It was a frigid and beautiful afternoon. The WRFI crew and I were taking an observational stroll. We were walking near the shore of Goat Lake, an isolated alpine lake close to the northern border of Waterton National Park in Canada. Every few minutes the sun would poke her head around a cloud, illuminating the verdant conifers, pellucid blue lake, and a panoply of wildflowers. Our pace was slow, our senses observant. We were attentive to the shape of every plant that glistened and the color of every animal that scattered. Being a naturalist is an intrinsic capability that every human has in order to observe nature’s patterns and to find her or his place within those patterns. On our walk, I liberated my imprisoned naturalist within. The key, I discovered, was attentiveness. Attentiveness using all of one’s senses is not only important for becoming a naturalist, but also for living a fulfilling life. For most of us students, it seems, this attentiveness had either been learned or refined since the beginning of the course. One particular event that led to the rediscovery of our attentiveness began ten minutes outside of Browning, Montana, across a cattle guard, down a gravel road, and over a few grassy knolls.
In the middle of open grassland, we met with a man named Sheldon Carlson, a member of the Blackfeet tribe who is in charge of maintaining around 200 undomesticated bison for the tribe. Bison reintroduction in Montana has been a contentious development for the last several years. Many ranchers worry about the potential spread of brucellosis, a disease that causes miscarriages in livestock. They also fret about the potential grazing competition between the bison and their livestock for public lands. On top of this, bison are not docile animals like cattle. They are capable of growing up to 2600 pounds, are defensive of their herd, and carry no qualms about charging perceived threats—including humans. And yet, there we were, less than 50 yards from an overwhelming herd of 200 undomesticated bison with Sheldon, their sole caretaker.
Sheldon was a burly, warm-hearted, middle-aged man with double-braids and a plaid flannel. He pulled up next to us in a pickup, the bed of which carried several gorgeous, smelly animal hides. When speaking with Sheldon, one gets a sense that he has a special respect and appreciation for the bison. He understands their movements as a herd and recognizes each individual and her or his personality as if they were old friends. Sheldon was not a bison whisperer, and he had not worked with these bison his whole life—in his estimate, it took him six months to understand their activity. No, what Sheldon embodied was attentiveness. In his own words, to work with the bison, one has to “learn to pay attention.”
Sheldon’s attentiveness to the bison had redounded to his personal life, which seemed to be on the upswing. Tribal elders had offered Sheldon his job right before he was about to join the fracking rush in eastern Montana and North Dakota. His life today is very different from how it may have been. Although he works long, arduous days—sometimes from 6 am to 12 am—he has a strong cultural and spiritual connection to the work he does with the bison. This is rooted in the attentiveness he has cultivated, an opportunity he may not have found in shale.
For Sheldon, it was attentiveness to the outer world that allowed him to excel and find purpose in his work. However, a few days later, we also found that attentiveness can be found within one’s self as well.
At the grassy edge of a lake, all thirteen of us were seated in a circle, completely silent—a rare occurrence for our group. Our eyes were closed. Sounds of the wind softly brushing the conifers and the grass dominated, occasionally perturbed by a “plop” of water from some mysterious creature. One of our fantastic instructors, Danny, was leading us in meditation. Sitting tranquilly for a seemingly timeless period, we focused our attention to our bodies and passing thoughts. We were learning to pay attention to ourselves as Sheldon had learned to be attentive to himself and the bison.
In that silence of mind, I felt serenely enlivened. My mind was lucid, focused on my breath. I was balanced on a slack line between the future and the past—two areas that occupy my mind too often. Fully present, life seemed refulgent with vastness and complexity. Next to that lake, I felt within that I was connected to all that was without. When the meditation ended, there was a warm afterglow. I felt my place within what Mary Oliver has called “the family of things.”
For the past week we had been refining our attentiveness. Finally, we were putting it into practice on our observational walk in Northern Waterton. To the untrained eye, our surroundings would have appeared to be a chartreuse blur spotted with tiny dots of Crayola flowers. However, we were being trained in attentiveness and our vision was becoming sharper. At that point we were able to tell the difference between an Engelmann and a White Spruce, two trees distinguished only by the length of their needles and a slight difference in cone shape. At the zenith of our walk, we approached a thirty foot waterfall. While taking in the scene, one of my peers found a patch of wild chives, a felicitous complement to the pad Thai on the supper menu. The joy was halted abruptly when Danny convoked our attention to another plant that could have been mistaken for the twin of the wild chive—the Death Camus.
The Death Camus is a gorgeous plant with a white flower, but is absolutely poisonous in small amounts. According to Daniel Mathews in his book Rocky Mountain Natural History, the Death Camus has caused more deaths in the Rocky Mountain area than any other plant probably will. It was fortunate that in our elation and heavy appetite, we slowed down and “learned to pay attention” to the difference between these two plants.
Paying attention is not always an easy task. It is the indication of a great naturalist and the distinguishing factor between those who enjoy the present and those who lose themselves in the past and future. A life well lived is a life that is attentive—with all senses—to the present. I will even go as far to say that the quality of attentiveness decides whether we have a good meal and live fully, or whether we live our lives dying, inattentive to the deadly, but beautiful flowers near the waterfall. I am still working on the illimitable task of improving my attentiveness. For now, the least I can do is enjoy supper.