March 9, 2012

A Walk in the Woods: Paying Attention

"One shouldn't go to the woods looking for something, but rather to see what is there." John Cage

There are so many ways to take a walk in the woods, from treating it as robust exercise, to various levels of sensuous engagement: smells, sounds, views of near and far. And touch: the feel of the uneven path, branches brushing against your body, brambles catching on clothes and skin. Sometimes I watch the distant views and the shifting relationships of tree trunks as I walk past them; sometimes I walk with my eyes to the ground, a different world from the one above. Every aspect of looking rewards attention; there is always something new to see, or a new way of seeing something known. Last week I noticed an odd massing of yellow texture on the pinkish white bark of a birch. Gathered tightly in groups, with a porous texture, beautifully warm in color against the bark, tiny dried shelf mushrooms looked like many hands folded one over another. After seeing this, my eyes became attuned to the stories told on tree bark.

Such as here, where I could see three layers of the tree exposed, the outer bark torn away to reveal what is underneath. The rough outer bark and scratched (by animals?) heartwood are separated by a bright layer of fresh looking wood, which according to this website, is, I believe, the living sapwood. 

There is such rich variety in this small area of rough bark, a rugged landscape in miniature, greens and rusts of lichen add color, a small patch of captured snow a reminder of the season.

I love seeing the white circles of lichen alongside the circular spread of hairy-textured liverwort, the white looking as though someone had run through the woods with a paintbrush, daubing here and there. 

A couple of days later, the sun emerged, and the peeling birch bark glowed pink, its delicate peels dangling, twisted; it is a small moment of joy. As Mary Oliver writes, in her poem "Yes! No!"
"Imagination is better than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work." 


  1. Thank you for this beautiful sharing...yes what a privilege we have, just to slow down and really look...and the magic there!

  2. lovely. I can't wait till I can get out into the timber and find some mushrooms.

  3. "One shouldn't go to the woods looking for something, but rather to see what is there." John Cage

    It seems that is why I come here to your blog, rather than look for something, it is always to see what is artistically real or imagined here. I also thank you Altoon for sharing.

  4. thanks so much everyone; I'm really pleased you liked this post.

  5. This reminds me of the walks I do with friends. One of us is looking up at birds (me), one looks down for emerging flowers (T), and another looks off for photo ops (A). Together we see most everything. This time of year things in the forest change daily or right before our eyes. I thoroughly enjoyed this post.

    1. Thanks, Lisa, and you left me a funny image from your description.