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A Hard Patience

“Pick an animal. Any animal.”

The words came, not from a magician, but from Linda Hogan, a Native American writer of the Chickasaw Nation, who was my teacher in a creative writing class at the University of Colorado.

I picked a common enough animal, a great blue heron, and following Hogan’s assignment, spent two weeks watching it, sketching it, taking notes on its movements. And. . . and, how to put this? Well, it changed everything. The assignment had seemed straightforward, dull. But it turned out to be anything but. It turned out to be thrilling.

At first, clomping out to the creek with my sketchpad in hand, I tended to scare the bird off and so saw it mostly in flight. But even that was something: its wingbeats deep and slow, its long neck pulled back into its chest. After a while I managed to sit still, and so the bird sat still too. Or somewhat still, since it seemed to be a bird of a thousand postures. Its neck would crane up and then pull back into a down periscope position. I studied its blue-gray color, its quiet breathing, its blue primary feathers, and gray secondaries. It was boring work at first, but gradually took on a kind of quiet excitement.

Before those weeks of watching the heron, I had spent some years working hard at becoming a writer, and that work included many hours of reading, researching, writing, and planning. But waiting and watching were something new.

I thought back to my days watching the heron recently when I read an article called “The Power of Patience” by Jennifer L. Roberts, an art history professor at Harvard. In her classes, Roberts requires of each of her students “an intensive research paper based on a single work of art of their own choosing.” Students are required to visit a museum and spend three hours sitting and looking at their chosen work of art. Three hours! In today’s high-speed Zooming academic world, even three minutes seems an impossibility. We imagine the students squirming, looking around, then instantly reaching for their phones. But some of the students apparently do stick it out, and Roberts reports that they are “astonished by the potential this process unlocked” after they have come out of the other side of their boredom and started to see more in the paintings. She writes: “Every external pressure, social and technological, is pushing students in the other direction, toward immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity—and against this other kind of opportunity. I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.”

 

Today I watch a great blue heron from the writing shack behind my house.

The shack is the perfect bird blind. For over an hour I observe the bird fishing in a small tidal pool. It stands in a not-quite-upright but leaning posture, its long neck stretched forward, peering down into the water, not moving a muscle. This is a wonderful example of patience, though patience is far too dull a word for what I witness. It is a moment of poised anticipation—an excited patience—as its whole body tenses in preparation for the strike. When the strike does come, it comes with lightning speed, the bird’s neck and head shooting down in a blur. Sometimes it takes a small step forward as it strikes, like a tennis player putting force behind a shot. I watch seven strikes in all, more than half of which seem to be successful. When they are, the heron gives the fish a shake in his bill before gulping it down.

The bird becomes a gray-blue ghost, its blue the blue of stains from old carbon paper.

I find it heartening to remember just how thrilling patience can be. “Our lives are frittered away by detail,” Thoreau said. Here is simplicity itself, the whole of being put into a single task for survival. In this way the heron offers up an example—not to be confused with a symbol—of patience linked to excited expectation. Of restraint married to attack, of both a long view and a visceral immediacy. Of course, we need both: the ability to sit back and wait, but also to attack, to plunge, to splurge. To pull back from the world and then throw ourselves into it.

Finally the heron periscopes up its long, white neck—the vivid white of gannets, of osprey underwings—then pushes off into the air and flies away. The bird becomes a gray-blue ghost, its blue the blue of stains from old carbon paper. That color darkens to something close to black at the wingtips, lightened only by a white splash of feathers—the heron’s “headlights” as birders call them—in between the two tones.

 

“So what?” my own students might ask, impatient with my long lecture on patience. What does sitting still for hours and watching a painting or a bird have to do with our fast-twitch times? Or with environmentalism?

Everything, I would contend.

As Wendell Berry pointed out long ago, the environmental crisis is a crisis of character. It isn’t simply that most of us gulp down the gasoline and other goodies that corporations dish out. It’s the way we do it. We worship at the temple of more. We race to a thing, consume it, and race off to the next thing, not seeing the sense of getting to know that thing, whether it is a place, person, or animal. A culture of speed can quickly become a culture of glibness. And I think it’s fair to say that life has never proceeded at such a high speed. We live in a fast-twitch society that craves fast-twitch results: Hits! Cash! Fame! Attention!

As environmentalists, we need to question ourselves when our ends are different but our means remain the same. We can think about the planet all we want, but we better spare some brain cells for thinking about our own lives. The history of environmentalism is the history of saving land, but it is also a history of people living in a way that suggests that it is possible to live a kind of counter-life, a life that values things that are not necessarily valued by mainstream society. Thoreau said he wanted to live a life “with a broad margin.” He meant he wanted space, but also that he, hearing his different drummer, wanted to proceed through his days at his own stately pace. This wasn’t easy, even in the 1800s. To do so he had to give up things that others considered dearly important. Which is worth dwelling on. Think about what gets in the way of patience, of a broad margin, in our own lives. It tends to be anxieties about “missing out.” Emails, texts, phone calls, opportunities. To be truly patient is to choose one thing for a while and that means not choosing other things. It means not choosing everything.

The reality of climate change is that there are always a thousand immediate things that get in the way of long-term thinking.

What are the implications for environmentalism? One is that we should not be too quick to adopt the enemy’s clothes. Not feel that, due to the hectic and instant-gratification society we are part of, we need to present the values of what we do in terms that others define, for instance the quick-hit candy high of “growth.” We need to understand that the saving of land or a species is a long-term gratification, and therefore does not have the quick and sexy appeal of novelty and immediacy. That’s okay. In fact, the appeal of trying to slow down runs counter to the usual enticements; it is a deeper, quieter, less conventional appeal.

To paraphrase Dr. Roberts: “Change the pace of an exchange and you change the form and content of the exchange.” She goes on to say of a painting by John Singleton Copley: “The painting is formed out of delay, not in spite of it.” Slow ideas might not have much of an exchange rate in today’s market, but they are worth more than people think. There is a reason that those who fight for the land and against the coring out of the earth often speak about the fate of our children and grandchildren. It’s because, cliché though it may be, that is exactly who we are fighting for.

One of the great challenges in the battle to get people, including our politicians, to recognize the reality of climate change is that there are always a thousand immediate things that get in the way of long-term thinking. We react to a hurricane, a twister, a fire. But to slow down enough to think beyond the immediate? At first it doesn’t seem to be compatible with being human.

Which brings us back to patience. I believe that one of the reasons patience is regarded as dowdy and unsexy is that it is seen as a “natural” virtue. We imagine it flowing easily from a wise old woman or a Shaolin monk or a primitive hunter stalking his meal. But patience is almost always a learned virtue and, at least at first, an awkward one. We learn to keep still not for the hell of it but because we gain something from it. We keep still and feel uncomfortable because we learn more about the heron or the work of art that way. The hunter doesn’t wait without moving because he’s after mystical oneness. He’s after meat and staying still is the way to get that meat. This is what Roberts calls “strategic patience,” the conscious “deceleration” that brings results. Patience, she admits, “sounds nostalgic and gratuitously traditional,” but in fact needs to be “a primary skill we teach students.” And, it goes without saying, that we need to teach ourselves.

Patience, among its other benefits, is practical. Patience gets things done. In fact very few large goals get accomplished without what Roberts calls “the formative powers of delay.” And patience is also more than practical. It has the power to save us from ourselves. Roberts continues: “Today, patience is a form of control over the tempo of modern life that otherwise controls us.”

The heron isn’t patient to prove a point or to morally posture. It is patient because it wants to eat.

We do not stay still because we like to stay still. We stay still because it brings rewards—even when they are eventual rewards.