Seeing More by Understanding Less: Lessons From a Walk in the Woods

In our lives at Swarthmore, and indeed in most scenarios in our everyday lives, we are rewarded for quickly absorbing, synthesizing, and making sense of new information. Think about it: in a political science or philosophy class, we generally need to read new material and come into class the next day with relevant thoughts and opinions about what we have just read. Whenever we see something new for the first time, our first instinct is to make sense of it and eliminate confusion and ambiguity as quickly as possible. This tendency also appears when we endlessly scroll online, reading only the titles of news articles and just skimming the actual content. Eventually, if you aren’t careful, you find yourself having strong opinions about world events that you really know nothing about. Being able to take in and synthesize information quickly is certainly a useful skill to have, but I think this skill can backfire at times, and instead of leading to greater understanding can lead one to vacuous, shallow, or just plainly wrong conclusions. Too often, we emphasize learning about things by seeking to understand and interpret them at the expense of learning through careful and focused observation. 

For instance, one of my favorite things to do is walk in the woods. Whether it is the Crum Woods here in Swarthmore, or the old-growth New England forest in rural Connecticut where my grandparents live, I tend to spend at least some time every day in a forest, and when you walk the same stretch of woods every day you notice that the woods are not simply a place — it’s a whole other world that runs on its own rhythms and cycles. Over the course of a single day, its sights and sounds change as the morning chorus of birds and the sight of turtles and snakes lazily sunning themselves on a river bank give way to the frenetic buzz of beetles, butterflies, and bees swarming the flowers to sip some nectar. Later, as twilight approaches and you remain very quiet, you might see a raccoon or deer emerge and forage, and at night you can hear the sounds of crickets and see the trees illuminated by ghostly moonlight.

However, if you continue walking over the course of about two weeks, you will see that the night forest becomes steadily darker and gloomier until it is almost pitch black. A couple of days after that, you start to notice that the faint silvery glow returns, but only for a few hours. Wait a few more days, and not only is this light brighter, but it also lingers for longer and longer, and before you know it you realize that this whole pattern of light and dark is simply the result of the waxing and waning of the moon. And as the moon transitions from new to full, it stays out longer and longer into the evening until it is out all night.

Forests change in even more unpredictable and fascinating ways. If you walk in a forest the first few days after a rainstorm and pay close attention to the forest floor, you’ll notice an explosion of mushrooms in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They last for a few days, or maybe even a week, before sinking back into the ground. In some woods, like those near my grandparents’ house, the first few humid weeks of summer in early June portend the arrival of thousands of fireflies, which light up the meadows and trees for a few short weeks only to fade back into the gloom of the night forest. 

I never would have learned so much about the woods or enjoyed them nearly as much if I had approached the experience with the intent of quickly coming to conclusions and interpreting everything I saw. Instead, I focused on slowing down, simply existing in the woods, and focusing on my raw experience and observations. This allowed me to notice very subtle things and gave me a newfound appreciation for the natural world and the cycles that drive it. Ironically, I feel that by not trying to interpret and understand, I gained a far better understanding of those stretches of forests that I walked. Forests — and most interesting things, really — are incredibly complex systems, and the only way to gain deeper insight into their workings is to contemplate them over a long period of time.

If you focus less on trying to interpret what you see and instead simply try to focus on seeing more, you might be surprised by the things that you can learn. It might be uncomfortable at first because of our natural tendency as humans to want to make sense of the world around us, but if you can become more comfortable with things not making sense, you’ll uncover new and subtle depths of the world around you. When we free ourselves from the need for immediate understanding, we actually end up seeing more of the full picture.

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