Monday, June 25, 2012

Post #17 The sit spot

My last post was a list of observations I made from my back patio while drinking my morning coffee.   It illustrated that wild nature is found everywhere–even in our backyards–and it is our job as responsible stewards to observe and understand it.  Today's post is about a simple technique that will help you observe and understand your wild backyards a little better.  The technique is call a 'sit spot'.  A sit spot is simply a convenient place that you return to frequently to sit.  Your sit spot can be as simple as your porch, patio or garden bench; you don't need to seek out an adventurous or otherwise impressive sit spot like a mountaintop or deep ravine.  Once at your sit spot, you are only to observe.  Anything and everything is fair game:  calling squirrels, chirping birds, hiding moths, blowing wind, dripping water, tunneling ants, falling acorns.  There is no goal, per se, but the idea is that by sitting in a place again and again the sitter slowly gains insight into nature.

Insight from sitting?  Is Tate crazy?  Well, let's take for example the American robin, one bird that almost everyone knows.  The American robins can be found just about everywhere you look: farms, small woodlots, cities, suburbs, college campuses.  They are present in our various stages of human development– they are the first birds identifiable by children and the last birds forgotten by aging adults.  I even found them on the Arctic tundra of Alaska!  Yet considering their commonness, can you answer the following questions about the American robin:
  • What do robins sound like?    
  • How deep are their nests?
  • How can you tell a male robin is courting a female robin?
  • How do robins clean their nest?
  • What noise does a robin make when it spots a cooper's hawk in the forest?
  • What do robins eat in the winter?
  • What do robins eat in the summer?
  • What is typical foraging behavior for a robin?
  • From which part of a tree can a robin be expected to sing from? 
The ubiquitous American robin.  So common, yet so mysterious.   

When we start to think about the details of the robin's life, we realize that we know almost nothing.   
When we start to realize that the robin has its own life–outside of our briefly identifying it–we can begin to understand and relate to it.  I often use the following analogy:
Think of a good friend.  Picture their face and recall their name.  Think of some notable experiences you have shared with them.  Think of how deep your relationship is.  Love.  Respect.  Openness.  Understanding.  Now think of all that would be lost if your relationship was instantly reduced to only knowing their name and being able to identity them in a crowd.  No more passion or family, history or camaraderie.  Just 'Bob, the guy with a beer gut, glasses and a shaved head'.  Wouldn't that be a shame?  Believe it or not, the same goes for your relationship with the robin.  It can be as deep or as superficial as you like.

Now back to your sit spot.  By visiting your sit spot over and over again, you will begin to see patterns, cycles and changes in nature.  The place around your sit spot will take on new meaning and put the rest of your life into a larger context.  You can expect to feel a connectedness and familiarity with your sit spot.  You will start to see the lives of the trees, bugs, birds, and rocks of your backyard.

You may have some questions.

How often should I visit my sit spot?
As often as possible.  Every day is great.  Once a week is better than nothing.  Less than once a week might make it difficult to build momentum.

Where should my sit spot be?
Very close to your house.  Backyard, side yard, front yard, porch, your kid's tree house– it doesn't matter as long as you are comfortable and outside.  Ideally, your
 sit spot should be very convenient– this way you are more likely to visit.  
A yellow Adirondack chair on a back patio.  This could be your sit spot. 
How long should I sit at my sit spot?
15 minutes per sit would be great.  You would be amazed at what you can experience in 15 minutes.  Imagine what you can experience in 30 or 40 minutes at your sit spot.  Some days will be longer than others and that's ok.

What should I do at my sit spot?
Just observe.  No observation is too small or unimportant.  For example, the number of times the robin called before flying to the ground, the color pattern on a fly's wing or how a tree bends in the wind– all these things have significance.  Here is what you do:
  • Allow your body to relax.  As you observe things, catalog the experience.  Write things down or sketch pictures in a special notebook (don't worry, if you don't consider yourself an artist no one else will see it).  If you are the diligent note taker, after just a few weeks of periodic sitting you will have a rich set of notes, pictures, diagrams and maps– keep these, they are priceless for understanding what's around you.
  • Catalogue what's around you.  Flowers, trees, bugs, rocks, water, wind–they are all important.  Don't worry if you don't know the name of a plant or animal.  Give them your own names. Instead of naming it 'highbush blueberry' you can call it 'canoe-leaved berry bush'.  An organism's name is not currently important, their lives are important.  Their names will come with time.  Keep records as organisms come and go through time (for instance, how winter birds differ from summer birds).          
  • Make a 'sound map' (see below).  A sound map is an illustrated 'map' of the sounds that you are hearing in relation to you.  Don't worry about precision or scale, the purpose of the map is just to organize what you are hearing.       

A sound map made by a child.  A sound map like this helps you organize what you are hearing and give it a spatial context.  This is a very simple sound map.  Yours may have many more sounds on it.    

Can I tell anyone about my sit spot?
Yes, talking about the experiences at your sit spot will help you process them.            

Here is an interesting video where nature mentor Jon Young talks about the importance of keeping a sit spot.  Although his purposes are a little more sophisticated and advanced than ours, he is tapping into the fundamental power and usefulness of sitting.  This is a cute video about keeping a sit spot.

What does sitting have to do with our Living Lighter on the Land campaign?  Remember that through  Living Lighter on the Land we strive to rethink our place on the planet?  Sitting shows us what we never knew about nature.  More importantly, sitting teaches us what we didn't know was even possible to know about nature.  With these new tools, we can start to rethink our place on the planet.

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