Mindfully Looking at The Way of Natural History (Book Review)

The Way of Natural History, edited by Thomas Lowe Fleischner and published by Trinity University Press (Texas), recently came across my desk for review. The premise of the compilation is to bring together "scientists, nature writers, poets, and Zen practitioners" to "show how mindful attention to the natural world can bring rewarding and surprising discoveries" and is "a key pathway to nurturing our humanity." Or so the back cover blurb says. I tend to agree with that so happily sat down to reading, and when I finished there near 200 pages was still happy--and contemplating that key theme of the book.

But first an assessment: The Way... starts out strong, with a good piece of poetry from Jane Hirschfield. Indeed it's the only piece of actual poetry in the whole book, though in a way other passages throughout have a poetic air about them in terms of construction and technique.

Fleischner himself adds the second piece, perhaps the best in the book explicitly making the connection between mindfulness and nature. More on that in a bit.

The rest of the book's pieces, twenty of them, are more or less straight natural history writing. That is, writing about the natural world: The experience of a person studying wolves in the Rocky Mountains, reflections on how little many people really know about the ecosystems in which they live (even some people proclaiming themselves to be ecologists of one sort or another), the joy of showing children ladybug eggs in a garden, thereby gathering their attention and pushing it towards greater appreciation for the world around them.

It's an interesting collection to be sure, but what part of the back cover blurb first caught your interest will likely determine how you feel about it all. If it was 'natural world' then you'll be better off--there's good nature writing here. If it was 'mindful attention' then you might be less pleased, in that most pieces reference mindfulness by inferred example (and sometimes very oblique ones) rather than explicitly. Which is somehow fitting, it must be said.

But back to Fleischner's piece. When making notes for this review I cited this passage:

Why does attentiveness to nature matter? In a very fundamental sense, we are what we pay attention to. Paying heed to beauty, grace, and everyday miracles promotes a sense of possibility and coherence that runs deeper and truer than the often illusory commercial, social "realities" advanced by mainstream contemporary culture. ... Our attention is precious, and what we choose to focus it on has enormous consequences. What we choose to look at, and to listen to--these choices change the world.

As Thich Nhat Hanh has pointed out, we become the bad television programs that we watch. A society that expends its energies tracking the latest doings of the celebrity couple is fundamentally distinct from one that watches for the first arriving spring migrant birds, or takes a weekend to check out insects in a mountain stream, or looks inside flowers to admire the marvelous ingenuities involved in pollination. The former tends to drag culture down to its lowest commonalities; the latter can lift us up in a sense of unity with all life.

Very important words that hold true in any environmental example you can think of. Where you choose to place your attention is the world you see around you. Each point of attention, each point of focus, is real. But it is in choosing to place that point of focus that creates the reality you experience.

And one more thing, a re-lining of some of Fleischner's words, to show some of the poetry hiding as prose:

"And these hummingbirds
in front of my eyes signaling
with the full force of their fierce
dense energies that
life is not to be lived partway

that every,
single,
moment,
must be a blur of feathers, a deep suck
of nectar."

Good stuff there.

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