Summer #8: Sit Spots

woodchuck_backyard.jpgWhen you are looking at Nature you see and experience its details inversely proportionally to the speed at which you are moving.  From my car as I drive along roads that wind through the woods I see much less than if I were riding my bike on that road or, better yet, on a trail that cuts through those surrounding  woods. And, if I were walking along that trail I would see a great deal more than I would have from my bike. It is logical, then, that if I were sitting absolutely still, letting all of the events of the trail move past me instead of vice-versa, I would see even more.

Jon Young in his book “What the Robin Knows” (2012, Houghton Mifflin) has a whole chapter dedicated to zero velocity observations. He emphasizes the importance of finding a place in which you can, in a non-locomotory way, dig deeply into the details of an ecosystem. Your “sit spot,” according to Young, is a place that is easy to reach, a place where you feel at peace and safe, a place that you get to know very well.

Young puts learning about Nature via these sit spots into a much broader context: he presents it as a model for how all educational endeavors should be structured. For profound, “deep” learning to occur, according to Young, a student must make visceral connections between themselves and the subject. They must make their own observations of their subject and slowly put these observations together into a pattern. A student accomplishing this “owns” their education, and the subject they are studying becomes a part of their existence.  The easiest, and least effective, way to teach, as those of us who teach know far too well, is to stand in front of your students and point everything out. Delineating these long lists feels efficient but it denies the students the opportunity to make their connections with the subject. Facilitating this connection is really the job of a teacher because once that is accomplished, learning is sure to follow.

The sit spot is the place where a deep, visceral connection between a student (you) and the subject (Nature) can be made. There may be a teacher involved encouraging and guiding the connections, but they must not explain too much or go too quickly. Better yet, the “teacher” may be the student’s own intellect and work ethic that helps to keep them focused and connected to the events and things going on around them.

Sit spot observations need to be recorded, organized and developed. This is a complex building process not just an experience of the moment. Keeping a notebook of your observations and taking the time to ask questions and to try to connect events and develop patterns in these at first isolated occurrences is the key to absorbing and growing with and into the subject.

My sit spot is in the back room of my house. My writing desk faces a large window that looks out onto the small, enclosed space of my back yard. The back (north) side of the yard is lined with bushy crabapple trees and a handsome, nut producing, American Chestnut tree (a survivor!). The right (east) side is lined with a continuous wall of twenty foot tall arbor vitae that blend in to a stand of twenty-five year old hemlock trees. The left (west) side of the yard has two fifty year old blue spruce trees and  a broad, similarly aged red maple. Five scarlet and white oak pole trees (now fifteen to twenty feet tall) are growing under and around the spruces. The center of the yard is a fifteen by fifteen foot basketball court with a crooked pole (a tree once fell on it!) and wobbly backboard and rim. I have watched this space for years now and it has been the scene of numerous dramas and unexpected observations many of which have been subjects of past blog postings.

There was last summer’s poorly placed cardinal nest and the persistence and eventual success of the crow and blue jay nest predators who nullified all of the parental cardinals’ hard work and dedication by consuming their eggs and their nestlings. There was the very recent, mid-season soap opera staring the Carolina wrens and their mating triangle. There were the deer in mid-winter walking single file through their resource space on the edge of the backyard with each trailing individual eating exactly what the lead doe ate in exactly the same order. Just a few minutes ago I watched a male robin dig a worm out from between the concrete squares of the basketball court and gobble it quickly down in spite of the angry demands of an incredible fat, female robin who must be ready to lay a large number of eggs.  There is also the carnival of the two woodchucks who use the basketball court as their starting gate as they blast under the arbor vitae and through the electric fence that my neighbor has set up to secure his garden.

Observations from my sit spot have filled a dozen notebooks. Some of these have been curious and simply entertaining while others have led to some interesting science and speculation. Science is, after all, not just observing but is a process by which you learn to ask more and more profound questions (and then figure out how you might answer them!). It is the ultimate learning experience!    

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