They seemed to gather at once, sparrows and wrens, an occasional cardinal and woodpecker, swooping in to demand space and food. It became customary to watch the birds crowding on only four perches jutting from the tube-shaped feeder, as apparently, we’re on the same schedule for breakfast, lunch, and dinnertimes. I’d notice the flurry of activity, until one time it wasn’t just feathered creatures that filled my view out the kitchen window, but a red fox. His long bushy tail appeared larger than his lean gray-orange body, hunkered with large perky ears, and pointed nose teasing the ground. His bright eyes like lasers looked ahead, then left, then right. I observed him pacing, prancing a few steps, backtracking, continuing closer, then up against the house, along its perimeter. This wasn’t the first time I had seen him. A recurring travel route at about the same time of day told me he knew where he was going and when to be there.
At the time of this writing, and just after the winter solstice, I had spent the day differently from previous solstice days. Ordinarily, the hours would go unnoticed, not acknowledging how short was the day, and how quickly night came. But I greeted this solstice witnessing the longest shadows of the year, how low and dim the sun hit my eyes, how quiet the day was as it had seemed to end so quickly.
I wrote last month of a sense of space from a recent walk in the woods where my vision extended unobstructed into the depths of the trees to the banks of the river, a simple view of the vista. Trees stood naked, their bony limbs exposed. Most birds had fled for a more harmonious playground. Nests and dens had been made ready for occupation. Silence was so profound that I yearned for any movement in sight, or tones in the ears.
I wasn’t just looking at the outdoor space, feeding behavior of birds, or even a red fox on the hunt.
I was observating.
I didn’t know as a child that I was learning to be observant. While waiting for my picture to be taken on my first day of kindergarten, I stood in front of yellow marigolds at my heels, their scent like hay wafting up my nose. A birch tree stood behind my mother as she held the camera, my eyes squinty from the high noon rays, catching the tree in silhouette, its flowing limbs, and slender leaves dancing as if in celebration of the occasion. From the scent of late summer flowers in bloom, to the feel of my skin prickle from the sun’s heat, I observed sensual details on a day marked as a first and learned of summer, of fall soon to follow, of a time of transition to a big girl, a real kid in school, just like the others.
To this day, and as a writer, I continue to observe. Wherever I am—stomping through snow in the woods, standing idle in a line at the grocery store, sitting at a dining table in a restaurant, or at a table in a hushed library, my observations are not limited to a sense of sight. I’m conscious of a blare of intercom overhead, clanking of dishes dropped on a tray, the scent of nutty coffee brewing, the chill of wind slicing through skinny tree trunks . . . and me.
Through observation, all the senses are active to pick up on messages, unnoticed details, and subtle signals, tuning into the natural world, including humans, for authentic creative writing.
Though the world that is before us keeps a hurried pace, when we observe, we slow down. The power of observation is to bear witness to everyday life.
And gets us to a place of understanding.
Wherever we find ourselves, we watch to learn, creating openness, and curiosity for knowledge.
Some may call it a power of observation. Or, perhaps it’s not a power at all, but a quest to see, hear, and feel things others might not.
2 thoughts on “Do you look, or do you observe?”
“The morning wind forever blows … but few are the ears that hear it.” – Thoreau
You nailed it. Observing is a deeper seeing. Thanks for the beautiful thoughts.
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Thanks, David! A very apropos quote from my favorite, HDT. . . and you’re welcome.