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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

June 6, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Still Spot: Find yours, sit quietly and observe

Natural history has a long tradition of what I’ll call the Still Spot: a place all your own to return to day after day, season after season, to observe the natural world. What birds are here now, what stage are the leaves in their development, what is the strength of the sun?

So how about you? Where is your Still Spot, and what do you observe there? Send posts from your Still Spot to Fieldnotes@seattletimes.com no matter where you write from. Tell us what’s going on in nature in your corner of the world.

Try it:

For a half hour, sit still in your spot. It can be anywhere: in some deep glade, or right in your city lot, even a look out your window. And do it regularly. Daily, weekly, monthly, whatever you can manage, but the more often, the better. Write down what you see. Even sketch details, to really see them. How do the leaves attach to that branch? What exactly is the marking on that bird? How does the fern unfurl from its tightly coiled bud?

fern sketch.JPG

Sketching the bud of a fern, to observe its shape. Sketching can help put you in the moment, and pause the busy, verbal cascade usually filling the mind. It also helps you observe exact details you might otherwise overlook. From a page in my Still Spot journal.


The point is your presence: Be vividly, attentively, quietly observant of all that is around you. As you make notes of what you see and feel — the temperature, the wind, the scent of the air, the rhythm of spring frogs’ call — your capacity for appreciation is tapped. Your sense of your surroundings will layer, and deepen. You may notice, too, how hard paying this kind of attention can be at first, in a world in which we are used to splitting our attention between people and tasks. To sit still in one place and pay attention to one thing without interruption for a half hour is almost a lost art. A half hour may at first seem like an eternity.
The Still Spot, need it be said, is not a shared space: no cell phones, kids, dogs, lovers, anybody. It’s meant to be a place where you go by yourself, pay undivided attention, immerse yourself in the present space and time, and just see what happens. It’s a practice of observation, during which you are unavailable for interruption. That makes it different from the rest of whatever you do.
One of the rewards of returning to the same spot over time is watching it change over time, and through the seasons.
Called phenology, this observance of seasonal changes for many is a true, deeper sense of time, no matter what the calendar says. Once dismissed as the jottings of dotty gardeners and birders, today phenology has the cache of official blessing, as governments around the globe, from the U.S. to the U.K., seek to create online databases (Nature’s Calendar to the USA National Phenology Network) of seasonal notes kept by amateurs. When do the daffodils bloom? The first swallows arrive? The leaves turn? As the dates for these seasonal changes shift — many are coming earlier in the Northern Hemisphere — they may inform the progress of climate change in a warming world.
But the practice of observing nature has value, even if no one but you ever sees what you write, or knows what you notice. We spend so much time filtering and ignoring our surroundings. Observance is a different stance. It’s a delicious, willed permeability.
Here’s what happened in my first Still Spot log, which I’ll update regularly in this blog. Like most good journeys, this one started with a sidestep that led to a bit of serendipity. I started out heading to Discovery Park for a first sounding from my spot. Then my friend Matt, who was going to drop me off, said why would you do that? Shouldn’t this be a place you return to all the time, close to home? And why send the message nature is something you go away to visit? Good points, Matt.
So we turned around, went back home. I flipped open my notebook, and took a look around, right in my own yard. That, I decided, will be my Still Spot for this blog, a place from which to go to ground, and share what’s going on in nature in my little corner of Greenwood, in Seattle.
Here’s what happened:
First Still Spot Post, May 26th, 9:00 a.m.
Sky rinsed clean after spring rain. Pavement still damp, cool, fresh. Helicopter wings from the maple all over the ground in a dense carpet.
helicopters close up.JPG
Helicopters, as we all called them as kids, wing to ground from the Norway Maple at my Still Spot. Lynda Mapes photo.
Their wings are bright lime green and slightly furry, and the hard nub of the seed is there, at the base, where it joins the stem. Chickadees are still calling for mates — don’t they have this worked out yet? — and the sun is barely stoked with heat, such a slow spring.
The sword fern is unfurled in the sun but still tightly coiled in its buds under the trees where it is so dry and dark. Candles of new growth are stretching on everything. The salal is covered with dangling white lockets of new bloom.I notice the flowers of the salal start as hard green nubs — they don’t even look like flowers.
Once they open, the white flowers have pink winged structures above each ones: the casing they burst from, still attached, and giving the flowers a delicate rosy halo. They are arranged in pairs along a dropping bract, opposite each other, like wings. I sketch this, to really see how the blooms attach to the stem.
sketch of sala.JPG
Sketching salal to study how the blossoms align on the stem. Lynda Mapes photo
The glorious sound of the wind in the maple — its new leaves sizzle in the wind, a sound I’ve not heard all winter. The branches move more heavily and slowly now with their new load of leaves, the moving patterns of light and shadow are beautiful moving over the ground, and over me, over everything, like a blessing. It’s cold enough to need a scarf.
A pine cone chewed bare by the squirrels floats in the pond. The goldfish is asleep, snugged deep in the muddy leaves on the pond bottom, waiting out this cold spring. A hummingbird clicks, buzzing the hemlock but zips away at the sight of the crow, staking out the neighborhood. This isn’t the nesting pair of crows, they are in a different tree. Just passing through, sunning at the tree top, picking at something on the branch. Cones?

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