As the holidays fade in the rearview mirror, a whole new landscape full of opportunities awaits us. Each day we choose where to focus our attention. A new year gives us a chance to see how we spent our attention last year, and how we might change at least some of that this year.
Winter on Cape Cod is a lovely time to consider and contemplate the things that are important to us. There is a stark beauty in leafless branches and bleached sand dunes that we don’t have any other time of the year. Nature is quiet in winter. Or is she? Step outside and listen.
There’s a funny thing going on in the world today. People are watching nature videos in larger than ever numbers. This should be an encouraging sign, but some statistics show that people are watching nature on their screens instead of getting outside in actual nature; that in fact, fewer and fewer people are getting outside for more than an hour or so a week.
Imagine this. Instead of watching a nature video or reading about nature on a screen, get outside and experience nature for that same amount of time. Choose a new place to walk or look at a favorite trail with fresh eyes.
Winter gives us a chance to really get to know our neighborhoods, trails we love and trails we are just discovering. Many of us have a favorite beach to walk. Try a new one. If you always go to the outer beach, try a beach on Nantucket Sound. If you always go to a certain conservation area, look at a map of conservation areas on the Cape, close your eyes and let your finger pick a new one to check out.
This is the time of year to search out the places your backyard cardinals and catbirds nested. Oriole nests are easy to find and if you’re lucky, you might happen upon a screech owl taking in some sun in his own doorway in a tree. The more we are out by ourselves, the more we see and hear. We can stop and observe a woodpecker circling the branch over our heads. We can make note of where the winterberries grow and where the red squirrels have built a midden of scattered pinecone scales. Some of these are very impressive, standing several feet tall.
At the beach we can scan the horizon for flying ducks or loons. We can watch eiders and scoters dive and find smooth, flat stones to skip over the waves.
We can stop and think about how the beach we are walking is made up of millions and millions of grains of sand that have seen more changes in the world than our limited minds can even imagine. We can smell the sharp salt tang in the air, perhaps catch a whiff of abandoned seaweed and shells along the shore. Among the hundreds of shells left behind we may search for one unbroken, perfect whelk shell to tuck into our coat pocket. Perhaps we will find a white quartz pebble shaped like a heart or a piece of driftwood that appears to be shaped like a whale.
Plato claimed that the unexamined life was not worth living. Contemplation is a form of examination. It allows us to slow down and consider what we are observing, experiencing. When we stop to feel the smooth, lush moss that grows along the side of the path, we will remember the softness and strength of this humble plant in a way no photo or video can provide. When we stand still and watch a tufted titmouse forage in a bush only a few feet away from us we may feel connected to another living, breathing being in a transformative way.
One doesn’t have to do anything special. Just get outside. Take a deep breath. Smell, feel, look, listen. Just be in the moment. No screen can compete with crisp winter air and the call of the gulls overhead.