- COURTESY OF BEN WANG
- Heather and son Jesse at Shelburne Farms' Lone Tree Hill in 2011
Last fall, I signed up to co-teach a summer course for college students on observing nature through art and science. Like everything else in the past few months, the details have quickly evolved. First, the course was moved online. Then we learned that we couldn't expect students to go outside. At first, I felt like giving up. How the heck can you teach a class about nature without going outside? But my co-instructor, the indomitable artist Libby Davidson, was resilient and creative. Lots of skyscapes, she brainstormed. Views from different windows. Individual trees, maybe? So I went back to the drawing board.
I'm trained to look at vegetation patterns and disturbances across landscapes, so that's my way "in" to nature and the main pathway I'd planned to offer my students. I'm comfortable looking at things this way.
But there are only so many vegetation patterns and disturbances I can expect my students to be able to see from their kitchen windows. I had to find and offer students resources that will give them plenty to observe on a small scale. One of the books I chose for them to read, What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young, is a primer in bird language.
Here's the catch: I've been a beginning birder since 1997. I've had that book sitting in my "to read" pile for the better part of a decade, so I would be learning right along with my students about the organisms that are not rooted to the ground.
I finally read the book, and about six weeks before we began meeting online, I started in earnest to do the things I would be asking my students to do. Though my students can choose their kitchen table if they need to, I chose a "sit spot" in an urban wild about a half mile from my house that I've been wanting to visit more often for years. It's often difficult to motivate myself to go there (which is why Young advocates choosing a spot that's really easy to get to, like your backyard), and sometimes I just sit on my porch. Wherever I am, I try to open my ears to bird language and the presence of other animals.
It's hard! It's hard not knowing where to begin. Seeing and understanding what is actually going on around me is such a slow process. This makes sense, if I think about it for just a minute. It takes years, maybe a lifetime, to develop knowledge and intimacy with anything.
I have started to pick up on different kinds of bird vocalizations. (I can even distinguish one of the male robins in my backyard from the others! He's fatter than the others, has a smooth head, and likes to hang out on one of my clothesline poles and sing.) I've seen owl pellets and a tiny rodent skeleton. One evening I saw a fox. I have experienced a seemingly simple shift in my understanding — that there are animals around me who live here, even if they are not going out of their way to reveal themselves to me. I think I previously held an unexamined assumption that any animals I did happen upon while I was out in nature were just passing through, like I was. Knowing differently changes the way everything feels.
Here, though, is what I've really learned: A "sit spot" offers an opportunity to practice being present to what is all around us. We get a chance to slow down; dig deeper; let go of expectations of seeing wild, furry mammals all the time; and examine things we think we know so well that we don't even really see or understand them.
This year, it seems like there are so many invitations to slow down and examine things, to come to see them more clearly. What is revealed by the coronavirus? By the Black Lives Matter marches? It all comes down to becoming aware of what I am choosing to give my attention to, and considering: Is this worth my attention?
I am always going to be highly imperfect as a parent. This is a given, a fact of the human condition. I have clung to the idea I once read in a parenting book that what really matters is showing my son what I do with my errors and mistakes, showing him my imperfect, learning, changing, growing self.
I hope that, by slowing down and taking time to examine all of these things, I am modeling the value of quiet contemplation and close observation for my son. If I manage to do this, perhaps he will see things more clearly in time that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.
How to Have a "Sit Spot"
- Pick a place that is really easy to get to, such as your backyard. If you have a nearby forested spot with water, so much the better, but the most important element is ease of access.
- Invite your children to join you if they'd like, but, as coauthor Jon Young cautions in Coyote's Guide to Connecting With Nature, "The sit spot works because of magic. As soon as it becomes a chore or a punishment, the magic dies." My tween has had other things to do that he finds more compelling each time I've invited him to join me thus far, but I believe that the example I am setting by going myself will matter even if he never chooses to join me.
- For more specific advice, Young's What the Robin Knows offers a process for finding a "sit spot" and listening to bird language there. Scott D. Sampson's How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love With Nature offers a very readable, realistic how-to guide for parents who want to help their children foster a connection with the natural world.