Wednesday, April 25, 2012

paying attention

My first job out of college was working at Baxter State Park, Maine.  I was the assistant to the Park Naturalist. Not assistant in that I got her her coffee, but rather that I worked on whatever job she told me to work on each week.  I did everything from planning and leading programs for camper kids, to answering questions in the Visitor's Center, to climbing Katahdin and teaching hikers about the delicate plants growing on the rocky slopes.  I learned about plants and animals of the northern forests, and came to fancy myself a bit of a naturalist.  And I loved it.

While this was probably the most diverse and well suited for me job I have ever had, my path has led me far from that work since. I had almost completely forgotten about it, until last week.

At the Highlights Nature Writing Workshop they had, you guessed it, Nature!  Also important, they brought along a Naturalist to guide us in observing and capturing the essence of nature. His name was Mark Baldwin, of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, and man did he know most everything. 

Each morning at 7am we wandered off into the woods with Mark enthusiastically leading the way. He showed us how to pay better attention to what is going on around us.  Plenty of the plant identification we did were oh, yeah moments for me.  I had learned so much of this in the past, but, like foreign languages you don't use regularly, I had forgotten the language of the forest. 

I walk in nature all the time, and have for years, but I have moved away from connecting with it.  When I walk I am and usually connecting with myself.  Mark's walks were like meeting up with an old friend that I had forgotten about, and remembering the delight that friend brought me. 

What was new, were the exercises Mark had us do.  A blending of nature observation and art.  There were only a few, but they struck me deeply as work very much worth pursuing.  While the walks went under the heading of nature journaling, I found the work to be about paying attention.  Less so to oneself, but rather to the world surrounding us.  In my mind, that is the essence of writing to begin with.  The world exists, and we notice it.  What we see, hear, smell, taste and touch passes through the filter of our brain to be reworked into something that makes sense.  Then, if we are lucky, we can write down a few words to capture that moment, that event, that tree.  If you are not paying attention to begin with, your words will be off.  You have to see the beauty of the reality, to be able to find something beautiful to say about it.

 The cool thing is that when you pay attention, every blade of grass, every ant, every lichen on a stone becomes valid in its own right. Amazing things open up to discover and record.  And the deeper you examine, the more your words become worthy of that about which they write. Then, if your lucky, you can spin it all around, find something to fall in love with, and feel the light touch of the creative spirit reminding you that it's all Art to begin and end with anyway.

Needless to say, I was reinspired to keep a nature journal, and keep working on the art of observation.  Finding a practice that consciously connected art with nature was even better than that first job I had as a naturalist.  I loved that, then.  But I love this, even more, now. 

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