So much of my past experiences walking in the forest have been mostly about getting from trail head to trail’s end. The point has been more about the end goal than the journey. It was mostly about the mileage and how long I could walk before having to pause for a break. It was about the scenery (sure) but mostly that which is found at a pass or higher elevation at the end of the trail. More miles and more height equal more sight after all.
Or so I thought.
My current seasonal employment with the Forest Service actually requires me to focus on the journey rather than the end goal. My job demands I walk slowly, with eyes wide open for detail, to look for the forgotten and overlooked. Everything of importance (as far as data collection goes) is gained in the journey. The journey is the thing. Noticing is the focus.
It is incredible how much time it takes to walk a small distance with the focus on noticing rather than on pace of movement. At first, I wasn’t sure I liked the slow going, the regular stopping, the waiting, the looking.
However, walking slowly through the woods has is instructing me on the lost art of noticing, and God has been speaking this to my heart in the process:
The formula is simple – the slower you move the more you see. This is amplified further if you just simply sit still in the woods. In single spot – the more ordinary the better. Not a spot with a fantastic viewpoint. Not the trail’s end. Just a random, always overlooked, painfully common spot. Just sit, and look, and see what you notice.
If you catch a sighting of a single mushroom on the forest floor, you haven’t learned to see. Where there is one, there is almost always another friend – but you have to slow down to meet them. Finding a fungi neighbor teaches your eyes to discover gifts in shadowy, dirty, forgotten places. Mushrooms teach you to see vivid colors in the drabbest of hues – as you meet different varieties of mushroom you discover that to describe them as “brown” or “white” isn’t enough, doesn’t do them justice. Suddenly there is a rainbow to the plain and the average. Mushrooms invite you into a childlike wonder – it seems incredible that there are so many shapes, sizes, colors, and textures of fungi. It becomes a game – you are now, everafter, on the lookout to discover a new ground-dwelling friend. Mushrooms teach you that slowness enables you to notice gifts in low places. Slowness is a mushroom’s delight.
If you see a single bird, you haven’t reached proper forest sight. The seeing of songbirds in the forest is a type of seeing that is tied to listening. If you find a spot in the woods to sit still, to embrace the stillness, to let things settle – the forest becomes alive in sensory detail. What first seemed to be a single bird’s song is soon a symphony of several unique tunes, all in harmony together. Your ear cannot learn to “see” these different tones when you are in motion. The language of bird songs is not revealed to you unless you slows down and are still. Listening becomes seeing when you learn to sense the direction of a song’s origin. Small shifts of light, glints of color, a gentle motion of a branch teach you to see the canopy’s residents and attach their proper song to their proper person. In motion you won’t notice their voices, can’t hear their conversation, can’t notice their subtle movements. Songbirds teach you to notice subtly and variety, they make stillness into a Siren song.
If you think a decaying wood is simply dead wood, you are blind. Decaying wood is a wilderness of its own, teaming with life. Examine fallen wood and you will find a mosaic of moss and lichen. The colors are incredible, the anatomy of the organisms convert you to a belief that fairies are real. Ants and beetles add to the wilderness, digging tunnels through the wood, creating untamed, sinuous highways beneath the surface, right under your nose. Decaying, lichen-accented wood is a coral reef above water. But, you’ll never see this wilderness if you did not stop to look. Fallen logs teach you that noticing isn’t possible without pause.
Through observations such as these, God teaches us that learning to see more richly, more clearly isn’t even about movement, it isn’t even about change, it is mostly a question of stillness. It is a call to notice.
It seems we’ve forgotten how to do this (I feel I have at least). And so the practice of noticing feels like tapping into something nearly extinct – that ancient part of ourselves that has perhaps never seen the light of day but is crying out for breath. If we address it, we discover that this ancient part of us has a firm grip on the core of our being. This core part of ourselves, which hungers to notice, is an ear piece and eagle eye for God’s spoken and painted sermons – choose less, see more.
How true is this of our non-woodland life? choose less, see more. Most of our everyday life seems to trap us in lie of the inverse – “choose more, see more.” More is always better right? We’re taught that from infancy – more money, more agenda items to our social calendar, more books read, more movies seen, more musicians listened to, more friends, more photos, more property owned, more speed, more possessions, more places traveled to, more miles covered in a day.
I don’t really think God is a god of more. Because more begets less and less begets more it seems, if we are being honest. I mean, how much do we really see with all this more? I mean really. Inspect yourself.
I personally feel that I see less of God, less of the hearts of those I care about, and less of myself with all this more. I’m mored to death and can hardly catch my breath, because there is always another wave of more on the way. I am not saying that I am immune to this tendency, to this temptation of more…but I want to be.
When walking slowly in the woods, and even more so when sitting in the woods, noticing entire wildernesses come to life, I think of how many things I miss seeing in my everyday life. As I’ve articulated all I’d be missing in the forest if I hadn’t slowed down to notice, I have been convicted of all I do not see by fleeing from stillness in other arenas of my life, fighting off less in favor of more.
I don’t mean to insinuate that I have some profound perspective. But God does something to me in the woods, blinds me by small truths. And since these small truths prove big blessings to me, are illustrated to me repeatedly, it seems criminal to not share them with you.
There are whole stories to be read, but they can only be read with less, with stillness, with noticing.
And I, for one, don’t want to miss a good story.
I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen. (J. Steinbeck)