Day 2 / Write 28 Days: Noticing

Implicit in noticing, for me, is wondering.

I notice, e.g., that all the buddleias (butterfly bushes) I’ve planted on this property (five in total) have died in a season or two except one, an ‘Ellen’s Blue’ planted in 2014 in the sideyard, on the southeast side of the house and as close to the building as it can get without being inside.

‘Ellen’s Blue’ in Sept. 2021 (facing southeast)

I wonder, why has that one lived?, and I think it’s in a beneficial microclimate, one that is warmer and more protected, particularly from rain and wind, than the others, three of which were in the backyard, which has a western exposure, though one was hugged in close to the house, fairly protected. But maybe it’s also the variety, the ‘Ellen’s Blue,’ which is different from the others I tried. I planted two ‘Nanho Purple’ varieties (RIP) and one ‘Nanho Blue’ in the backyard, but when the ‘Nanho Blue’ looked sickly, I moved it to the sideyard, where it died (RIP) — was it just too late in that plant’s demise process or perhaps not replanted close enough to the house to protect it? I planted yet another ‘Nanho Blue’ quite close to the house in the southeast-facing sideyard and it also died (RIP), never making it through a winter.

‘Nanho Purple’ July 2013 – near the house but with a western exposure

There are no doubt things I haven’t noticed in this example — perhaps the first few winters were less snowy and the later ones have all been snowier, providing tender roots protection from extreme cold? Or, similarly, perhaps we had a couple of colder winters earlier and they’ve been more moderate each winter since? and my ‘Ellen’s Blue’ may yet succumb — and I could learn more about each variety’s hardiness by researching them. But my point here is not so much horticultural as philosophical: noticing often leads to wondering.

I was prompted to write this when I came across a blog post by Callie Feyen at Tweetspeak in which (talking with her daughter) she contrasts noticing and wondering:

“[Y]ou told me about noticing and wondering when we read poetry. … “You said when you read a poem, it’s good to notice and to wonder. When you notice something, it’s something you can prove: this poem is a haiku; this poem has a bird in it. … When you wonder, you point out curiosities and questions you have about the poem.”

In this example, the two ways of responding are treated almost as opposites — noticing is characterised as fact-finding, pinning something down, and wondering as an imaginative act of curiosity, something expansive. The two seem to complement each other more in a photo Feyen shares from her poem journal, with a dividing line between “I Notice” and “I Wonder,” where what she notices could be prompts for what she wonders. That’s the way I’ve written about the buddleias, above. I noticed something about them (facts, patterns) and it provoked curiosity, led me to wonder, why?

But there is also a kind of noticing that asks for a suspension of thinking in terms of facts, so that the senses, the body, the imagination, and yes, also the brain (which handles memory, pattern-finding, probability, and so much more) can notice what wouldn’t be noticed otherwise. Acting in concert is a kind of intuition that swirls together memory (including what we’ve learned — facts, as well as what we’ve experienced), possibilities, the patterns we sense or don’t sense, the way the outer world impinges right now on our body — how the air feels, a scent, a silence or a rustling — and this intuition alerts us. If we just want to pin down facts, we may notice only what we have always noticed, what fits the template of what we already (think we) know.

The ability to find patterns — even to the extent that we find patterns where there are none (such as faces in clouds or tubs of butter, or believing conspiracy theories; this is called apophenia) — keeps us and other animals from danger. It tells us, hopefully, in a split second whether someone is approaching us with a camera or a gun. It tells us who our friends and family are, and whether someone is a stranger (facial recognition). It’s also very handy for finding things we’re looking for, when we know, through experience or learning, there is a good probability those things can be found where we’re looking.

On the other hand, if we go looking for what we expect to find, we may miss noticing what we don’t expect; or we may think we’ve found what we seek when we’ve actually found something unusual without realising it. If you’ve never seen a prairie warbler in your area, you may think that yellowish bird you’re seeing across the yard is a female goldfinch and leave it at that.

Still, sometimes it’s worthwhile to go looking at least half-expecting to find.

Each year we hunt for spring ephemerals in the woods. They may be visible for only a short time, they’re often partly covered in branches, twigs, and last year’s fallen leaves, and their flowers are usually not big or showy — it’s too cold or wet for most insects to be around yet, and it’s insects, besides humans, who mainly care about obvious flowers — so they’re easy to miss entirely.

Before going out, I consult past photos of the plants to remind myself when and where they were taken, then begin to visit those spots based on the dates, starting earlier or later depending on that year’s weather and what’s popping up nearby. This is what a ‘hepatica” search of my photo files brings up from 2015 to 2020.

Once I’m on the trails where I’ve seen, e.g., hepaticas in past years, I focus my mind’s eye on an internalised template of its foliage, flower, and habit. I’m attending intently, looking for something that matches that image, that pattern. And I’m also remembering, in my body, the locations of the plants — on a ridge, near some rocks, under a specific tree, before the downhill slope — and feeling for similar habitat, and I’m scanning for a colour or a leaf pattern not just of one plant but of a small group or swath of them. (And if I want to see the flowers, I’m exploring on a sunny day, because that’s when hepaticas and others open their flowers, a clever strategy to conserve their pollen for days when their pollinators — usually small native bees at this time of year — are likely to be flying.)

hepatica leaves

I wrote in Oct. 2018 about looking for ephemerals with a pattern in mind:

“It’s funny how often you can have a pattern in your mind, of a stinkhorn mushroom, hepatica, rattlesnake plantain leaves, a snake, a kinglet, and suddenly you see it, because the pattern in the world matches the pattern in your imagination and they somehow click together.

“And maybe one reason, besides sheer desire, that the pattern exists in your mind is because intuitively you’re attune to the air temperature and pressure, the terrain, the habitat, the recent rain or dryness, a sound you didn’t realise you’d heard, and so on. If you spend enough time in one place — in woods, garden, beach, cityscape — you come to know when conditions are right for particular phenomena, and then, pattern in mind, it’s easy to see what’s likely to be there when you come across it.”

What we call intuition is often attunement to a collection of experiences and memories, plus sensory input, pattern-recognition, and a quick tallying of probabilities that we do at a level below consciousness. It’s this kind of intuition that wakes us up to what there is to notice, the kind of noticing that tickles the back of the mind, flutters the heart, tingles the skin. The kind of noticing that comes in dreams, something not quite conscious and yet not baseless or illogical either.

For me this week, it was snowshoeing along an open but woodsy trail, listening for birds, looking at the very blue sky, the snow, the path, the trees, the tangle of branches that host nests you know will be there, not really looking though, more scanning with both an alertness and a relaxedness, like a meditation stance, and being struck in the eye, metaphorically, by a vireo’s nest (though not sure at the time whether it was a vireo’s or an oriole’s), surprised by the wonder of finding it at all. And wondering if I could ever find it when the trees have leaves, wondering where the birds found each material and how it was woven so expertly that even after exposure to 50 mph winds recently, the nest hangs on.

the nest in context

Someone who’s been diagnosed with a serious illness suddenly begins to trip over references to this illness. They hear ads about it, see it mentioned in social media, find it in a novel they’re reading, overhear people in a café talking about it. Most of us have had a similar if less dramatic experience, hearing about something new or learning a new word and immediately and constantly finding it referenced everywhere. Our “noticer’ has been primed; the illness, the new concept or word has meaning for us that it never had before. It has significance in our inner world.

And once something feels meaningful to us, it interests us. We get curious. We wonder. And wondering makes us prick up our ears, alert and noticing in a way we weren’t when we didn’t care, in a way we wouldn’t if we weren’t interested.

So, just as noticing can prompt wondering, wondering can prompt noticing. It’s a vital circle.

Featured Image: colony of hepatica

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