"We are What We Pay Attention to"

October 23, 2017

Bridger Layton

In Port Townsend, we spent a morning strolling the beach and learning from Scott Brinton, a naturalist with the Cedar Root Folk School. Scott talked to us about the importance of observing the world around you with a critical eye and asking questions about how things came to be. It’s easy to live your life with blinders on, and in so doing to miss out on a deeper understanding of the world in which you live.

For instance, the average person can come bowling down a forest trail and see nothing but plants. The naturalist might meander down that same trail and witness a complete set of relationships between flora and fauna. They might hear the warning call of birds as a predator traverses the area. They might watch as a deer reacts cautiously to that alarm, and perhaps even glimpse the bobcat that caused the commotion as it slinks by. Of course, from time to time any person might find some luck and catch sight of a deer or a bobcat, but they will almost certainly miss the grander sequence of relationships before them. By virtue of careful curiosity, the naturalist has learned to fill a different role in the landscape and sees a completely different place

Later into our morning with Scott Brinton, he made a statement in relation to all this that was rather thought-provoking. “We are what we pay attention to,” he said. I thought this was a nice way to say that daring to examine things beyond their surface is important. It’s important because looking closely at almost anything will reveal a whole host of complexities that are easy to miss. For me, this is an emerging theme of the expedition.

Beneath the surface, everything is complicated. A dam is never just a dam. A salmon is not just a fish. A wolf is more than a wild dog, and the cow it ate for lunch is much more than calories for a hungry populace. Each and every one of these items has powerful connections both to ecological systems and to human ideologies. Dams create huge amounts of carbon-free energy, but they also affect salmon populations, displace entire towns, and drown fisheries and sacred locations that native populations have utilized for centuries. Salmon are a fish, but they are also a keystone species to numerous river ecosystems, providing an abundant and much needed source of nutrients to the inhabitants of the place. They are also a fish to which native populations in the Pacific-Northwest have a deep cultural connection. Wolves are a species that provide numerous services to their ecosystem. Perhaps most notably they maintain ungulate populations, protecting land from overgrazing. For some, wolves are a symbol of ecological interrelation, highlighting the ways in which one species’ absence or presence shapes an entire ecological system. Yet for others they are a symbol of death and destruction, wreaking havoc on cattle in the West and threatening a profession, ranching, that has impressive cultural power in rural America

The items highlighted above are just beginning to expose some of the texture that the West reveals when you look beyond the surface. With that in mind, we can see how the approach of the naturalist to examine the world with careful curiosity applies well in many contexts. In a sense, it is the approach of the naturalist that is guiding our studies on the road. We’re striving to see the West as more than an image of John Wayne on a horse. We’re striving to understand the diversity of people, landscape, and issues that have defined the West historically and continue to define it today. We’re striving to pay attention, and in so doing we’re beginning to see the West as a much richer place than we did on August 23rd when our studies began. 

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