Paying Attention

“I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see.”

—Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier

David Sibley has been looking at Juncos. He has observed millions of Juncos in his day. He knows them very well. But instead of saying “Yep, more juncos on the feeder” and moving on, he observed them in a way he had never done before and discovered something entirely new, not just to him but to science and the birding community. He discovered that he could differentiate males from females, not just by color but by their posture and behavior.  Read the details of his discovery here. What is significant to me about this is that rather than being jaded by familiarity, he is still, and perhaps more than ever, open to discovery.

Sketches of the shapes of male and female juncos by David Sibley. Used with permission.

This kind of observation does not just happen. It results from training yourself to look and look again, to approach your observations with fresh curiosity and wonder. I have described my personal formula for nature observation in a previous post, Three prompts for deeper nature observation. This skill, like many, gets better with practice. You can do it while birding or on the bus. The secret is not to accept what you already know as good enough but to push your brain deeper and deeper into rigorous exploration.

Nature journaling is another doorway to this sort of deep observation. The practice of keeping a regular notebook of discoveries, questions, observations, and connections both helps you to pay attention in the moment and improves your ability to recall what you have seen. I believe that keeping an nature journal, using both sketching and writing as you explore, is the single most effective thing you can do to launch yourself in this process. More than my binoculars, my journal is the most important tool that I carry with me into the field. As I train myself to be a better naturalist, my appreciation of its value only becomes deeper.

In her poem, The Summer Day, Mary Oliver describes a grasshopper that she has found with careful detail and attention. She frames this attention not idle musing, but essential to living our lives. I find this poem to be one of the richest calls to wake up and be present in my life. Print it out, carry it in your pocket, and commit it to memory.

The Summer Day
—Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?