Seeing and Seagreens
Updated: May 14
It was when I went out to Whidbey Island in Washington State for the first time that a whole new world opened up for me. So much of it was about coming to see and hear things that I hadn’t noticed before, mainly pertaining to birds and their specific calls, but also to the wildflowers and plants of the Pacific Northwest.
I was 25. My world had done a complete U-turn just before. I’d been thrown into a lot of uncertainty in the wake of an important relationship coming to an end. I was in a bit of a mess (to say the least). My childhood friend, and then college roommate, Erika, suggested I join her and her husband, Jon, for the summer term at Au Sable Institute for Environment Studies in Washington State on the west coast of the United States. It was completely unknown territory to me, but the fact that she and her husband would be there was a comfort, and I needed some comfort, not to mention a change or diversion from my circumstances.
I gave up a U2 concert in Toronto (for which I had free tickets) in order to get to Camp Casey, Whidbey Island for the start of the summer term. U2 or not, the return I got was more than I could have ever imagined. In exchange for food and lodging, my role was to take charge of student life; bus people around in a large van, get supplies, among a variety of other things. In addition, I was invited to participate in a Natural History course, led by Professor Joe Sheldon.
I can certainly say that the rest is history. There was no vague murmuring about 'bird calls', reducing them to a mere twitter and a tweet, but I came to learn the variety of birdsong associated with unique and specific birds of the Pacific Northwest. Joe was like a child in a playground. His enthusiasm for the flora and fauna of the area was contagious. Most of our study happened outside, in the ancient old-growth forests or in the prairie landscapes. I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed learning so much. And it changed my life, and probably my painting too.
I suddenly thought of this when I was walking on the Freswick Bay beach the other day, noticing the bright green vegetation that was growing on the rocks.
Normally, I would have photographed it as something visually captivating, which it is, but now that I am starting to read and learn more about seaweeds, another layer of interest and connection is developing and deepening. I’m stopping to really notice it - to identify it, see what it grows next to, and feel its texture. This vibrant green springtime plant that covers the upper tidal rock like a carpet is what I now know as gutweed, or sea green. It takes on a whole new place in my mind and eye.
Funny how we suddenly notice something - something that has been there all along and that we walked past or took for granted. Funny how it suddenly ‘takes root’ in our lives and enhances our experience and understanding of the world. In my case, it’s not just a thing to slip and slide on in order to get to the other side of the beach. Not anymore.
I’ve come across a book recently by Simon Barnes called Rewild Yourself. I haven’t read the whole book yet, but in his introduction he quotes C.S. Lewis of the Narnia books: ‘And so Lucy found herself walking through the wood arm in arm with this strange creature as if they had known one another all their lives.’ (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)
I imagine that the initial fear of the unknown can easily be transformed into a loving friend when we take the time to hold it, or metaphorically walk arm-in-arm with it. We engage with a world that we were always part of, but that now reveals newness and deep connection. Suddenly life expands, in its grandness and its detail.
This morning a friend sent a brief film clip of a butterfly resting on her husband's fingers. They found it in the poly tunnel. It had just emerged and seemed to be finding it's new feet, she said.
So beautiful and delicate. Vulnerable.
As Barnes writes, ‘Butterflies, more than any other creatures, seem to have been designed to please humans: stunning little fragments of colour that sting not and cause no harm. They are without question bright and beautiful, and to look at butterflies with the tiniest bit more attention is the easiest way in the world to get a little closer to nature.’
And, I wonder, to ourselves.
This time of lockdown has certainly had its ups and downs. I've felt the intensity of it under the current restrictions. I've also felt the freedom of not having to travel or be anywhere other than where I am, a permission to 'stay put.' Noticing intricacies of nature within the boundaries we've been given is a gift in the midst of humbling realisations as I face myself and my frailties in ways I have not before - a refining fire. When I saw that fragile butterfly this morning, I thought about what it had been - first a caterpillar and then a cocoon - and then how far it has come and what it has become. We are going through a time where we might feel hemmed in on every side. Some days are better than others. My hope is that this is a healthy germination period, even if painful, and that in stepping out of this time we might have changed, in all our vulnerabilities, weaknesses and strengths....and notice the difference.