Paying Attention

Today I went on a run. For the first time since the rains of winter soaked the landscape and saturated the earth, resupplying the groundwater that nourishes the plants. My calves and hamstrings strained at first in response to months out of my running shoes, but as I kept my legs moving steadily on the pavement and let the sun warm my arms, my legs eased as well. One block from my house, I reached the entrance to Laurelhurst Park, which was acquired by the city in 1909, a wooded sanctuary that serves as the major natural area and meeting space of the Inner Southeast area of Portland. Families visit for the children’s playground, dog owners flock there for the meandering paths and off-leash area, and young people flop down on blankets with picnic baskets in hand to enjoy the shade of the old, tall trees.

A peaceful scene at Laurelhurst Park in Southeast Portland. A Giant Sequoia tree overlooks Firwood Lake.

I just moved to the neighborhood in the beginning of April, but already feel settled, grateful for my new sense of place. For the first time in my life, I no longer have a nagging feeling…”What’s next? Where will I live next?” Instead, my internal monologue is one of gratitude. As I made my way around the circles of trails and paths that ring the park, I opened my eyes and ears to the sounds and sights of the neighborhood. I see trees, towering over the paths, reaching their crowns to the sky. Douglas Fir, Western Redcedar, Giant Sequoia, Rhododendron, Big Leaf Maple, and countless other trees line the paths. I hear birds chirping and chattering: Song Sparrows, American Robins, scolding Crows, and calling squirrels. Though I can’t see them, I recognize their songs and calls, resounding through the buzzing spring morning air. I pass other runners, parents with young children, dog owners, and general park visitors, some contemplating the pond on a sunny bench, some laying on blankets laid out on the grass.

I have recently been thinking a lot about the skill of paying attention, training my senses to ensure that I am most alive to the world. Throughout this last year, I have been honing this skill in myself by teaching it to students as a Naturalist with Portland Parks and Recreation. As naturalists, we are forced to have our eyes and ears and noses trained on the world, to ensure that our students experience the most in their brief field trip.

A little explorer at Oaks Bottom. Summer 2011.

While teaching about amphibians at Oaks Bottom, I have carefully turned over rocks, looking for salamanders hiding in the moist, cool space below. While teaching about birds, I have listened to the many layers of sound that overwhelm the soundscape, guiding the students to recognize the sounds of many small birds or how to ID an avian creature by its field markings. Opening my own eyes to the world of amphibians and birds, learning to identify songs and species, has has changed how I approach my place. It was like when I first started learning the names of native plants- trees that I had seen as ordinary began to become my friends. With distinct looks, with different characters for each time of the year, with personalities, almost, each distinct and now friendly. The birding experience has been the same since I began leaning to ID birds in San Francisco almost two years ago. The aerial landscape has begun to change. Birds have come to have names and now their songs call out to me as I run in the park: a robin’s see saw song means it may have found an insect in a tree, a song sparrow’s melodic song helps me imagine it perching on a small branch, happily singing out to the world.

Learning the practice of paying attention helps us live more fully and more alive in our landscape, seeing the norms of our neighborhood and learning more about who shares our space. It also lights a fire to find more information. Though I recognized a few bird sounds in the park this morning, most remained anonymous, unnamed, formless bird beings calling out with very resonant calls for such little bodies. I could only imagine their chests puffed out and their beaks barely moving, making a sound as big as a dinosaur.

A Downy Woodpecker. Thanks, Bob Mullen!

As naturalists, we never know what we will find out in the field, what creatures we will encounter is they live our their days and we live our ours. Will we see mallards foraging in a wetland? Will we see an osprey in flight? Will we see a Great Blue Heron standing still, its long legs helping it remain above the water? Will we see a Downy Woodpecker at the feeder or a Black Capped Chickadee? Sometimes we are given surprises in the field, spectacular sights and sounds that we could have never planned. These things don’t happen every day, but there is always something to explore everywhere we go in the world, from the species we can hear to the amazing things we can see and stumble across. But this can only happen if we are prepared and pay attention.

As a member of a neighborhood, it serves as a canvas for our experiences. David Sobel calls this “a sense of place,” our gaining more meaning in our lives through a deepened understanding of the places we live. As we to integrate ourselves in the area we live and get to know its status quo, we begin to notice how it changes. And our understanding of this change is a way of understanding ourselves in a different way- how we fit into an already living and thriving place. When we are affirmed in our place, we become affirmed in ourselves.


15 thoughts on “Paying Attention

  1. Beautiful, Katie! I’m writing this as I’m waiting to take my own naturalist-students on a field trip to Lincoln Park. This blog entry is one of my favorites so far…as you might expect!

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