Attention is the Beginning of Devotion
What is nature? Where is nature? If I asked you to describe how you see nature, what would you say? Often, we speak of nature as somewhere ‘out there’, beyond the realms of the everyday. It is the soaring escarpments of the Blue Mountains, the rugged and wind buffeted headlands of the Sydney Basin, the rainforests, the bush. The wild places. Places both defined by their ‘otherness’ and their containment.
Within this framework, nature might be defined as an assigned place where we decide we’ll allow other lives to exist or not. National parks, city parks, bushland reserves, gardens. Boundaries, fences, gates, walls. Necessary, but begging the questions: keeping out, keeping in? Who, what?
Life in the spaces we define as ‘nature’ is conditional. Plants have to be endemic in national parks but preferably exotic in city gardens. In either case, we prefer them not to get too excited about life and become, god forbid, weedy. We like trees in nature but we don’t really like it when they drop limbs, drop too many leaves (unless, of course, they turn a nice shade of yellow/red in autumn), or grow in ways that might obstruct our passage. And animals? Yes! We love animals in nature. Particularly the fluffy ones! We like them best when they have nice eyes and not too many legs. The others (particularly the ones with no legs), we’d rather not see or hear. It’s tricky, being nature.
My point: Nature is a human construct and therefore open to interpretation and re-imagination. The commonly held definition of nature – as illustrated somewhat sillily above – as an idealised place that is ‘out there’ and separate to our everyday lives doesn’t serve us at times when suddenly we can’t leave our streets or suburbs (thanks COVID-19). Because in this situation, and within this conceptual framework, nature is suddenly inaccessible.
Yes, nature is the wild inaccessible, rugged and beautiful places beyond city limits. Equally, however, nature is the wrong side of city parks; the vacant blocks stumbling towards ‘transformation’; the scattered fragments of un-concreted soil sandwiched between street and signpost; the long strips of gravel and rubbish between train line and security fence. Nature is the invisible landscapes we don’t bother to trim, maintain, control; the places we don’t feel the need to protect from ourselves.
Countless studies reiterate the importance of the human connection to nature. The benefits of engaging with trees, grass, soil, bugs have been known intuitively for eons but are now increasingly quantified and measured. Mental health and wellbeing, physical health, childhood development. Nature is medicine, we know this. And so, we go to spend time with trees and rocks and wilderness, often intuitively, to connect to ourselves and the wider world. Because wild places put us in our place. They offer a perspective both vast and intimate that can be hard to access in the city.
Of course, the call of nature is louder where there’s more rocks than people; where trees – not buildings – frame the horizon; where birds – not aeroplanes – soar above. It’s easier, in places like this to access the wonder and beauty and awe that the other-than-human world offers.
On city streets, awe and wonder whispers rather than yells. And so, nature in this context is less often paid attention to. But a whisper is still a call. The bees don’t stop gorging on the flowering gum planted on the street just because we’ve decided it doesn’t fit into our nature ideal. The figs don’t stop growing in the gutters of dilapidated houses just because we don’t see them. There is a world of awe and wonder outside every single front door and accessible to everyone. It’s a choice to see it or not, whether to hear nature’s call, or not.
Know this: Nature defies boundaries and fence lines. All life is nature. All life is worth paying attention to. And this is most important word: Attention.
All too often attention is spoken about as something to be taken away. Attention grabbing, attention seeking. Our attention has become a commodity, traded by others for their gain and, often, our loss. Yet, what a gift it can be. To exercise sovereignty over our attention and to offer it to the other-than-human lives that exist on our city streets, in our wild bushland, on our windowsills and backyards, is an act of generosity and compassion. A most important gift. A way of seeing beyond narrow human constructs and false boundaries.
The reason I write of attention in relation to the way we see ourselves and nature is this: we can’t value what we don’t see. Now is no time for narrow vistas. Now is a time of big, bold, expansive views. Now is a time to pay attention, to offer the gift of presence to the world outside our heads. There is little more important work than this.
By paying attention it’s easy to see that nature is everywhere, awe and wonder are everywhere, beauty is everywhere. So is, of course, pain and suffering and ugliness. One cannot exist without the other. By paying attention we come to see, truly, the gift of the world.
Attention is, as the late poet Mary Oliver suggested, the beginning of devotion.
How do you see nature?