Practicing Attentiveness

Reflection by Steven Esau (Conservation Intern, Spring & Summer 2021)

It was only a few years ago that I really looked at trees for the first time. I was volunteering at a summer camp and for some reason started to read a plant identification guide in my spare time. Before that point I had managed to go through life learning (or remembering) very little tree-lore, other than the terms coniferous and deciduous from school. I had never truly seen further than those two categories, and there were many words- like fir, pine, spruce, cedar, hemlock, oak, ash, and willow- that my mind translated as “tree” without much distinction. That summer my eyes were opened. As I read it became clear how much there is to attend to in each tree- the texture of bark, the arrangement of leaves on the branch and of branches on the trunk, lines of stomata on the undersides of needles, patterns of new growth of leaves and cones and flowers. Much of it went over my head, but I grasped that there were more details to observe than I had ever appreciated. That summer with help from fellow camp-denizens I learned to distinguish between a handful of tree species, and I remember my excitement at recognizing for the first time a tree I had only read about before. Beyond recognition, it was a joy to slow down and begin to notice further characteristics- like the multitudes of cones on a Western Hemlock, or tiny seeds spinning out of the crown of a Pacific Silver Fir. 

I came to A Rocha after spending two and a half years in Ontario, a place where, sadly, I did not find time to know the trees. At the start of the internship, I said that one of my primary goals was to learn the names of things. This was inspired by the memory of my tree-learning at camp, and I hoped to benefit from the expertise of others at A Rocha. Over the term I’ve had many patient teachers as I refreshed my knowledge of tree, shrub, and herb, learned the local amphibians and their egg masses, and attempted to parse the polyphony of bird song during our weekly bird walks. Of these birding has been the most revelatory. What used to be mere noise can (occasionally) be resolved into something full of meaning and distinctiveness. 

I’ve realized that “learning the names of things” is not, of course, the essential piece. Taxonomies and field guides provide a useful framework and may hint at where to look, but they are not strictly necessary. Rather, what has been so important to me is the practice of being observant: of attending to creation and seeing its detail and wonder. In many ways this has been my primary occupation as a conservation science intern. Most striking have been the Spring-time changes, as I walk between Hazelmere and Brooksdale each day and make a casual study of the new developments in budding and blooming, in goslings and ducklings, and in the water level of the river. 

At A Rocha I have had teachers, fellow learners, encouragement, and ample time and space, which have aided me in being observant of creation. These are rare luxuries. As well, the joy that I glean from (for example) coming across another Grand Fir in the forest may not be universal either, based on the confusion and amusement of my walking companions. There are differences in temperament and interests between people. More importantly, for many a close study of the living things surrounding them may reveal primarily the hurts of creation. Even so, I humbly contend that the practice of attentiveness towards creation is not meant for only a few, but rather is part of humanity’s vocation as image-bearers of God. It may look differently in different people and places on earth. But I have always been taught that a part of God’s peace (shalom) is a right relationship between humans and the rest of creation- and what relationship can there be without attentiveness? It takes observance to recognize and appreciate creation, and to identify its needs and difficulties. 

I have seen how this habit, of taking time to notice things, has spilled over into into how I relate to the community. Attentiveness to the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Canada Goose in the Hazelmere pond may be good practice for attentiveness to the lives of other humans- but perhaps framing things that way is doing a disservice to the geese, who are worthy of study in their own right. In any case attentiveness requires sensitivity, and ought not to be about the prideful accumulation of knowledge. I tend to care too much about being right, and am frequently humbled. But for me learning my trees and birds has been a way to value and appreciate things that are far outside of myself. I have felt through it a gradual shift in my thinking- an invitation to care more deeply about creation.


Photo by Frédéric Perez on Unsplash