The Importance of Observation

by Melissa Harding

“Science,” writes David Haskell, “deepens our intimacy with the world. But there is a danger in an exclusively scientific way of thinking. The forest is turned into a diagram; animals become mere mechanisms; nature’s workings become clever graphs.” Science is one story, he writes, true but not complete, and the world cannot be encompassed in one story (Source). Haskell, author of the blog Ramble and the new book The Forest Unseen, was recently profiled in the New York Times Science section about the nature observation practices he used to write his book.

Following in the footsteps of many great naturalists, Haskell decided to take himself to the woods. Not to live deliberately, in the vein of David Thoreau, but to observe. His object of observation is a small circle of forest floor, a little over a yard in diameter, and all the life that happens through it. He did no experiments and had no agenda, just a notebook and a hand lens. Haskell went to the same spot every day for a year, sitting still and recording his observations in a notebook.

“Usually, if you stay here for a while, something is going to happen,” he says.

There is a lot to learn from Haskell. His attitude of being still and using his senses to take in his surroundings is a good model for learning more about the natural world. Deepening our understanding of nature is a way to gain both perspective and empathy; whether is is through watching a spider build a web or birds searching the ground for insects, there is no greater way to learn than through observation. Nature is not a paradise, nor is it scary and unknown, but rather a little bit of both. Getting to know your own bit of land, your backyard or some grass in the sidewalk, is a sure way to gain appreciation for the world around you.

This is an especially important skill for children. Instilling in your child an enthusiasm for the natural world is critical to their future attitudes towards stewardship and conservation. Studies have shown that having positive outdoor experiences with a trusted adult or caregiver – a teacher, a grandparent, a babysitter – is a strong predicter of a child’s future conservation attitudes (Source). While this is important, it is not hard. Taking a nature walk, making observations out the window, and even just watching a plant grow are simple activities that will have a big impact in your child’s life. Mentoring your child in stewardship is beneficial for you both; not only will it bring you and your child closer to each other, but also to the world outside your door.

As Haskell wrote in a recent column commemorating the anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, “So our homework assignment from Carson, fifty years after Silent Spring, is to get to know a tree, to listen to a bird and to smell the beauty of soil. By giving our attention to the ecology of our homes, we’ll find Carson’s most important legacy: wonder.”

Bring a sense of wonder to your life. Go outside and be still.

The above photo was taken by Christie Lawry.

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