The long-lost art of listening and observing

By Jared Nunery, Orleans County Forester, Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, & Recreation

December 2, 2020

Have you ever heard the gnawing mandibles of a sawyer beetle feeding on tender twigs high up in a nearby pine? Or the eerie symphony of sharp, shooting sounds of expanding ice on a pond as the temperature falls well below zero? Listening may be one of the easiest skills to define and the most difficult to master. The word is first introduced to us in toddlerhood and quickly becomes one of the central discussion points in every child’s first classroom. As life progresses and becomes ever more complex, the daily distractions of life steal our attention, usurping our capacity to be still, be present, and truly listen. A constant battle for attention rages in our minds as we race from task to task, beginning to process the next challenge before completing the current one. It was not until I began to consciously consider my own weaknesses as a listener that I began to understand how this critical skill so directly impacted my own relationship with the land.

As a forester, I often travel through the woods at a pace determined by efficiency and productivity. The distance to the next inventory point set the speed, and the path to the next destination was set by that of the least resistance, striving to achieve the fastest course between destinations. It was not until one day that I physically stopped myself in the woods, rested on my heels, and simply listened, that I realized just how much I was missing. The depth of my understanding of the forest was driven by stocking charts, research papers, and silvicultural guides – all incredibly valuable tools in understanding forest function and processes, but something was missing. What hamstrung my ability to fully understand the woods around me was my lack of observation. In my haste to complete the task at hand, I failed to hear the greatest lessons the forest had to offer, all I had to do was slow down, listen, and observe.

Leopold bench build at NorthWoods Stewardship Center, East Charleston, VT, in Fall 2018.
Leopold bench built at NorthWoods Stewardship Center, East Charleston, VT, Fall 2018.

Listening is a continual improvement process, one that I must work on daily, and my tool to help me with this process comes in the form of a simple bench I built with my children years ago, from a design based on a similar bench built by Aldo Leopold and his family nearly three quarters of a century ago on their farm in Wisconsin. Our Leopold bench sits on the shore of a nearby pond, looking out over an expansive wetland to the west, and cedar-lined shores to the north. This bench is framed from the vantage of our kitchen window, shrouded in shadows cast from a towering white spruce, serving as a daily reminder while washing dishes – have I sat and listened today? Through sitting I have learned to look beyond seeing the first ice on the pond, to observing the stratified crystals of ice, radiating outward from the emergent leatherleaf on the shoreline. As I listen and observe, my depth of understanding of the world around me increases, as does my own ability to recognize that I am a member of this community, and my actions have an impact, both positive and negative. This is all gained from the simple action of slowing down, being present, and enjoying the here and now from the comfort of our bench.

Observation was one of the key tenets of the thinking behind much of the work of Aldo Leopold on his farm in Wisconsin. Being present in the woods, listening, and observing was foundational to Leopold’s process to developing an “intense consciousness of land”. Through observation and practice, a relationship with the land is formed, and through a relationship comes respect, appreciation, and recognition of oneself as a member of an ecological community – in other words a land ethic.

In March and April of 2020, many Vermonters were forced to stay home during the early months of the pandemic. While our daily travels were restricted to a few miles from home, here in Vermont we are blessed by a landscape that still offered us escape to the natural world. People began to seek out new corners of their nearby neighborhoods, backroads, and woodlots. The natural world quickly became a place of respite, a place of calm, and a place of observation. The rapid changes of spring were observed and shared among community members, and as people struggled to make sense of the surging global crisis, observing the spring migration of spotted salamanders and the evening dance of the woodcock helped many cope with the stress beyond their nearby woods. As summer rolled on, science showed us that the outdoors was the safest way to engage with others. Fall brought the return to school for many young Vermonters, with a much greater emphasis on time outdoors. Today, as we transition seasons yet again, there is no doubt that we will be learning to experience and observe the beauty of winter in ways that we have not before.

Outdoor classroom on the lawn at Craftsbury Academy, with school building in the background.
Outdoor classroom at Craftsbury Academy, Craftsbury Common, VT, Fall 2020. Under the tent are Leopold benches built by the 2019 Craftsbury Academy Integrated Studies Class.

The act of sitting and listening sounds simple, but it does take discipline. There is no better way to get to know the land than to be present and observe the subtle sounds around us. I hope that each of us is able take a few moments every day to slow down, be present, and develop a better understanding of the land around us and the community where we live. As our collective knowledge of our surroundings grow, our land ethic, to paraphrase Aldo Leopold, will continue to evolve in the minds of our community. Knowing this brings me great hope at a time when hope and optimism have never been more needed. I hope that you can find a good spot for your own bench and a few moments to slow down, listen, and observe.