“Paying attention: This is our endless and proper work.” — Mary Oliver
The sun rises through the fog on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna.
Everywhere, spiders hang misted veils. The spiders are present every day on the prairie—no doubt—but usually, spider webs are invisible. Until, as the writer Richard Powers writes in The Overstory —they are “dew-betrayed.”
The spiders’ silk draperies, paired with the prairie’s autumn seed heads and dying leaves, coerced my attention for far longer on Monday morning than planned. My hike–which was supposed to be a doctor-mandated 30 minutes—was extended as I lingered. (Just five more minutes!) But how can you tear yourself away from a morning full of magic? One crystal web chandelier led to another….then another… .
After the hike, as I enjoyed my morning cup of Joe, I stumbled on a wonderful article from BrainPickings about the art of paying attention. It’s framed around Marla Popova’s review of “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes” by Alexandra Horowitz. The gist of the book’s message is this: we can re-frame the ordinary by using different lenses to see what we usually miss. In the review, Popova recounts how Horowitz accomplishes “seeing” with new eyes by strolling through her city neighborhood with a visually impaired person, a geologist, and her dog (to name just three lenses). Intrigued? Me too. Papova calls the book “breathlessly wonderful.” (It’s now on hold for me at the library.)
I’ve been thinking more these days about the art of paying attention, and what it means to see with new eyes. One lens I use is books. Others writers prod me to understand and view my familiar places through different lenses. I learn from their words. Then, I “see” more completely.
After surgery seven weeks ago, the simple act of walking my favorite prairie paths is no longer something I take for granted. What follows are a few images from a morning walk in the fog this week. They are paired with favorite quotes I think about often, and a few new quotes I gleaned from Popova’s review.
Read the quotes slowly. Reflect on what they say. Then, tuck these thoughts into your days ahead. I hope they speak to you as they have to me.
“Attention without feeling is only a report.”–Mary Oliver
“How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard
“…we humans generally do not bother paying attention to much other than the visual.” –Alexandra Horowitz
“For observing nature, the best pace is a snail’s pace.” — Edwin Way Teale
“To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.” — John Burroughs
“The art of seeing has to be learned.” — Marguerite Duras
“Half of tracking is knowing where to look; the other half is looking.” — Susan Morse
“Joys come from simple and natural things; mist over meadows, sunlight on leaves, the path of the moon over water. Even rain and wind and stormy clouds bring joy.” — Sigurd F. Olson
“As we work to heal the land, the land heals us.”–Robin Wall Kimmerer
“The art of seeing might have to be learned, but it can never be unlearned, just as the seen itself can never be unseen—a realization at once immensely demanding in its immutability and endlessly liberating in the possibilities it invites.”– Maria Popova
“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” — Annie Dillard
“Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” –Simone Weil
“Only those items I notice shape my mind.” — William James
“The thing you are doing now affects the thing you do next.” — Alexandra Horowitz
“For the mind disturbed, the still beauty of dawn is nature’s greatest balm.” — Edwin Way Teale
It’s an imperfect world.
Life can be complicated.
But often, when I hike the prairie, I feel the magic happening. A sense of wonder. The world feels like a beautiful place again. A place where hope is—perhaps—not out of the question. A place where life is always in process.
Worth paying attention to.
Mary Oliver (1939-2019) was, as the poet Maxine Kumin wrote, “an indefatigable guide to the natural world.” Among her numerous awards were the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Thanks to my wonderful husband Jeff, I was fortunate to hear her read and speak at Sanibel Island, Florida, for the Rachel Carson Lecture in 2014. Oliver died early this year at the age of 83.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL unless noted otherwise: (Top to bottom) fog over Willoway Brook; spiderwebs on asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) with spiderwebs, West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) with spiderwebs, West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with spiderwebs; Willoway Brook in the fog; bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); unknown spider’s web; braided ladies tresses (Spiranthes cerneua); unknown spider building its web over Willoway Brook; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); spiderwebs on tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); Hidden Lake Forest Preserve as fog is lifting, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County; Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown spider’s web; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Schulenberg Prairie covered with dew; dawn over West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; broken spiderweb; spiderwebs on bur marigolds (Biden spp.), West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown spider’s webs.
Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press (Summer, 2020), illustrated by Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum in Chicago.
Join Cindy for “Nature Writing”, a blended online and in-person class, beginning online Wednesday, October 15! Details here.
Visit www.cindycrosby.com for more information on Cindy’s upcoming speaking and classes.