I fed a chipmunk last week. His little whiskers brushed up against my fingers as he sniffed my humble peanut offering and scurried off with his prize tucked away in his cheek. Soon after, I walked barefoot across the sandstone ledge toward the water. My toes gripped the rock underneath, and I launched into the deep blue of Lake Superior. Climbing out to watch the sunset from the rock, goosebumps covered my arms and I shivered from the chill. That night I warmed next to a small fire beneath the trees, watching stars peek out from behind the leaves of swaying maple and balsam fir above. Everything felt elemental, immediate, and real.
I’m spending more time online lately for work and school, and it feels more necessary than ever to take short camping trips. I find that the more time I work with my digital devices, the less time it feels I have in a given day, and the less able I am to recall what I did during the day—because when I work online I don’t do much at all, I just sit.
I’ve noticed lately that certain bird calls bounce around in my mind for a while before I can name them, longer than they used to—a clear sign I need to do some brushing up on who’s who around me. It’s not, of course, just about memorizing bird calls for the sake of the obvious cool factor, although that’s not a bad bonus. The way I see it, being able to quickly recognize bird calls is simply a byproduct of a healthy awareness of place. It’s like a temperature check of my own in-tune-ness with the environment around me. Like a language that fades with inactivity, our attention dulls when we don’t practice focusing.
What does it mean to be in tune with one’s surroundings? It means being able to name some of the plants growing near you and to recognize what stage of life they’re in, being privy to the chipmunk that lives in the garden and where it sleeps at night, and knowing some of the insects that are crawling along the soil. Being in tune with the environment is sort of like being up-to-date on family members’ business. I want to know what’s going on in their lives because I care about them. It’s also sort of selfish; the more time I spend thinking about the other people in my life, the less concerned I am with my own business, my own stress, my own little universe with all my tasks and accomplishments orbiting around me. Watching a bird makes me think about a life other than my own.
Simone Weil said that unmixed attention is prayer. I don’t know if I’ve ever truly had unmixed attention guided toward anything, really, but when I watch, listen, and get curious about the world around me, I get a sense of what she means.