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Observation Aids Reflection

Photo by Riley Nelson

After a rigorous ride down the mountain I pull off the trail, walk into the trees, and put down my mountain bike. My breathing slows. The quiet expands. Sitting, I focus on relaxing my body one limb at a time. I soak in the small sounds that interrupt the silence; rustling leaves, running water, the whir of the occasional bike tire. I am not afraid, or lonely, or bored. I relish the feeling of being insignificant to my surroundings in this moment. I feel content in my solitude and ready to write. But this ability to be at peace here—to be alone—has not come easily. It is a hard-won skill.

When I was in ninth-grade I was accepted into a unique class called 3-Hour Science. We did most of our learning in the canyon near the school. Our first assignment: choose an observation area, visit—alone—for one hour per week (rain, shine, or snow) to watch, listen, and write about the experience. To ease us into this exercise our teacher, Mr. Willis, made our first observation a group activity. He took us to the mouth of the canyon asked us to walk off the trail and spread out approximately 20 feet from one another. We were meant to spend the next hour in quiet contemplation and observation. I remember walking into the Scrub Oak trees and feeling as if I had been swallowed whole. I was scared. I rarely spent time alone—especially in the woods. I have an active imagination so, scenes of starvation and rabid animal attacks played through my mind. I called out to my friend, “Hey Mike, Are you still here?” A soft chuckle told me he wasn’t far away. I tried to relax, to focus on the natural world surrounding me, but it was hard.

Now, I feel it imperative to point out that I am no stranger to the mountains. I grew up camping and fishing with my family, but being secluded in a womb of trees made me feel small and vulnerable. I spent the majority of the time shooing away spiders and other insects, jumping every time I heard a new noise, and checking my watch. I am sure I scratched a few lines on paper about what I saw but what I remember most about that day was the relief I felt when Mr. Willis called out, “Time’s up!”

Eventually, these weekly observations and the subsequent time I spent writing about them changed my life. I had always been taught to fill my time with chores, homework, entertainment, a constant stream of noise from radio, TV, or siblings. I didn’t understand how to be still. The idea of sitting quietly alone for an entire hour was as foreign to me as the surface of the moon. And then there was the writing. I had no idea what I would I write about.

I had chosen to observe an area called the Hollow because it was near homes (hopefully filled with people) at the entrance of the canyon. I was scared to go too far into the hills, afraid of loneliness as much as anything else. I did not fulfill the one-hour requirement when I first started doing my observations. As soon as I’d walk into the Hollow, trying to ignore my hammering heart, time seemed to slow down and I felt as if I’d never find my way out. So, I started with 15 minutes and gradually increased my time until I became comfortable with the stillness of an hour. Once I’d settled into that routine, I began to recognize the interconnections of the earth and all its creatures. For the first time I saw myself as part of that connection. I wasn't afraid anymore because I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself. Feelings of loneliness were replaced with feelings of wonder. I learned to focus on important details because I knew I would be required to write about my experience. I took time to turn inward—to reflect—about what I was learning about myself and the wilderness surrounding me. I was immersed in experiential learning and self-reflection. These experiences have been a powerful source of growth and guidance throughout my life, and in my writing.

At a young age I was given a gift few public-school students receive. I was allowed to learn in a tactile and corporeal way. I was encouraged to think for myself, to take risks, to ask questions—and I was taught to honor those lessons by writing about them. Mr. Willis understood what many of the best educators do—that learning and growth are about the opportunities students have to ask questions. Those hours in the mountains as a fourteen-year-old girl served me well; they made me into a curious life-long-observer and introduced me to reflective-writing. It is through writing that questions and answers have continued to flourish as I essay my way through life. I am ever grateful for my freshman year when I learned to be alone, but not lonely.