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Nature Talks author Cheryl Kimball walks past this stump in the woods almost every day. A close observer will notice barbed wire protruding on both sides at the top. More than a tree stump, it was once a fence post. Which leads to many questions: How much of the now-forested land was fenced in? When? And for what?

WHEN I WAS A KID, I occasionally convinced my dad to let me come along with him when he walked across the street from our house to the marsh to go deer hunting. He made me promise that I would keep quiet and not ask a bunch of questions. Of course I promised, and of course I kept that promise until I was bursting with questions.

I thought I was whispering but deer have hearing designed to pick up any noise at all in their environment especially, I imagine, the sound of a human voice. My dad would first shush me but ultimately he would give in and answer — and begin our march back across the marsh toward home realizing no deer would be appearing in his rifle sight today.

My dad’s been gone for 18 years now but thankfully besides books now there’s also the internet to turn to. There’s nothing more gratifying than finding the answers to your own questions. Questions are a scientist’s stock-in-trade, including the citizen scientist. Questions are most likely the result of observation mixed with a dash of curiosity. And observation is key to learning about the natural world.

Once an NPR fanatic and borderline news junkie, around a year ago I decided to listen to only a half hour of NPR per day. I was tired of being told what to think about and turned to audiobooks borrowed from the library instead for drive-time listening of my own choosing.

I learned more about this contemporary phenomenon when I caught a recent interview on “On the Media” (ironically broadcast on NPR) with Jenny Odell, the author of “How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” published this past spring by Melville House. The book is broadly described as a “self-help guide for re-learning how to look at the world” (from a blurb of the book by author Megan Prelinger). The premise for the “how to do nothing” part is that you don’t always have to be connected, you can just be. Not only is that OK, it is not only probably better for your well-being but also a form of resistance. But that “nothing is harder to do these days than nothing.”

Odell really isn’t advocating doing nothing at all — but doing nothing “as capitalism defines it.” Using “doing nothing” as a way to protect what she defines as the most precious resource we have — our attention.

In the interview she talked of her own developing interest in ornithology, which we all know is far from doing nothing. She began looking at pretty birds and enjoying identifying them. But once she had done quite a lot of that, she began to find herself interested in other aspects of birds. In classic ornithology student fashion, she next wanted to identify them by their vocalizations. But then her interested seemed to take a deeper next step: she wanted to know things like why they vocalized the way they did when they did. That alone could provide you with a lifetime of exploration.

Then she talked about some things that took something like birdwatching to a whole new level in my opinion: by paying a “whole new kind of attention” not to what we are told to pay attention to but what we choose to turn our attention to, we don’t turn our backs on the world. In fact, quite the opposite. Odell says we then “can undertake a bolder form of political action, reimagine humankind’s role in the environment, and arrive at more meaningful understandings of happiness and progress” (quoted from the Amazon description of the book).

In the “On the Media” interview, Odell explained this in regard to her birdwatching. She talked about how we can read all the scientific papers on climate science and listen to all the pundits talk about the melting glaciers and other proofs that worldwide temperatures are rising and what impact climate change and global warming will have on the world. But we will become more politically active about climate change when an individual, even an amateur ornithologist, cares, for instance, about the impact of these changes on that rose-breasted grosbeak that person loves to see at his or her backyard bird feeder. This is what brings it home to each of us individually — what our specific observations of the world lend us to care about starting at the very micro level.

If I accomplish nothing else in my every-other-week Nature Talks column, my goal has always been that — to spark a reader’s interest in being a better observer of the natural world, which leads to caring about an individual species to caring about a species as a whole to caring about all species. To walk through the woods and let one observation lead to a question that leads to searching for an answer that leads to more questions. I can see how I must have exhausted my dear old dad.


Cheryl Kimball is a freelancer writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at