Do Not Do

554 total words    

2 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: young shanahan, "dappled light through trees" (CC BY 2.0)

“Simplify, simplify,” I heard Thoreau say in my head the other day when I was packing the cabinet of curiosities that is my medicine cabinet. We are preparing to move again. Why I had kept a bottle of sublingual B12 drops is an unanswerable question.

Instead of continuing to halfheartedly pack, I decided to wholeheartedly take a walk in the woods that surround the suburban stormwater retention pond that I affectionately call my Walden. “The woods” is misleading. These woods are not the Forest Primeval. The sound of traffic abounds; the thin-trunked young saplings are flanked by freeways and an office park. Still, I wanted to be among them, the steadfast and upright, with buds about to burst into a suburban Maryland riotous Floralia.

Being a human animal lately has tired me. We move around so much, waving our hands to draw attention to our sentience, to our me me me, I’m first thoughts and opinions. We drone. We terraform. The grandiose title of Yuval Noah Harari’s marvelous, terrifying new book is Homo Deus and there is a wait for it at the library. I’m some-teenth in line. There is no wait at the library for Tristan Gooley’s The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs. Is this the life?

My powers of observation have diminished. I’ve been skimming the surfaces with my eyeballs. Shouldering my way into things. Hefting. Living not “in the layers,” of my body as poet Stanley Kunitz would have me do, but “in the litter,” on top, in my head.

Pablo Neruda’s poem “Keeping Quiet asks, “If we were not single-minded / about keeping our lives moving, / and for once could do nothing…”?  I wanted to find out, Could I do nothing? Could I loaf? Could I use that lovely French word, flaneurWhen was the last time I just observed the unfolding of things and did not reflexively opine? I wanted to head-shrink. Body-magnify.

So into the woods I went.

I did not grasp for the woods’ meaning. I did not describe the woods, nor try to identify any of the trees with my leaf key. I beheld the suburban office park ecosystem as best I could (beholding being one of the branches on the tree of contemplative practice, according to the Center for The Contemplative Mind In Society.) But my beholding is flabby. It was a challenge. My mind itched to make meaning, to put this experience into cultural context as a think piece and pitch it to The Atlantic. “Shut up,” I said to myself out loud, “Live in the layers, not in longform creative nonfiction.”

At the sound of my voice a deer took off deeper into the woods and I hoped not onto the freeway. I was determined to remain receptive to the dappling of the light. I didn’t want to deal with a dead deer in that moment, or the implications of urbanism and our phenomenal spread across the face of the Earth as outlined in Harari’s first book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

Simply, Nothing is what happened. I stood there a long while. It was so refreshing. I felt like I had just taken a bath. 

When my husband asked, “What did you do today?” I said happily, “I beheld the woods badly, but I moved my arms around less.”

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  • Elizabeth Bastos

    Elizabeth Bastos is a freelance urban environmental writer mother-of-two in the Baltimore suburbs. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, McSweeney’s, and the Baltimore Sun. She is at work on her first book about the natural history of stormwater retention. 

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