listening time: 6:05 minutes
The late spring morning calls for lingering so I sit on a fallen pine at the beaver meadow, watching and listening to Song Sparrows while Asha nibbles grass. As I close my eyes, tilt my head skyward and breathe in the sunshine, my inner critic who I’ve named Norma shows up and asks, “Is this enough? Shouldn’t you be doing more?”
There was a time, not that long ago, when I would’ve agreed with her and judged this sitting-watching-listening as “doing nothing” and “unproductive.” And questioned its value. I would’ve walked right by this excellent sitting-being spot, my eyes down, my thoughts on my to-do list.
Today, however, I remember sitting here with a friend earlier in the spring and how, as I watched Tree Swallows swoop above the water and listened to the raspy call of Red-winged Blackbirds, lines from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” came to me. I remembered the gist and looked it up at home:
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’ve been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
So I invite Norma to sit beside me. “I’m not doing nothing,” I say. “I’m paying attention. I’m observing which birds come here and when. I’m getting acquainted with the Low Bush Blueberry shrub after admiring Mountain Laurel buds that look like cupcake icing. I’m developing a relationship with this spot and tending to my soul.”
As we look out over the beaver meadow together, I tell Norma how paying attention has deepened the joy I’ve felt on spring days as the snow melts, plants leaf and frond out, and migratory birds return. I’m bringing what I learned on last year’s walks. I know where to visit Wild Ginger and Early Blue Cohosh, Foamflower and Spring Beauty, Red Trillium, Seersucker Sedge, Trailing Arbutus, Bloodroot and Blunt-lobed Hepatica – and plan our walks accordingly. I’m adding new knowledge as I observe the difference between Red Maples and Silver Maples, as I kneel to smell Toothwort flowers and as I examine fluffy catkins lying on the ground.
I also tell Norma about the sadness that encircles me because as I pay attention to these woods, I’m more aware of all I don’t see or hear. I’ve seen fewer Canada Geese, Mallards and Hooded Mergansers. Once again, the Great Blue Herons haven’t returned to their rookery down the road from my house. While I haven’t collected my own hard data, I’ve read reports such as State of the Birds 2019 and Survival by Degrees that offer statistics about the impact of our warming climate on many bird species.
“I want to turn away from this sadness,” I say. “I want to ignore the discomfort it brings, but I know it’s linked to my joy.
“So I’m learning to walk in the shifting balance, turning neither from the sadness nor from the joy, and instead allowing the experience of one to deepen the other. Both are grounded in love and relationship.”
Norma and I sit in silence and Asha lies down next to me. In the quiet another sadness emerges. A sadness that I agreed with Norma’s criticism for so long. That I haven’t spent more time “being idle and blessed.” That I am only now understanding that this sitting-watching-listening is a form of prayer. That these questions about enoughness aren’t mine alone, but are shared by many in this capitalist culture of urgency, overworking, more-more-more and consumerism. This culture of extracting from nature and dismissing the environmental impact when making business decisions.
Then I hear a whispered question and am not sure if it comes from Norma or maybe my inner wisdom Sophia has joined the conversation: “What is the more that I want?”
I want the more of slowing down and paying attention, not the more of speed and material acquisition. I want to walk more slowly, stop and pause more often and for longer. To spend more time, not less, communing with the woods.
I want to grow more intimate with this place. Intimacy can’t be rushed.
I want to learn names and songs and stories.
To learn on my hands and knees, with all my senses.
To learn from ferns and frogs, lichens and lilies, maples and monarchs.
To listen with my whole self to the language of the woods.
I want to give back to the woods.
With my words, my actions, my attention.
I want to live in a culture that supports soul tending on a fallen pine at a beaver meadow.
Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”
U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative, State of the Birds 2019
National Audubon Society, Survival by Degrees
Many thanks to Rev. Anita Amstutz for introducing me to the concept of soul tending.
Photo: Cayte McDonough