When I was nine, I realized that if I told myself over and over to wake up early, right before falling asleep, I would wake up in the middle of the night. I tried it a few times, reducing the intensity of my self-injunctions each time, and eventually woke up just as the sun was starting to rise, before the rest of my family was up. I crept down from the finished attic I shared with my older brother, out the door, and walked down the hill to the park a few blocks from my house.
It was late May, and the lagoon in the park was green and covered with lilies; a family of ducks plopped from their nest into the water while I watched on the little bridge overhead. Painted turtles and muskrats swam in the water. The morning was noisy and busy and chirruping, but with no people.
I stayed for half an hour and then walked back up to my house. My dad, a perpetual early riser, was drinking coffee and reading the newspaper in the kitchen. He asked me what I had been doing and told me not to do it again.
A lot of what we call “being in nature” is in a way little more wild or dangerous than my 5 AM sojourn to the park when I was nine. When European explorers first reached the Grand Canyon, they turned back in disgust and dismay, calling it a barren wasteland. It was only after the railroad came, and the dangers of thirst and isolation were partially tamed, that it was determined to be a wonder of the world. And yet, like my brief view from the bridge of the birds and turtles and ducks, seeing what is there often requires a kind of attention that is best accomplished alone, at least a little ways away from other people.
Henry David Thoreau is often excoriated these days not just for being an insufferable know-it-all but for being not-so-self-reliant and not-so-isolated when he makes his famous experiment in isolated, self-reliant living. Walden Pond was then, as now, more-or-less nestled in the Boston suburbs, and Henry’s mom would regularly bring him pies.
But I can’t help feeling this misses the point, and not just because Walden is better read as poetry pretending to be polemic than as a straight-faced how-to guide.
Small children will watch, effortlessly and rapt, a beetle burrowing into the ground, froglets crossing a path, or a nest of ants scattering when a rock is overturned. In middle school, kids can still be tricked into paying attention, particularly for something gross or dangerous or illicit. By high school, the flicker of interest is for many kids vanished. As we age, the awareness of the social world often crowds out interest in the natural one, perhaps ever more so as the social world expands into vast electronic form.
My favorite Thoreau book, left now in a classroom somewhere, was a series of fragments from his journals opposite full-page photographs of leaves, rocks, clouds, a narrow stream or an abandoned nest. Seeing requires a sense of solitude, if not its truth, a willingness to push away for a moment our worries about who we are to other people to take in what is before our nose.