Following trees

 
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I have been thinking about paying attention, how even when we believe we are doing it we miss so much.

It’s all because of Kathleen Jamie, a Scottish writer who I’ve been meaning to read for years. Now I have finally got around to it she is forcing me to realise how little I really see as I go about my life.

Jamie has a poet’s approach to attention: she notices and she knows that noticing matters. In a powerful essay, ‘Fever’, from the collection Findings, she confesses that she cannot pray, not even when her husband is in hospital with pneumonia. She pleads for her noticing to count instead.

Could I explain to Phil that – though there was a time, maybe 24 hours, when I genuinely believed his life to be in danger – I had not prayed? But I had noticed, more than noticed, the cobwebs and the shoaling light, and the way the doctor listened, and the flecked tweed of her skirt, and the speckled bird and the sickle-cell man’s slim feet. Isn’t that a kind of prayer? The care and maintenance of the web of our noticing, the paying heed?

Later, a jolly nurse comes to give the now recovering Phil a shot of antibiotics. She’s an expert; it’s a routine procedure; she can do it almost without looking, but for Jamie the absence of attention comes as a shock.

Attend! I wanted to say to her, though she hardly needed to. Here, I’ll do it. I’ll kill the infection. I’ll do it with attention. Prayerfully, if you like.

Paying attention, noticing: for Jamie it is almost a matter of life and death.

Jamie has said that poetry is about ‘bringing the quality of attention to the world’. She makes me wonder how things would change if we all honoured the quality of attention. It’s what lovers do, drinking in each tiny detail of the beloved; it’s what prophets do before they speak. ‘What do you see?’ the Lord asks Jeremiah, right after commissioning him as a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1:11).

Very young children have the habit. I remember our son, aged about three, needing to stop and crouch down every time he spotted an ant on the pavement.

In a system that would have us all busy with consumption, poets, children and prophets are rarely part of the mainstream. So perhaps one way to resist the culture is to copy their way of noticing.

You don’t have to be an award-winning poet to cultivate the quality of attention. This week I discovered the lovely Tree Following project on Loose and Leafy’s blog. Here’s what Loose and Leafy writes:

Each year, I choose a tree and see what it does:
when its leaves appear and when they fall
which twigs grow and which fall off
if it has seeds
and if any germinate and grow into new trees
what its bark looks like – when it’s wet and when it’s dry
whether anything grows on it – like lichen
whether creatures sit on – insects, birds, butterflies
what plants grow round it and what they do too.

I’m going to join in with Loose and Leafy, writing about a single tree every month for a year. I hope the practice will make me more attentive.

The idea of the Tree Following Project is that participants write a post about the tree on the 7th of every month and then link up with all the other tree followers on Loose and Leafy’s blog (more than 50 at the last count).

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The tree I have chosen is almost literally on our doorstep. I can see it from my bedroom window; it’s the first thing I notice every time I turn the corner for home. As it happens, it’s also my favourite variety of tree, the silver birch. I love the wintry white of the bark, the grace of the branches.

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But until now I’ve never really paid it proper attention. I feel a little like I’m setting out on an adventure.

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10 comments

  1. What a mega-ly wonderful tree! And your post – it captures so much of what I hope people will experience in Tree Following. There’s science. There’s art . . . then there’s this . . . this noticing that that’s something beyond observing.
    I’m so glad you are joining us to follow a tree.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this Joanna – what a fantastic idea the Tree Following Project is, and I love the one you’ve chosen to follow – so graceful. Also interesting to hear about Kathleen Jamie – I’ve seen her books before and liked the look of them so will definitely be tracking them down now.

  3. I can see we have things in common, Joanna, beyond our chosen Silver Birches! I’m so glad you pointed out the Jeremiah verse … and Kathleeen Jamie’s poetry has been a huge inspiration to me over a number of years, not forgetting her prose. I shall keep a close eye on your Silver Birch to see what similar things we point out along the way! Greetings from sunny Suffolk!

    http://carolinegillwildlife.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/im-following-tree-project-and-you-can.html

    http://carolinegillpoetry.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/poetic-people-kathleen-jamie-in.html

  4. Caroline Gill drew my attention to your blog post, Joanna, as I’m also a fan of Kathleen Jamie. I am a poet and currently doing the MA in Wild Writing at the University of Essex, which involves studying nature writing and ecology. We have a blog at wildeasters.wordpress.com

    Following a tree sounds like a fantastic idea. I look forward to updates!

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