Look and Notice

As soon as my daughters were old enough to walk a mile or two without needing to be carried or running off on their own, I started taking them on walks through our neighborhood, during which I would stop very frequently to observe and call their attention to the details of the things we encountered. I would make them stop and notice the colors of a leaf on the sidewalk, a mushroom in the grass, fungus on tree bark, the colors of moss on a brick wall, the patterning on a dead bug’s exoskeleton–which would make the younger one shinny up my leg in terror– and I would exhort the girls to “look and notice”. The older one, who had a keen eye, strong verbal skills, and an urgent desire to please me, would bubble over with descriptions of everything in sight. When we got home, we would paint pictures of wildflowers we had picked along the way.

The younger one, three years younger than her sister and not yet grown into articulateness, would trudge along in defeated silence, suffering the excursion with stoic bad grace. She’s 25 now, and her name appears on published research papers to which she contributed by tending and then dissecting fruit flies and mice, having since overcome her critter terrors for the sake of science. Of course I remember our look-and-notice walks very fondly because they helped to hone my ability to get past habit and context to see extraordinary things in ordinary objects. I also remember her pained submission when we took those walks.

So my younger daughter has grown up to be highly articulate and well trained at scientific observation. She came over early one morning during her recent spring break at medical school to join me on one of my daily look-and-notice walks through the woods next to the stream near our house, and I asked her how she had felt about them when she was little. “I hated them,” she replied. “I felt trapped. I didn’t like being told to talk about what I was seeing, I could see it on my own.” We stood there for the next 15 minutes watching a vulture in the middle of the stream. She pointed out the curvature of a protruding tree root and its smooth texture and yellowish coloration. I did not feel like a bad parent for having forced those walks on her in childhood.

Photos from my recent look-and-notice walks:

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