Petals on the Path
The delicate wildflower, the wren tipping up its tail to scold, the fox slipping into the wood at dusk . . . all of them live beyond words, outside culture, apathy, and alienation. We all enjoy nature but we think of the closer study practiced by birders and nature hobbyists as a harmless diversion rather than a path to spirituality. A few people know better.
Whether you’re in an ancient forest or a patch of post-bulldozer scrub, the living things and places around you are a chance to become more intimate with your self and your world. Nature observation is a lesserknown method of transforming understanding. It can give you the eyes to see how even the shabbiest woodlot is part of the living Earth and even your most mundane moments are part of the timeline of spirit.
The daily bleating of news and mass media can get us down, but outside its impoverishing concepts, illusions, and institutions exists the living world you were born to, a world of life and wonder, of things not made by hands. You may be surprised at how you’re affected when you go out and take your place in it.
What we’re talking about here is close observation, the kind that may even involve binoculars, notebooks and field guides. It involves getting off trails (where permitted!) and spending the time it takes to look closely. Look until you can identify a bird by its plumage. Count petals, smell leaves – let living things and places tell you about themselves in every way you can understand.
Some see this kind of close attention and categorization as the way of scientists only, but those who originally sought this knowledge were the healers, shamans, and “witch” doctors. Studying living things has always been a potent path to understanding life.
When you look at the details of creatures and plants you take into your consciousness all the ways in which the world is beautiful, vital and ordered. To look this way requires slowing down time and focusing deep attention outward. The mind grows silent, ego is forgotten, worries drop away.
If you’ve never tried it, you may think you could never muster the interest or the patience for observing nature. But here‘s a secret that seems obvious if you think about it: you were made to do this. You’ve inherited exactly the senses, instincts, and ways of understanding that will make this practice possible for you – your ancestors lives depended on it! When you go out to the woods or fields and pay all your attention to what’s around you, in a sense you are taking your mind and body home.
It’s not like the predigested, flat-on-thescreen, non-interactive Discovery Channel nature on TV. Your body is immersed in the place. You can look in, and hear from, every direction. You smell the air, feel the ground under your feet and the breeze on your skin. When a bird comes by, it is actually near you. And when you discover something, you might be the only person who’s ever seen it.
Your capacities perfectly match the natural world they were designed to perceive. Maybe this creates a resonance or reflective effect, or maybe the world outside man‘s sphere truly is endowed with spirit, because sometimes the world may seem to perform for you, invite you to notice.
A bluebird flies to a nearby branch and seems to sing just for you, or you mindlessly follow a squirrel through the woods only to come upon a rare plant in full bloom and it feels like you’ve been led. It can happen in any number of ways, but the effect is the same. After watching and watching, one day you get the feeling that there’s someone on the other end watching you and wanting to talk.
If you were raised with a Western description of the world, you may dismiss the idea of a responsive world as a scientific impossibility. But suspend your disbelief and delight of a new kind may develop. For one person, the delicate woodland blossom shines with the hint of a new friend. Another sees in the scarlet of the tanager the flame of the Beloved. The earth becomes not a distant concept or a cold dwelling, but a party in a loving exchange.
From earth religion to more orthodox faiths, close attention to nature can bring you nearer to the heart of any belief or faith, and helps anyone escape, at least briefly, the grip of modern times, modern culture, and modern thinking. You may start out examining physical objects, but at some point you might find you are through the looking glass(es) gazing at the spirit that underlies it all.
Nature writer and blogger Nancy Wisser lives in a small town in Pennsylvania. She watches birds, identifies wild plants and observes people – and continually finds herself observing things she never would have imagined!