In the midst of the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic, while trying to figure out how to give a genuine laboratory experience to students scattered around the world, I accidently developed a project that taught my students how to love. I was teaching a standard first semester biology course for science majors and pre-med students. In the pre-pandemic world, it would be paired with freshman chemistry to usher our new college students into the study habits, expectations, community, and laboratory techniques of a science major. I considered online laboratory software or sending them kits of materials but finally decided to have each student go outside and find a laboratory of their own.
Their requirement was to find a location that was safe both physically and from the virus. It also needed to be reasonably close to their home because they would be returning to it every other week for the duration of the semester. Finally, it had to be as much like wilderness as they could find. Students chose a range of locations such as a quite spot in their backyard, a local park, a suburban retention pond, or a forest preserve.
Once in nature, I asked them to spend 30 minutes paying attention, take a few measurements, and then reflect on the experience of being surrounded by creation. I helped them learn to pay closer attention through questions that directed their focus. What do you hear at your location? What do you smell? What do you notice after 30 minutes that you did not see right away? Place your hand on the ground and then lift it back up – what are 5 things you notice about the spot your hand covered? What are 5 adjectives you can use to describe the tree closest to you?
In these efforts to guide their attention I was inspired by the excellent book The Forest Unseen, by David George Haskell. In this 2012 book, Dr. Haskell beautifully recounts his experience of regularly visiting a small section of old growth forest for a year. He lovingly describes the complexity, interconnection, and diversity of his forest with the expertise of a biologist and the heart of a poet.
In my student’s writing, a kind of poetry started to come through as well. They described their forest as “crunchy” because of the fallen leaves. They discussed how different the wind sounded once the leaves were on the ground. They noticed and described the feel of the moss at the base of a tree. I sent them into nature to observe biology in action and in return they sent me poems about the adventures of squirrels and colonies of snails.
Maybe I set them up for this kind of response. I knew that these 30 minutes in nature were critically important for students learning from home during a public health emergency. I would ask things like:
What have you done in the last two weeks? What have you learned, read, studied, or presented? What conversations have you had? How many times did you sleep well? How many times did you not? What did you eat? Then consider this: In all that time, this little piece of nature was still here.
Or later in the fall:
As you travel to your site, consider this: every single leaf that falls in the woods makes a sound when it lands. There is a little “pft” when it hits the ground. That sound starts sometime in September and then finishes in November and silence returns. Then consider this: When you hear a leaf fall today it will be the only time that particular leaf ever falls. It falls just one time in its existence, and you were there to hear it.
Once in this mindset, surrounded by as much nature as they could find during lockdown, I reminded them that God was present there too. We read sections of Psalm 104, including:
16 The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
19 You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
20 You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
(Psalm 104:16-20, NRSV)
The consequences of having students return to nature every 14 days with their eyes and their hearts open were more than what I had expected. I had hoped that they would learn how to take measurements, collect replicates, and plot data in Microsoft Excel. I think they learned those skills. They also learned how nature changes as it moves from one season to another. For most of my students they watched nature transition from late summer to early winter, but others watched the change from dry season to wet. All the students noticed how creatures (including plants, animals, and fungi) prepare and react from one season to another.
But they also learned to love their location. Over and over students wrote about how much they had grown to love this little spot. Whether a retention pond or a forest preserve, they wrote passionately about how much beauty it contained. They wrote with excitement about the animals that live there. They explained their intention to revisit the location throughout the year to see what happens next. I never intended love to be a learning outcome.
In hindsight, of course they fell in love. Paying close attention is a reliable way to snare us in those sacred bonds. As academics, are we certain that the details of our discipline are demonstrably loveable? Or is it possible that by paying close attention to the nuance and intricacies of the field, we find its hidden beauty and fall in love? This could also help explain why we fall in love with a newborn baby. They disrupt our sleep, our relationships, and our lives but in those first weeks we pay close attention to every breath and in doing so we fall in love.
Through the project I learned a reminder of the connection between attention and love that can be helpful for all of us. When you are feeling distant from God, pay careful attention to His word. When you feel space with your partner, pay close attention to them. When your discipline starts to seem like a bore, pay attention to new papers being published in the field. In every case, I am certain you will find the beauty therein and, once again, fall in love.