Don't Just Do Something, Sit There: Suggestions for Observing in Nature
Reflective observation in nature can be powerful for deepening connections to the natural world. Both in my own classes and in workshops in other academic programs here at Evergreen, I teach workshops called "Don't Just Do Something, Sit There," to develop students' capacity for observation and for contemplation in the natural world. Depending on the particular academic program and its purposes, students engage in these activities to prepare to do field research, to develop their drawing or writing skills, or for more open-ended contemplative time. Often, these field observation experiences are tied to journal assignments that ask students to record observations or engage in reflective writing.
First, by learning to breathe quietly and sit absolutely still and unobtrusively in nature for extended periods of time, students discover that they can observe, at very close range, the actuality-not to mention the beauty and fascination-of animals going about their lives. For the first time, students report watching a spider spin an entire web, or ants move their colony, or a pair of birds feeding their nestlings, or a shrew shredding a mushroom in search of an insect meal. They often remark on how they became so engrossed in their observation that "time stood still"-or that they were surprised and delighted to make detailed discoveries all on their own.
Second, through disciplined stillness, students discover their own acute powers of listening and observation, capacities they did not know they could cultivate. In field natural history classes, my students have carried out detailed field studies on bird, mammal, insect, and spider behavior and have consistently reflected that these strategies were key to their field studies.
Third, for those students who work at honing these practices, patterns of ongoing curiosity and reflectiveness open up for them, and they consistently report a strengthened affinity and empathy for the more-than-human world.
Context for Use
I also give "Don't Just Do Something, Sit There" workshops in various academic programs at The Evergreen State College, including programs in natural history, environmental studies, visual art and drawing, and creative writing. Faculty members teaching in these programs have a variety of goals for student learning.
Description and Teaching Materials
Ideally, a first "Sit There" workshop should be held outdoors with access to a natural area; even a less-busy natural area or garden on the campus will do. I ask students to bring a field notebook or journal and something to sit on - a cushion, small blanket, or some newspaper will do.
I plan on a first workshop lasting at least two hours; it would include some introductory directions and advice, some time for students to go off on their own to try about 30 minutes of sitting still; and some time for coming back together as a class to talk about their experiences and work through questions.
Key to introducing these strategies is clarity about what the larger academic goals are for engaging in these practices. Sitting quietly and observing is not a typical practice in academic settings and students will immediately want to know "why we are doing this." It is important to explain why-whether it's to build observational skills for field work, to build "seeing" ability for drawing or other visual arts projects, to build reflective and contemplative skills for writing assignments, or for another purpose.
The handout attached here, "Don't Just Do Something, Sit There" - Suggestions for Sitting and Observing in Nature, provides students will some suggestions for building their "sitting" skills. In first workshops, I talk students through this handout, and take time especially to engage students in finding ways to sit comfortably and in breathing exercises. I hope you will modify these suggestions in whatever ways you find useful! Sit There Handout_MacGregor (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Oct9 12)
Teaching Notes and Tips
References and Resources
Any of the works of naturalist-writers, such as John Burroughs, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, William Kittredge, Aldo Leopold, Gary Paul Nabhan, Robert Michael Pyle, Scott Russell Sanders, Terry Tempest Williams.
Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing by Frederick Franck. Bantam Books, 1993. Useful ideas for learning to draw, using everything around us.