Witnessing Nature's Story Without Words
I wonder if the information coming in through my eyes, ears, and nose is small compared to the story entering directly through my cells.
Next to a river near our home is a small wild beach where I like to spend time. While there isn’t much unusual about idling next to a river, sitting quietly in nature was something I just didn’t do in my younger days. I loved being out in the wilds for extended periods, exploring routes (the deep canyons, the high peaks) I’d spent days planning and marking on maps. I stacked one adventure on another. Once I’d accomplished a pre-determined goal (up that peak, how fast?)—once I had what I’d come for—I went home to plan the next.
When my wife and I moved to the edge of the wilderness in Southern Utah, I began wandering daily in the desert. I realized that without goals and destinations—without focus—something hidden began revealing itself. I discovered that the focus our modern lives require actually obscures the very life force we take for granted. Now, when I have a destination—my wild beach! —once I reach it, I wait.
Most days, that beach is so still and quiet that I once heard the wings of a dragonfly vibrate as it flew past me. I’ve been able to differentiate between six “species” of wind in the movement of clouds, sand, and the young willows. I now know the individual personalities of three Great Blue Herons in the eddy upriver from me. And the color of the river (the full spectrum between dark emerald and tomato soup) holds the history of recent weather.
Surprising new thoughts and ideas come to me as I sit there on that beach and sometimes in that deep silence I feel I’m remembering important things. I wonder if the information coming in through my eyes, ears, and nose is small compared to the story entering directly through my cells.
Perhaps I’m beginning to understand this story.
Now, I realize that it’s no coincidence that the time I began spending quiet, still time in the wilds corresponds directly to when I committed fully to protecting the earth. I’m working to weave together enough information to make logical sense as to why this is true.
This story is about our bodies which have not changed in 200,000 years and how many of our modern problems could be based on the fact that we’ve created a world that is vastly different from the one for which evolution designed us.
This story plays constantly, quietly inside us. But modern life is too loud and hijacks our attention, sealing us off from the story.
According to the Toltecs from Mexico (Don Juan and Carlos Castenada, Manual Ruiz and his Four Agreements), we have both First Attention and Second Attention. Our First Attention deals with practical matters, makes plans and makes sense of the world immediately around us. Second Attention comes in via our peripheral vision, by strokes of insight, and through our dreams. Meaningful change, they believe, is only possible in Second Attention.
Psychologist Carl Jung believed we all consist of an outer, conscious world, and an inner, unconscious world. (This may be a different way to think about First and Second Attention.) He described the “collective unconscious” as the part of our inner world containing the entire evolutionary history of our species living as an integral piece of the wild system in landscapes today we refer to as “natural.” The collective unconscious holds the tools we’ve always used to successfully pass life onto the future.
I can trace many of my mistakes, dead ends, and frustrations to my reliance on First attention, on external information.
Lately, I’m committed to sitting quietly in wild places where my Second, internal attention is clear, where I hear the “story” continually telling me how it can make best use of me. For me, listening and waiting quietly in a wild place is the most direct way to significant, enduring change.
Brooke Williams has spent thirty years trying to understand and protect wild places. He’s at work on a book about discovering where the outer and inner wilderness meet. He and his wife, the writer Terry Tempest Williams, and two fine dogs split their time between Castle Valley, Utah, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.