Learning Just By Paying Attention

Guest Post from Joshua Bardwell

I realized the other day that I know some things that I never “learned”. Well, I never set down to learn them anyway.

I have read that poke is a common, edible wild plant. As the plant grows, it becomes more poisonous to humans, but the young shoots are okay to eat—in a pinch anyway; it’s not like they’re delicious! The problem was that I only knew how to recognize full-grown poke. Its distinctive red berries and stalks are indicative of the presence of the very poison that makes it inedible. So, not very useful knowledge.

When we moved into the Wallow, it hadn’t been occupied for a while, and the plants were having a field day. I cut down some enormous poke plants! Poke forms a long and thick tap root that is damn near impossible to remove, so I simply left them where they were. As you might expect, this spring, those roots started sending up new shoots, and let me tell you, “young, tender poke shoots” are not tiny little lettuce-like things. In just a few weeks, that root put up two or three 12″ shoots, of about 1/2″ diameter, with leaves about 2-3″ long. (Of course, I knocked the shoots off. I suspect this poke root and I will be having this dance for a while.)

While doing some maintenance work on the pigs’ electric fence, I noticed a bunch of other shoots just like the ones from the poke root, growing in the woods near the property. It was clear as day that they were the same as the shoots put up from the poke root in my yard. And I realized that, without reading a book, without studying the Internet, without even so much as asking a friend, I had learned what young poke looked like. Just by paying attention.

This has not been an isolated incident. For example, last fall, Issa determined that a tree growing in our field was a walnut. Over the winter, all of the tree’s branches fell off until it was literally just a stick in the ground. This spring, the tree’s foliage has started to return, beginning with a tuft at the top and working its way gradually downward.

We keep an eye out for trees growing near the fence, which they tend to do, since just below the fence doesn’t get mowed. Yesterday, from all the way across the yard, something by the fence caught my eye, and I said to Issa, “You see that walnut tree just to the right of the gate?” The tiny tree couldn’t have been more than 2′ in length, and it was too far away to make out many details, but the shape of it—the spindly stem with the tuft of new leaves on top—was just obviously the same as the walnut in the field. There was no mistaking it.

I hope it goes without saying that I don’t disparage book-learning in any way. We never would have identified that first walnut tree at all without looking it up in a guide, and neither would I have known that the red color in poke indicates that it’s become unsafe to eat. In fact, I think there are certain categories of knowledge for which book-learning is the only way to become proficient (try learning organic chemistry or to practice law, “just by paying attention,” I dare you).

Still, it’s amazing me the kinds of things I’m learning just by being interested and paying attention. There is an idea out there that the only way to learn is to sit down in a room with a book or a teacher and input words and pictures into your brain. It’s just not true! I’ve never been the person who can identify plants and trees by sight. I have, at various times, bought various field guides and studied them, but the information never stuck, and I think I know why: it wasn’t relevant, and it wasn’t interesting. When information is relevant and interesting, I think the animal mind is prone to retain it. This information is relevant to me because I am very interested in forming a real connection to the land on which I live, and part of that is getting to know all the other things that share the land with me.

On the other hand, when information is irrelevant and boring… well, if you’ve been to grade school, I think you can finish that sentence yourself.