Nature Connection: Doing Nothing

By: Mary Richmond

Mary Richmond illustrations

A red-tailed hawk lives in my neighborhood. Many of you probably also have one for a neighbor, whether you know it or not. Red-tails are large hawks and prey primarily on small mammals such as mice, chipmunks, rabbits and squirrels. I’ve seen a few grab a bird in the lean winter months, but usually they stick to furrier meals.

On a recent sunny but cold morning my hawk, as I fondly refer to it, was sitting atop the tallest Norway spruce in my yard, taking in the sun. I’m pretty sure it was also taking in any movement of possible breakfast squirrels as well, but for the moment the only movement was that of the jays and crows who were trying to harass it enough to convince it to leave. If you want to see a jay look small and insignificant, see it up close to a red-tailed hawk.

As the morning wore on I occasionally looked out the back door to see what was happening and there was the hawk, its breast white against the green of the tree, bright in the morning sun. At least an hour passed, the hawk barely budging from its spot. The feeders remained empty and every now and then a jay or crow made a half-hearted attempt to move it along, but mostly it was just very quiet. Birds and squirrels alike were sitting quietly, biding their time. They had no games, no books, no videos or music. Just a chance to sit unnoticed and do nothing in particular.

Lots of nature spends time doing nothing. Once fed, many birds and animals can be found resting somewhere, taking in the scenery. In scientific terms they are saving energy while being alert to potential danger. Even parent birds, having filled the crops of their insistent little ones, often can be seen standing by, doing nothing but perching.

You can easily see this with ospreys since they are large and out in the open. Once they have hunted successfully and the youngsters and mate are fed, they just hang out on a perch nearby, keeping watch most likely, but also not doing much, if anything, but sitting.

One could easily argue that these resting periods are necessary for rejuvenation, for digestion, for taking stock of their surroundings and for a chance to survey their territory for potential danger as well as potential prey. However, even bees take what appear to be naps in flowers when they’ve completed their tasks.

Consider plants for a minute. There’s a lot going on in a plant in any given moment if we think about the chemistry and alchemy necessary for their survival, but really, that is true of all living things. Even a dormant, hibernating animal has brain activity and other measurable chemical actions and reactions occurring. When we observe plants, however, they seem to be pretty content staying in one place in all sorts of weather, adjusting to conditions as the growing season goes by. Then, they either die and leave seeds behind or they go dormant to survive the long winter months. All that time of dormancy is time spent doing nothing, or at least the minimum necessary for survival.

Doing nothing is probably a misnomer. Doing the minimum may be a better descriptor of this quiet time. Only we humans would call it nothing, now that I stop to think about it. We claim to be bored when we have nothing specific or active to do. We allow ourselves to sleep, but rarely to just hang around doing nothing in particular. These days people play with their phones while waiting for appointments, etc. To be fair, many of these same people used to read outdated office magazines or a paperback book they brought along. Few just stared into space or out the window.

A lot is being written and talked about today concerning the virtues of doing nothing. I’m one of the big proponents of so-called boredom and times of nothingness. These are the times we used as children to daydream, to get lost in thoughts that were random and often creative. Boredom is often the precursor to invention. Of course, this very thing led to the saying, “An idle mind is the devil’s playground.” This is probably true, but it’s not just the devil that plays there. It’s also the incubator for new ideas, new ways of doing things. Yep, it’s a dangerous thing.

It’s hard to do nothing, probably harder than being busy. Our culture has put extreme busyness at the top of a bizarre pedestal of achievement and self-worth. We are constantly working, if not at our paid jobs then on house projects, garden, or yard projects, etc.

Imagine if we fiddled less with our homes, our gardens, our lawns, the lives of our children. What if we let a little nothingness slip back into our lives and fully embraced it? We could sit in the sun without regrets. We could enjoy a blooming weed for the beautiful flower it is. We could appreciate the worn woodwork, the old curtains full of memories in our homes.

After an hour or so, the red-tailed hawk flew off. It had caught nothing but the warm rays of the sun after a cold late winter night. It had not done nothing, though. It had reminded me of the power and richness of just sitting back and doing nothing for a bit. It can be very refreshing.