The art of noticing

Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of–something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for?

C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Do you suppose, that part of the constant delight of Heaven, will be the ability to be truly thankful for every thing, no matter how minuscule? Even in this life there are an enormous number of very pleasant things that happen to us throughout the day, that we accept as being nothing out of the common way, and thus do not regard: not realizing that the very fact of their being so ‘common’ is in itself a blessing of the very highest magnitude!

Meredith Allady, Letters to Julia

Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

One of the most amusing things about our eight-year-old daughter is the extent to which she is a covert collector. She is the sort of kid that will make you regret not checking pockets before throwing dirty clothes into the washing machine. You never know what’s going to be in there, and sometimes it’s not inanimate.

As I wrote last year in Raising a Young Naturalist in the Deep South, our daughter spends substantially all of her free time outside. (I try to as well, but kids have more free time.) Even though we bought her a giant bearded dragon, she catches lizards and other reptiles on a daily basis. I have to remind her to turn them loose at night. On hikes, she is the first to spot armadillos from the slightest tickle of movement in the ferns or owls by the near-silent swoosh of their wings.

She commits entire volumes of nature guides to memory and can tell you more than you ever wanted to know about snakes in particular. She can tell you how fast a mamba can slither and that coral snakes and cobras are biologically related.

She’ll spend an hour sitting in the grass watching a golden orb spider build a web. Regular animal visitors have names, like Acorn, the squirrel, or Othello, the enormous black racer snake who lives in my garden. And no matter how much I scold her, she is always barefoot and usually muddy. Many days, I feel like I have given birth to Kya from Where the Crawdads Sing.

The real problem is that, for each of her adventures, she wants to bring home some sort of souvenir. Oftentimes, many souvenirs. Feathers, sea shells, pine cones, rocks, leaves from bizarre plants (to identify later in said nature guides), a spectacularly thick square of moss that just felt so delicious underfoot. One time she even brought home the complete skull of some poor animal, probably discarded from some bird of prey, which is now sitting on top of the piano. She also brought me a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest (named Maximilian).

I take walks to think through things. She takes walks to look around. She notices more out of the corner of her little eye than I see in an entire trip.

Collecting has been a habit from when she was very tiny. I almost think it is an innate trait in some people. I have it too, except for me it is books and art. As a preschooler, I bought her a beautiful pink music box that plays Für Elise (as that is her name, it was supposed to be a personal gift). I stuffed it with plastic children’s jewelry for her to dress up like a little lady. Yeah, that never happened. When I was cleaning her room later, I discovered she had chucked the jewelry and filled the music box up with the bright blue shells of robin’s eggs. That’s closer to her idea of treasure.

A lot of people complain about being forced to spend a great deal of time around little kids during this pandemic, but I genuinely love it. I have received so many messages from friends this week asking me how it is that I manage to homeschool full-time while getting anything else done, how it doesn’t drive me completely mad. I think I would have to say that the key to enjoying being around kids is to approach their antics with a sort of radical openness rather than scorn.

One of the best parts of parenthood is being able to see the world through the eyes of a child again. You start to notice things in your environment you stopped noticing a long time ago. Your native curiosity resurfaces. I have learned so much simply by pausing what I am doing and Googling whatever random question our daughter has about why something works the way it does. I realize that for many other parents the thousand inane questions children ask are annoying. But magic happens when you stop being arbitrarily perturbed and start trying to answer them. When you start treating curiosity as if it is something important and worthy of becoming a daily priority. That’s one of the big things you need to do to model being a lifelong learner for a child.

But it’s a posture that will enrich your own life too.

I have a habit of walking outside late at night to let the dog out and listen to the ocean. Sometimes this is an almost religious experience, like when the full Moon or a storm out at sea brings loud, violent waves to the shore and floods the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s like listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, with an unrelenting cascade of percussion amplified by the cool night air.

My favorite thing these days is to look for the animals that have taken to sleeping on our front porch. There’s this bird who likes to tuck up into the corner of one of the pillars every night. She showed up one evening after a line of violent thunderstorms passed through the area, and now I guess our porch is her home. I put out a birdhouse that a previous avian tenant used to build a nest in last year (the nest is still in the birdhouse, in fact). Perhaps the new bird will find it comfortable.

There is also a pair of lizards that have taken to returning every night to sleep on this one rogue branch of the mandevilla I have climbing a trellis around the porch entrance. They’ve been showing up for over a month now. I had no idea that reptiles could be so loyal. The branch looks ridiculous sticking out from the rest of the plant, but I don’t want to slip it back into the trellis because then where would the lizards sleep? (They are kind of difficult to get a picture of at night.)

Much like how Saint John Henry Newman praised knowledge for knowledge’s sake, I think you need prolonged exposure to the ways of a child to value observation for observation’s sake. Adults are in such a hurry all the time, with their minds not present all the time. A kid will train you how to sit down and wait for something small but interesting to happen.

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still

T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

Eaglet update

While the human environment is growing progressively more insane, life is marching on as usual in the bald eagle nest in our neighborhood. The eaglets are getting their feathers and soon will be learning how to fly! They kind of look like grumpy vultures at the moment, but they will be majestic in no time.

Difficult to believe they only hatched in mid-February.

Alligator mating calls – nature's alarm clock

I’m sure mostly everyone these days feels like they’ve wandered into The Twilight Zone. But it’s business-as-usual in the animal world.

The noise from our personal plague of crickets is finally starting to die down, as we’ve recovered a lot of them and fed them to a most obliging Henry. I enjoyed the first real night of sleep I’ve had in weeks.

Well, at least I was enjoying it, until we were woken up at 5 o’clock in the morning by a pair of horny dinosaurs. Yep, it’s alligator mating season across the Deep South, and particularly in the hedge along the water by our house. I’m so glad I started a blog so I can look back and remember how truly bizarre these days were.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard alligator mating calls before, but they will simultaneously freak you out and amuse you. Alligators spend most of the year lurking about the swamps in stealthy silence. They can sit quietly at the bottom of a pond for hours at a time. But when they are feeling amorous, they are louder than a Latin American soap opera.

Perhaps letting an 8-year-old be a cricket farmer was a bad idea

As I explained in an earlier post, my husband got tired of driving to PetCo to get crickets for Elise’s very hungry bearded dragon every other day. So he bought 500 crickets online and put them in a previously unused terrarium in our daughter’s room. And they have been making their sweet, sweet music all night long for about a week. I have not gotten much sleep lately for so many reasons.

It couldn’t get much worse than this, I thought. But like everything in the world these days, it can get much, much worse.

All of the crickets that have not been devoured by the lizard (just under 400, in my estimation) have now escaped and are running loose around the house that the government says we cannot leave.

Interestingly, some of them are starting to make their way back to the cardboard delivery box they came in. I am not sure if that’s because the insects have a memory and think there will be delicious cricket food or whatever they were sent here with in there. Or if being placed next to a terrarium with a giant lizard, with a front-row seat to the daily cricket holocaust, is wearing them down and they want to go home.

The Biggest Little Farm

I am shameless in my love for gardening and nature in general. I have written before about how the act of gardening educates the human spirit.

We used to have a hobby farm years ago, on a piece of property alongside a large creek (what would be considered a river to people out west), with a natural spring elsewhere on the property, and a giant tobacco barn. I could not stand the house on that property, but I deeply loved the land. And I am missing having that kind of property these days, with a quarter-acre garden, an orchard, and fishing. There’s no stress about the systemic collapse of the economy out there.

View of the creek from our old property.

Anyway, we have been watching a documentary called The Biggest Little Farm that, apart from being generally inspiring, is an incredible thought-piece on exactly the kind of principles I approach gardening with. The soil is alive, so treat it like it is alive. Biodiversity is the solution to all problems. To work is to pray. Etc. I highly recommend watching it. You can stream it on Hulu.

One small place of enchantment

I do not understand how anyone can live without one small place of enchantment to turn to.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.

John Muir

For after all what is man in nature?  A nothing in relation to infinity, all in relation to nothing, a central point between nothing and all and infinitely far from understanding either.  The ends of things and their beginnings
are impregnably concealed from him in an impenetrable secret.  He is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness out of which he was drawn and the infinite in which he is engulfed.

Blaise Pascal

I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.

John 14:18

Pruning and weeding as frames of mind

I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.

George Washington Carver

Adam was a gardener, and God, who made him, sees that half of all good gardening is done upon the knees.

Rudyard Kipling

For behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

Luke 17:21

Pathology is a relatively easy thing to discuss, health is very difficult.  This, of course, is one of the reasons why there is such a thing as the sacred, and why the sacred is difficult to talk about, because the sacred is peculiarly related to the healthy.

Gregory Bateson, Ecology of Mind

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I have started reading Robert Pogue Harrison’s most incredible book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. I don’t know how to describe it except to say that the book is an inquiry into the influence of the idea of a garden and the activity of gardening on our souls. If some particularly important figure in western civilization has mentioned a garden, it is explored thoughtfully and in ways you might not have anticipated in this book. I’m not finished with it, but it is already one of my absolute favorite tomes. I’m not too modest to suggest that’s saying a lot.

As I am aggressively uninterested in the nonsense that is dominating current events at present, I have spent days tending my gardens. The tasks for today were planting fruit trees and pruning all of the dead growth that goes along with whatever passes for “winter” in Florida. The act of pruning gave me ample time to consider how perfectly gardens serve as metaphors for “the human condition,” as Harrison would say.

I loathe pruning, so it’s a good thing one only has to engage in the practice a couple times a year. Have you ever tried to prune bougainvilleas or rose bushes or fruit trees with thorns? My bougainvilleas in particular – though not very old – have thorns the size of sewing needles. You can pick whatever tool you choose to cut them down to size, but they will still inflict some pain. These plants fight back and it’s heroic.

Pruning is an essential activity, however. Gardeners prune for several reasons. One, to get rid of dead or damaged branches. Two, to create room for new growth. Three, to make the plant beautiful and pleasing to behold. And four, to have the plant grow on your own terms – to not damage your house, impede a pathway, and so on.

You can probably see where I am going with this. “Pruning” as a behavior is also essential to a healthy human existence. Like plants, human beings cannot flourish when constrained by dead ends.

I recently stumbled upon my neighbor out weeding her flower beds. Her yard is mostly a matter of professional landscaping and not flowers or vegetables that mean anything to her. I am helping her change that, however. It had not occurred to me until she complained that all she does is weed her yard that her idea of maintaining a garden is entirely limited to eliminating weeds. That’s unpleasant indeed.

She asked me how it is that I do not spend all my time in the gardens weeding. Do I have some secret? Are my beds lined with that plastic sheeting they sell in garden centers? Do I know of some awesome chemical?

I told her that her main problem is organic – that she doesn’t plant enough of what she likes. Have you ever thought about why you weed a garden? It’s the same logic as pruning – you are eliminating that which competes with positive growth for resources. The best way to eliminate weeds is to suffocate them with plants that you do like. Plants that fight back. I don’t have a lot of weeds because I have been known to plant 300 impatiens in a single afternoon. Weeds can’t compete with hundreds of flowers that derive their name from their impatience to spread and reproduce.

It actually requires less effort to be surrounded by beauty than it does to be surrounded by negativity.

I have adopted this practice in my life as well. I have become shameless in cutting off social relationships that fill me with anxiety, anger, or other toxic emotions. I don’t do social media anymore. I don’t hate-follow people or the news. As far as my life is concerned, all of these are just weeds and crossed branches that need to be eliminated.

Instead, I try to fill as much of my daily life as possible with things that are beautiful and good. I devote time to reading good books, going hiking or kayaking, sitting outside with a cup of coffee and listening to the birds, teaching Elise how to play soccer. Just sitting outside soaking up the sun. It’s not that difficult to smother the bad stuff with good stuff.

The garden is an excellent metaphor for living because the Garden is the primeval classroom for human activity. It’s our holy education on how to exist well in this world and enter into a positive relationship to what is transcendent, beautiful, and good. It is the space, physical and intellectual, that routinely brings us back to first things – to “paradise,” which literally means and enclosed park.

Red Canna, Georgia O’Keeffe