole, they have a daily ritual of regurgitating a tidy package of fur, bones, feathers, and the like into one tidy package known as an owl pellet. When one dissects an owl pellet you can piece together the skeletons of the small rodents, and birds they consumed.
During our writing circles with our teacher /poet Kim Stafford, he encouraged us to always be paying attention with all our senses as we experienced the prairie around us, being mindful not to disregard the other visitors to our psyche as well. He stressed to capture those thoughts and inspirations on paper or voice memo before they escaped us- much like the owl and its prey. These morsels of observation are what feed us as writers. Kim is never without a small notebook and pen. I often saw him jotting things down as he went about his day.
To be any kind of creative it is important to pay attention from wherever our perch may be. Writing, (or sketching) like an owl is the essence of personal expression.
by Alanna Pass
I am learning to write like a great horned owl
I sit on a high perch
so that I may swivel my head in all directions
observing, listening, smelling
for inspirational prey
I leave my perch at a moment’s notice
a presence detected
with a silent swoop I spread my wings
extend my outstretched talons
and snatch my prey before possible escape
I bend head to toes
open my hooked beak, extract this morsel
and swallow it whole
repeating this routine until I feel a blissful sense satisfaction
Then I rest
to coalesce all my inspirational prey into one tidy parcel
I project my written pellet into the cosmos
to land at the feet of others
with the intention that they may also
experience the wonders, the truths, the inspirations
that I have lovingly collected, digested, and presented
At the end of San Antonio Road, past the shopping centers, apartments, and freeway, across from the Google parking lot, the pavement stops and the wetlands begin. This is the Baylands a world of dikes, ponds, and meanders, where the San Francisco Bay meets land. Here the ebb and flow of the tide replaces the rhythm of rush-hour. Here waterfowl out number people. When family business calls me back, this is where I go to find refuge.
Equipped with my binoculars and bird book I set out on the dike trails to take a wander and look at birds on this rare sunny, pleasant, February day. I come upon a wonderland of shorebirds, and all manner of ducks. There’s a flutter of excitement as the tide ebbs exposing fresh mud. Greater yellow legs, and avocets gather to probe for a meal. In the water, ducks dabble for food, dropping their heads into the water and then tipping upside down exposing their derrieres to the sky like a circus act. Some ducks are divers, dissapearing momentarily from the water’s surface as they fly underwater for their prey.
On a far bank, a passle of pelicans sit pruning their white feathers with their huge bills. A great egret poses for me graciously by the water’s edge.
Suddenly, a murmuration of dowitchers fly over me so close I can hear the force of their feathers. then land in the water with a satisfying plop. Two swift flying merlins exchange prey in the sky.
Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.Mary Oliver
I was never much of a noticer until I took Glen Moffat’s Natural history class in my sophomore year of college. Until that time most birds other than gulls, jays, & hawks were all little brown things that flit about in the trees. Wildflowers were all pretty. Trees were either pines with needles or trees with leaves.
We wore hiking boots to that class. Armed with binoculars and magnifying glasses off we went on various field trips up into the Bay Area hills and beaches. Mr. Moffat was a short middle-aged guy with the exuberance of a young golden retriever. His enthusiasm was infectious. Suddenly all those little brown birds were visual wonders with names. Among the many were wrens, bluebirds, flycatchers, tanagers, warblers, and sparrows with all manner of coloring, beaks, and feet. Ducks were not ducks any more but dabblers and divers, shovelers, canvasbacks, and scoters. There were actually five types of gulls I could identify: Ring-billed, California, Herring, Glaucus, and Western. I began to recognize the calls of birds. The wildflowers took on identities of their own and I learned to tell them apart, asters, shooting stars, goldenrod. There were differences in the shrubs, gooseberry, goat’s beard, California buckeye. The pine trees became firs, hemlock, cedar, red, yellow, and white pines.
My fear of science dissipated to the point that when I transferred as a junior to a university I changed my major from Art to Natural History, an interdisciplinary study of botany, ecology, zoology, and geology. My studies of botany turned more intimate. I peered into dissecting scopes and marveled at the inner structures of flowers, algae, lichens, and fungi. Slime molds had designs that were worthy of a display in an art museum. I was introduced to the world of lichens, mosses, algae, & liverworts. I learned that most fungi were not mushrooms but rather molds and yeast. Mushrooms were merely the fruiting bodies of the spidery white webs of mycelia living underground or in rotting material. Latin names swam about in my psyche. Now everywhere I walked was a treasure hunt of natural wonders.
Eventually, I became so adept at plant ID that as a junior I was hired on a botanical study to map rare and endangered plant species in a potential wilderness area. The plants we found, among them, a sundew (a small insectivorous plant) eventually converted the land into a protected natural area. After graduation, I worked in Alaska for a forest fire ecologist, cataloged sea life with NOAA, and mapped vegetation types with the US Forest Service. I walked the sandy barrier island off the coast of Prudhoe Bay identifying sea birds on a study with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and counting the abandoned but ever warm downy nests of eiders.
Those years of scientific study are long behind me but I am still an observer always looking for acquaintances in the natural world around me. I know the name of the birds about my yard and their calls. I don’t have to worry about filling the hummingbird feeder so full as I noticed that their skinny tongues are over two inches long. I noticed that the little myotis bats that darted about on warm summer nights have all but vanished as with the
warblers, the tanagers, swallows, cedar waxwings and other seasonal migrants. This troubles me. Some years back after the neighbors sprayed the brambles on the fence line, the quail disappeared. The red wind blackbirds still pass through winter and springs filling the air with their songs. This year, the aphids did not show on my kale!
When I learned to notice nature, my life changed radically to the point I made a career out of it. Science became my friend rather than something to be afraid of. The environment became something to enjoy and protect. It is not necessary to go to the extremes I did but it is important to be aware of the natural world that surrounds us. It can form and direct us. We humans as the decades pass are losing our connection to the earth as we retreat further and further into technology. But it is important to remember that our so-called civilized lives are built on the back of nature from the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the raw materials in our house, cars, devices, and the fuel in our vehicles. Without a connection to the earth, we continue to degrade the planet to the point it will be unable to sustain a quality of life for ourselves or its other inhabitants. It’s happening now with climate change, pollution, and degradation of the land and oceans.
One way to keep that connection is to learn the names of the birds, animals, and plants that inhabit your environment. Even in the city, there are species that have learned to cohabitate with humans. If you look closely, you may see there is more than one type of squirrel, & brown bird. Watch the crows going about their day. There are communities in the sky conducting business you are not savvy to.
By naming the plants and creatures we encounter, we offer them respect and become aware that the earth does not just belong to us. We become advocates for our environment rather than just exploiters. Give your children binoculars and magnifying glasses rather than devices to rob their minds. Give yourself some too. Look up and around you and learn to notice the magnificent gifts that this planet has to offer.