What’s on your mind as you step out the door of your home or your workplace or the grocery store?
Are you thinking about your plans for the rest of the day? About your shoes — should you have worn different ones now that you’ve had a chance to feel the temperature? About that frustrating situation that just won’t go away? The meaning of life? Your fears or regrets? Whether or not the car needs a wash?
Do you catch a glimpse of the mountain off in the distance? Are you noticing the snow that wasn’t there yesterday? The area that was damaged by a wildfire a few summers ago? Are you looking at the clouds, trying to determine what the weather will be like in the next hour or two? Do you look up at the tree across the parking lot or beside your driveway and notice the squirrels’ progress on their nest?
Do you think of how that mountain was formed? Do you think about tectonic plates shifting, smashing into each other, overlapping? About volcanoes that erupted thousands of years ago? Do you wonder what its layers would look like if you saw a cross-section of that mountain?
What do you feel as you take in the view? Does it trigger thoughts of something else? Are you reminded of a time you hiked that mountain or another mountain? Is there a face of that mountain where you have gone rock-climbing? Or, like me, do you have zero interest in rock-climbing but will occasionally read a book or watch a documentary about rock-climbing? Do you travel back in time to the late 1800s when tens of thousands of people made their way over the Chilkoot Pass to reach, supposedly, all the gold that awaited them in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush? The stampeders, as they were called, made not just one or two but sometimes dozens of trips over the steep, snowy, icy, boulder-strewn 26-mile pass. Government officials required the stampeders to have a year’s worth of supplies in order to survive a time and place filled with such uncertainty, and these supplies weighed, literally, a ton. This all sounds extremely tiresome to me, especially since, astoundingly, it was just part of a treacherous journey by boat, train, horse, and foot to reach gold (maybe). My 20-minute walk home from work suddenly seems very easy.
Do you think of the different types of clouds as you look up at the sky? Do you note the different levels and types of clouds? The high levels clouds that we see, cirrus clouds, are about 12 or 13 kilometers high. Do you think of what’s beyond the clouds, beyond the stratosphere, beyond the mesophere and the thermosphere? Can you see the moon up there? It’s about 384,000km from where you stand. If you were to line up 30 planet Earths, that line would reach to the moon. The moon, by the way, has a diameter of 3,747km, which is about the distance, as the crow flies, from Victoria to Montreal.
Do you wonder where that little squirrel is running off to? Do you vaguely recall reading somewhere that a squirrel’s heartbeat is between 300 and 400 beats per minute while the squirrel is active, and between two and ten beats per minute during hibernation?
Are you struck by a sense of awe as you take in all of these sights? Do you think a bit more about those clouds or that little squirrel? Do you pause for a moment before you turn around to change your shoes or make sure you locked the door?
The author George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) wrote, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence.” If I pause for a moment and reflect on all this, my surroundings no longer seem very ordinary.
How you view a cloud or a cute rodent or something else in your surroundings may or may not be the same as it was five or ten years ago. For me, it’s not the same. One of the differences: I actually spend more than three seconds contemplating such things when I see them.
I’m curious about those trees on the mountain and how they change colour in autumn, or how high the clouds are and what causes lightning, or how those little squirrels build their nests and also how not-so-little creatures, like gorillas and chimpanzees, build their nests.
Walks with my friend Karen have made me open my eyes more to the beauty all around us – unique landscaping in someone’s yard, Christmas lights in the winter, sunsets, birds, insects. When another woman joined us for a walk one afternoon last spring, she and I joked that Karen could glance up towards the very top of a tall tree and pick out a butterfly resting there (we were exaggerating, but not by much). When I walk by myself nowadays, I scan pond surfaces and tree tops for creatures and stop to admire plants along the walkway, rather than being so focused on my own repetitive thoughts, and I’m amazed at what I can see.
Last year, I started a distance ed course, “The Practical Gardener,” not so much with the goal of becoming a gardener anytime soon, but because I realized that I know shockingly little about plants. Nowadays, if I see a fallen tree, I can point out a couple more things about the growth rings of a tree. I know a bit about the difference between male pine cones and female pine cones (by the way, did I learn this in junior high? did I forget?), and that the ovaries of some flowers develop into fruit, and that the sight of cashew fruit and Brussels sprouts plants makes me smile (it is kinda funny, isn’t it?!).
There are so many ways of seeing the world….
I recently read “On Looking: eleven walks with expert eyes,” by Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist. Over the course of 11 walks, Horowitz talks and “sees” with her walking companions, including an artist, a geologist, a sound designer, a man who is obsessesed with typography, and Horowitz’s own young child. Each person shares with her what they notice in their surroundings. Some take notice of specific details of buildings, some focus on the passersby and probable medical conditions that they detect, some comment on the composition of the sidewalk, some pay particular attention to the bags of garbage that pile up on the sidewalks later on in the day. In another book by Horowitz, “Inside of a Dog: what dogs see, smell, and know,” she explores the world of her dog. I wasn’t sure how her observations could take up 370 pages, but they did and I was captivated until the last page.
Another eye-opening book for me recently was “Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: discovering the brain of synesthesia,” by Richard Cytowic and David Eagleman. Synesthesia is a condition in which certain sensory regions of a person’s brain respond abnormally to stimuli – for example, a sound might trigger a reaction from sensory receptors for vision, or the sight of a certain object might trigger a reaction from receptors for touch. A telephone ringing might induce in that person’s mind bright yellow stripes, or the month April might “feel” like it’s a bit to the left side and May is straight ahead, or some sounds evoke a minty odour. Strange, I know, but fascinating!
Of course, there are also other ways we “see” life – not just the our physical surroundings – and our views on those things can change, too, in remarkable ways. I see religion differently now than I did ten years ago. I have different ideas now, compared to ten years ago, about what I value in a friendship, in a relationship with a significant other, in my family. I see my roles in this world a bit differently, too. Many things no longer seem so permanent, so predictable, and this terrifies me sometimes; it also makes me appreciate this moment so much more. The years ahead no longer seem to stretch on for forever…but the list of books I want to read does!
What leads to all of these changes? Time, I guess — getting older, gaining more experiences. Looking back over the years (and decades), we consciously or subconsciously make comparisons, and we change our minds about what is important, or acceptable, or a waste of time. Our outlooks also change as we travel or take on new jobs or, as I’ve experienced, when someone unintentionally or intentionally points out an idiosyncrasy we didn’t know we exhibited for the last 36 years or so! Seeing friends go through big life changes (having children, taking care of aging parents, losing a parent, starting a new chapter halfway around the world) or going through big changes myself will impact how I see things tomorrow and next week and in ten years.
The author, editor, and motivational speaker Charlie “Tremendous” Jones claims, “You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.” Who will we meet in the next couple years? How can we delve deeper into some of the relationships we already have? Which books could we buy? Which books could we do without?
In five years, I want to be bit better at handling Difficult Situation XYZ in my life. Perhaps I will learn to become a bit more calm, to catastrophize a bit less, to try my best and then accept that there’s much that I cannot control. What can I do to become a pro at overcoming certain hurdles? Which books, YouTube videos, and people in my corner of the world can guide me in this direction? Which creative outlets, hobbies, cartoons, or funny quotes can distract me when I’ve already spent way too much time dwelling on something that is a waste of time?
Even if most of us will never hear grass growing or a squirrel’s tiny heart beating, we can keep trying to see our surroundings, our interactions with other people, our own actions and reactions, in new ways.
In five years, when it’s 2026 and I’m 41, I hope to see that mountain a bit differently than I do now. Surely, I haven’t begun to scrape the surface of what there is to know about mountains.