Monday, April 6, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: Thought exercises

I think sometimes that people are afraid to write in their journals because they don’t know what to write. Or perhaps they think that what they write has to be fully formed, or grand, or flowery—something special. That can be really intimidating, and it is one of the reasons I have placed so much emphasis on simply recording our observations. But the observations are really just the foundation for our experiences in nature. It is a wasted opportunity if we don’t use them to shape our understanding of the world.

One way to get past the intimidation factor is to set up simple thought exercises for ourselves. For example, in my garden, I sometimes find fox scat (poop), and it is almost always on some elevated structure, like a garden stone. So I could just record the presence of the scat and that would be that. But I could also ask myself some questions about it. Why, for example, is it often on an elevated structure? This is different from what I have observed about coyote scat, which I tend to find in the middle of a trail. I would write these observations and questions down in my journal. I don’t have to know the answer—it is enough to have the questions. I can speculate on answers, though. For example, I have often hypothesized that the coyote leaves his scat in the middle of the trail to mark it as his territory. Perhaps it is the same for the fox in my garden. If it is in the middle of the trail or on top of a rock, it is certainly noticeable, after all. I would write these speculations down, too. Later on, when I have access to the internet or a library, I might try to find the answer. Surely somebody has studied this.

You can take this even farther though, as poet Pattiann Rogers does in what she calls a “poem of supposition.” Rogers rescued a baby cardinal one day and returned it to his father. Afterward, she began to wonder how her view of the world might have been shaped if she had been a baby cardinal, and the bright red color of his father was the color of safety, shelter, food, and life itself. If red is so important to the baby cardinal’s life, would it then influence how he sees all the red in the world?

So Rogers wrote a poem about this, “Suppose your Father was a Redbird” (“Redbird” is a colloquial name for cardinals). Below is a link to Roger’s poem in its entirety. Please read it and come back here for a discussion. I’ll wait. 


She begins the poem with a close, detailed observation of the father bird, as seen by the baby, and describes watching the father fly off. At first, in the stanza below, she describes the miracle of watching the father’s wings unfurl from his body, transforming him into something else—something that can fly. Then as he flies away, you watch him eagerly, hopefully—because, remember, your whole life depends on the red color of his body returning:

Suppose, before you could speak, you watched
The slow spread of his wing over and over,
The appearance of that invisible appendage, 
The unfolding transformation of his body to the airborne.
And you followed his departure again and again,
Learning to distinguish the red microbe of his being
Far into the line of the horizon.

How then, would this desperate searching for the red microbe--this red miracle--shape how you see everything else? Rogers speculates:

Then today you might be the only one able to see
The breast of a single red bloom
Five miles away across an open field.

In other words, because you have been studying the color of red since birth, because it is important to your survival, you are so finely tuned to the color of red that you can see a single bloom of a red flower five miles away.

Go back now and re-read the poem with this understanding. I’ll wait.

Rogers ends the poem with the point of it all, the prize for taking a supposition to its conclusion, the thing you can take to your heart and from which you can learn:

If your father was a redbird,
Then you would be obligated to try to understand
What it is you recognized in the sun
As you study it again this evening
Pulling itself and the sky in dark red
Over the edge of the earth.

Maybe it seems a little unclear why this is the prize, but here, too, we can speculate. Why, for example, are we humans drawn to sunsets? Is there something in it that we are obligated to understand that we have forgotten?

I like these supposition exercises. They don’t have to be written as poetry, though I think it is fun to try that. The purpose of them, though, is to make us look more deeply at what we have observed. Why don’t you try something like this? Go to your backyard or a park and make some observations. Then start asking yourself a series of questions. The questions should lead you toward looking at the world through a different lens—one that is not your usual way of seeing. And then, the ultimate question: with this new way of seeing, how are you obligated to understand the world?

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