Every now and then people ask me how I notice so many things on a simple walk. To be honest, I don’t know. I just like looking for and noticing things, I guess. It started when I was very small and has continued to this day. Even a very bad day can be made better by observing something beautiful, intriguing or just plain weird and funny in the natural world.
My parents were curious about nature, and I learned at an early age how to tell certain birds and animals apart. I’ve never forgotten what poison ivy looked like after a bad case at the age of 4. I learned the difference between wild berries I could pick and those to leave alone, as well as the difference between a honey bee and a yellow jacket. By the age of 8 I could identify many birds by sight and more than a few by their songs. I spent hours studying them, fascinated by their beauty and behaviors. For me, observation seemed like a natural and enjoyable pastime.
As a teacher of drawing I find that the hardest thing for my adult students is to stop and really look at what they are drawing. We all have preconceived ideas about what things should look like but often the reality is different than our assumptions. Observation is key, both in nature watching and in drawing. It requires patience and a willingness to slow down.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to learning to observe is our wish or need to be constantly doing something productive. It seems difficult for adults of all ages to stop and just be in the moment, doing nothing more than looking and listening. It feels lazy or embarrassing to be caught staring out a window or taking a leisurely walk in the woods, stopping to look at flowers, bees and salamanders. Stopping to sniff the air, enjoy a gentle breeze or listen to birds chatter above our heads is sadly becoming a lost art. These small things can bring us great joy and yet many are passing them by every day while swiping their screens for newer, shinier images.
Too often I come across people outdoors with earbuds in. They are listening to music or a book, a podcast or some other thing that is not what is in front of them. They are removed from their environment. This disturbs me on such a deep level I really don’t have words to describe it. This is total detachment which, in a word, is scary. Can those who detach from nature understand or feel the connection to all living things that will be necessary for our very own survival in years to come? I realize that is a huge leap to make from someone listening to their favorite song to the extinction of humanity as we know it, but that’s the way my mind unravels certain thoughts. I don’t stop until I unroll the whole ball of wool, as my grandmother would’ve said.
To be a true observer I think one must be willing to be a little uncomfortable. Standing in the woods on a summer afternoon can be a lovely thing. It can also be a buggy thing. There can be spiders and snakes, webs and mushrooms, mice and squirrels and coyote scat. All these things may make you itch or squirm, wrinkle your nose or stifle a tiny shout of surprise.
If we can get past the discomfort, though, a whole world will slowly open up for us. What creatures live on or in a mossy fallen log? How many different-colored mushrooms are there, and what is taking bites out of them? Perhaps you’ll spy a deer or a box turtle, a fox or a young owl staring down at you. Maybe you’ll just close your eyes and listen to the trees sing.
All these things take time and, of course, we all know time is a fragile, expendable thing. We do get to choose how we use our time, however, even those of us who are “super busy.” Stuck driving kids and doing errands? Check out the trees and bushes where you park. Keep an eye to the sky for soaring hawks. Maybe stop, look and listen to what your schedule is telling you.
As an artist and writer I spend a lot of time observing things, outside and inside. I draw stuff, write about stuff and it would take me the rest of my life to catch up on all the things I’ve observed so far.
If you need or want a little help doing some sketching or painting while out in nature, feel free to join one of my classes. Contact me at email@example.com for more information. No experience necessary, just a willingness to slow down and stop, look and listen.