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Aging for Amateurs: We need connections to wonders of natural world

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Aging for Amateurs

During semi-confinement, anoles in the garden capture our attention. Provided

What impressed Catherine Holmes in her recent Post and Courier review of Anton Chekhov’s “Fifty-Two Stories” was his vision of how interesting it is to be ordinary.

“Chekhov’s stories insist that ordinary life is full of glories and beauties," she wrote, “and ordinary people are not shut out of drama.”

In other words, you don’t have to hit Broadway or do extreme sports to find drama; you don’t have to see the sun rise on Kilimanjaro to become tearful with beauty.

Good news for seniors sheltering in place! Eight years ago we had a visit from two English ladies, both in their 80s, who lived in a small town in the part of England called the Scottish Borders. They spent two weeks with us in May.

When we ran short of museums and sightseeing options, we spent one whole afternoon sitting in our pocket-size garden under the fig tree drinking — what else? — tea. A green anole (very common lizard in these parts) was prowling among the plants. Our two friends were fascinated.

They couldn’t take their eyes off the anole, delighted by his every leap, thrilled when he puffed out the red fan from his throat. It was the high point of their entire trip.

My wife and I were amused by their attention to the lizard and thought it was akin to the eccentric British preoccupation with the weather. For years after their visit, we had a chuckle every time we noticed an anole in the yard.

Guess what? Now, after four months of semi-confinement in the small space that is our house and garden, we find our attention riveted by the anoles. We have green ones and brown ones, and they scamper up and down flower stems, garden walls and fig branches making daring leaps.

We googled "anole" and read about them. We talk about them. We have compared their leaps from fig branches to Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith.” We compare their habits to those of a larger broadhead skink that also lives in our yard — or his yard, depending on who’s talking.

Our close observation of anoles does not advance social welfare but gives us comfort and delight. Not to compare our old friends to lizards, but in isolation from the former, we’ve moved on to make new, green friends. I’m sure our old friends tell similar stories about replacing the pleasure of our company.

One friend who tells a similar story is Helen Macdonald. We’ve never met her but felt close to her in reading her book “H Is for Hawk” and her environmental essays in the New York Times Magazine.

She has spent months in lockdown in her small house in Cambridge, England, watching common birds from her kitchen window. Her confinement reminded her of the account given by some British POWs incarcerated in Germany for five years during World War II. Conditions were harsh, but they became totally absorbed in observing the birds that migrated past their prison camp.

Macdonald writes, “I think doing so brought them comfort; the birds they saw were free and knew nothing of war, and they were the same kinds they knew from home. But mostly watching birds was a way of mobilizing attention, to turn it into a means of imaginative escape, a way to counter their own sense of captivity, of powerlessness, futility, and despair” (“The Comfort of Common Creatures,” NY Times Magazine, 5/24/20).

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Our “captivity” by the coronavirus is not to be compared with the hardship of prisoners of war, but it is comparable with Macdonald’s lockdown. You may have found, too, that you can do “nature walks” in your own small space.

Being in the natural world does not require driving to the Grand Canyon or even to a nearby nature preserve, which many do not have the means to do. The benefits of spending time in the natural world can be as local as watching the house sparrows and blackbirds that visit our ordinary yards.

Or the anoles. Anything that shifts our perspective, draws us out of our worries, quiets our inner chatter, merges us for a moment with a very different and dynamic life form and then releases us to come back slightly changed, works to wake us up and renew us.

Watching the tiny anole quiets my mind. It gives me focus and makes me more alert and attentive to where I am, maybe even to who I am. Is that a waste of time?

From confined space we can be transported into the living fabric of the universe. The most telling testimony to this insight may be a book with a most unusual title, “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating” by Elisabeth Tova Bailey.

I read “illness narratives” for years with medical students, and this is the best one I know. The author was hiking in Switzerland when she began noticing a certain weakness, later diagnosed back home in Maine as a severe neurological disorder related to chronic fatigue syndrome.

Soon, she was unable to move from her bed, and for many long months, after heartbreaking relapses, she was hardly able even to move a muscle.

She had a glass terrarium on her night table. A small forest snail had come in with a cluster of violets. During the months of her almost total immobility, she paid exquisite attention to that growing snail. She found that the snail’s minuscule movements and hers matched perfectly: She and the snail passed time at the same pace.

Her unique research project involving the snail, her meditations on time and life, being and doing, are the most remarkable testimony to human affinity with nature that I know.

Helen Macdonald sums it up best in her article. “We can become deeply connected to the world through paying the most careful and fearless attention to what we can see, from wherever it is we must be.”

English ladies, snails, anoles and sheltering in place remind me of that.

Think about it: Right now, when the world is changing profoundly — with the dismantling of dominant racist symbols, the far-reaching impacts of coronavirus pandemic and the relentless climate crisis — being deeply connected to the world, paying careful and fearless attention, and waking up to the wonders of our own small patch are exactly what we need.

Chekhov, student and champion of the ordinary, would agree.

Bert Keller and Bill Simpson write the occasional column, “Aging for Amateurs.” Keller, a retired minister and bioethicist, wrote this installment. Comments, questions and suggestions are welcome at

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