Christer Wheat: Attentiveness

According to Fleischner, an Environmental Studies professor at Prescott University, there are 8 main concepts of natural history that he lists in his short article “The Spiral of Offering”.  These concepts are attentiveness, receptivity, expression, vision, accuracy, humility, affirmation, and gratitude.  At first glance these concepts, or traits if you will, seem easy enough to understand, therefore, in theory they shouldn’t be too difficult to put into practice.  In theory, no, these concepts shouldn’t be hard to practice in ones everyday life.  In reality, it’s not that simple, things seem to get in the way.  We get distracted, confused, and it’s easy to just plain forget altogether.  But that’s alright, it takes hard work to acknowledge these seemingly basic concepts on a daily basis.

In my opinion staying attentive is above all others in importance and needs to come first.  Without full attentiveness the remaining concepts cannot be fully realized.  Unfortunately for me this is the concept in which I have the most trouble coming to terms with.  As I go about my daily routine I feel my mind wander, but can do little to contain it for long.  My mind goes this way and that as if my thoughts are meandering with the washes we are traveling.  Unlike the wash, after each bend or turn thought in my mind seems unfamiliar and I am unsure of how I arrived there.

I need to pull my thoughts in and remain entirely in the present.  I need to focus my meandering cognition and pay attention to my surroundings.  What do I hear, what do I see, what do I smell, what do I feel, physically and emotionally, and how do I fit into all of this?  Randy Ramsley preached about the interconnectedness of all things… I need to try and recognize these connections.

Much like Fleischner described in his book “Singing Stone”, the comparing of the different sizes, shapes and colors of small rocks on the beach of a river, I too need to take the time to notice small, subtle differences of things.  It’s not just another dry wash to hike up, it’s entirely different system of the larger whole.  Although there are many other washes that seem almost the same there are subtle differences that are unique to this particular wash.

During our group discussion on biodiversity, Dave brought up the concept of meta populations, which are pockets of populations throughout an environment.  This ties closely in with being attentive because if you’re not paying enough attention you may miss important details about this unique situation.  One could notice that one side canyon was a host to a particular population of toads where as the wash directly next to it was not, and it would be easy to write this off as just a coincidence.  An assumption was made without taking any time to take a closer look and the situation and the environment at hand.  Maybe one of the washes had a spring at the head of the canyon where as the other did not.  Subtle differences like this can make all the difference in the world.

In this desert environment subtleties are everything, and they are everywhere.  Seeking to improve upon my attentiveness and notice these subtleties I decided to take some time and explore Trin Alcove on my own.  It was day 5 of our canoe trip through Labyrinth Canyon and we were lucky enough to have a layover day in such a beautiful side canyon.

With my journal, reader and a liter of water on my back I set out on my days adventure.  My mind was made up, I would journal for about an hour then continue my journey.  I veered from the main path heading to the heart of Trin Alcove and made my way to the head of a smaller side canyon.  At this point I wasn’t thinking as much about being attentive as I was about finding a good hang out, finishing my academics, and proceeding to explore this magnificent place for the rest of the afternoon.

As the slow creep of the canyon walls shadow relieved the back of my neck from the relentless UV pounding the sun was delivering, my job there was done.  I excitedly slid my journal into my day pack, too a healthy slug from my limited water supply, and flung my pack over my shoulder mid trot.

I moved quickly and efficiently down the wash, scurrying up and over large boulders, ducking low hanging cottonwood branches, and doing my best to avoid the poison ivy that was scattered though out my path.  “This is great!” I thought, “At this pace I can cover some serious ground this afternoon.”  Right after that thought crossed my mind and I took my first step back into the main wash, I stopped dead in my tracks.

Wasn’t I on this small voyage to work on my attentiveness?  Up until that point the side canyon in which I traversed seemed to me like every other side canyon I had explored.  But I knew this to be false.  My mind was clouded with other thoughts and I was moving too fast to notice any sort of subtleties.  I need to stop and smell the figurative primrose, which smell amazing by the way, and slow my pace, physically and mentally.

For starters I decreased my stride to a slow saunter as I traveled along the single track sand trail.  As usual a collared lizard would become startled by my presence and sprint to safety among the tall grass and dry leaves that hugged the edges of the trail.  When I heard a rustling of leaves on the ground, instead of assuming it was a lizard and moving on, I would investigate further.  Most of the time it was the presence of my abundant reptilian comrade, and a few times there was nothing there at all.  But a few times my investigations yielded a small garter snake slithering slyly through the underbrush.  Although they are common in Montana where I’m from, I was excited to see them here, they were the snake encounters of the trip.

The two snake sightings acted as positive feed back and further pushed me to keep myself on point with the task at hand.  As I slowly strode through this truly amazing landscape I was astonished by the incredibly vibrant colors.  The intense orange of the Globemallow, the succulent purple of the Mojave Aster, and the deep green of the fresh leaves on the Fremont Cottonwoods seemed to stand out in the afternoon light.

Spring is in the air.  I could see it, smell it, feel it (especially on my pollen laden eyes), and almost taste it.  The wildflowers were in bloom, the trees were budding, and all the pollinators were hard at work after a winter of taking it easy.  This was never more apparent than when I passed a budding single leaf ash tree.  The constant droning buzz of reanimated honey bees laboring intently about the ashes new growth leaves and buds gave the impression that the tree its self was buzzing with excitement due to the change of season.

Once I was finished admiring the immense crowd of bees go about their tedious life’s work I opted for a short detour.  I broke from the path most traveled and ascended into a small side canyon to my right.  The second I stepped into the damp shade of this seemingly abandoned side wash the temperature difference was instantaneous.

Enjoying the break from the sweltering heat of the midday sun I meandered stress free through my new environment.  What I found at the culmination of side wandering came as a very pleasant surprise.  There, at the head of this canyon, stood a plunge pool, about a meter deep, filled with a brilliant turquoise blue water.  Behind it was a wall masked by dark green moss.  The presence of this dank disguise was due to a continuous seep of water from the walls supporting it.  I splashed my sun kissed face with this “water of the gods” and sat on the edge of the pool in silence for a while.

This microclimate in which I found myself was absolutely teeming with life.  From the water skippers skating across the surface of the pool, the “buzzing” of the ecstatic ash trees that surrounded me, to the caw of a raven as it lazily soared overhead.

After relaxing on the cusp of this hidden oasis I checked my watch and begrudgingly began my venture back to camp.  On my way I was trailed by a large raven.  Whether it was the one I saw above my sanctuary of relaxation or another I could not tell.

When I arrived at camp I took a much needed dip in the Green River and took part in a thorough mud lathering.  As I sat drying in the evening warmth I pondered the day’s events.  Although I’m sure I missed a lot of the subtle details that were in front of me, that’s ok, working towards increasing my attentiveness allowed me to notice a good many of them.  I’m sure I’ll forget to stay attentive from time to time, I need to continue embarking on adventures like this.

It doesn’t matter if you’re examining small rocks on the banks of a beautiful river, hiking all day though an unknown canyon, or just taking a short walk through your neighborhood, being attentive and mindful of your surroundings are extremely beneficial.  Be aware of the beautiful subtleties that are all around you.  Think about how you fit into the interconnectedness that ties everything together.  If you can do these things the remaining 7 concepts will seem to come effortlessly.

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