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Grass No. 26 - Staying True

Grass
Grass No. 26 - Staying True
By Hudson Gardner • Issue #26 • View online

Chaga ground to a powder for tea
Chaga ground to a powder for tea
Lately, I have noticed my attention is different when using a screen compared to doing something non-digital. And I’m not sure if it’s a matter of attention.
I was cutting birch bark from a tree yesterday. As I took the 4inch razor sharp blade of my Mora knife to the bark, I used both hands to pull it deeply and hard into the bark. My attention was sharply focused on the blade, the cutting edge, the motion and rate of pulling, the grip of my hands on the handle of the knife, the line I was making in the bark of the tree—but I was still aware of things around me. I heard a loon in the cove, and a red squirrel (T. hudsonicus) barking across the inlet. I looked up as he/she scrambled for cover, spraying spruce cone pieces everywhere in haste. As I looked up I paused at the cutting. When I looked down again I continued to pull the knife down, deeply cutting into the fallen birch trunk. The birch had snapped off in the wind storm we had a few weeks back, and I was cutting some of the bark to make a matchbox. Beneath the bark the sapwood had a layer of bright orange-red. I had never seen the cambium of the tree so recently peeled, and was amazed at the color.
After cutting the bark, I dug through moss in the woods, searching for spruce roots. I found one, cut it free, and skinned the bark and fiber off. The root was sticky, and held well as I made knots to bind the birch bark into a round container. I found a fallen birch branch and sawed off two plugs for the matchbox caps.
After doing this, I felt happy and calm. Though my attention had been intense during the cutting and shaping of the bark, I was aware of the woods and water around me. It had not taxed me to do these things, but instead made me feel good.
The finished matchbox
The finished matchbox
When I use screens, there is a similar intensity to certain physical work, but I don’t feel refreshed. I find myself less aware of what’s going on around me. I think many people can relate to a feeling of being “sucked in.”
But these days I feel we are asked to use screens and devices more than ever. The psychological implications of this use are not fully understood. But maybe they don’t need to be. Maybe we don’t need another study or well-researched book to convince us that overusing devices is harmful. Most people know this now, but it’s hard to put this knowledge into action.
When trying to discard what isn’t good for me, I find the reasons I do things, whether practical or impractical, are connected to other things. Lives and personalities are complex and fluid. In other words, in order to remove something from the web that is my life, there is a net effect on other parts of my life. So in order to remove something, the web has to be looked at holistically.
I think this is why many people have a hard time making extreme changes stick, such as changing the amount and way they use devices. There are many things compelling you to do this or that, and digging into the sources takes time. Trying to enforce a massive surface level change won’t be easy if the deeper currents of what is causing that behavior aren’t addressed, because those currents are often very strong.
This is ever more difficult in a constant state of stress and distraction, which unfortunately is what device over-use perpetuates. It’s the problem making itself worse.
Doing With Your Life
The only way I’ve been able to make progress in my life and as a person is not through overactivity. It’s through stillness and measured action. It’s nice to say these things, and even think about them. It’s an entirely different thing to put this approach into action.
For me, putting stillness and measured action to use required a re-working of attention and how I do things. There is no meditation technique or breath exercise that gave these things to me. It was the steady choices I made, usually on a daily basis, that propelled my life and personality in the direction it is going now. This is a holistic approach, because it is at once what you are doing and who you are becoming. 
People often say there is some kind of consistency to me, as a person. And I have always wondered about that, because internally I feel like a red squirrel who has taken a liking to light roast coffee beans. But I have taken these impressions and thought about them over the years. And I think that this idea of Doing With My Life is what people are sensing. Here are some thoughts I came up with about this—

1. I see who I am and my life as a coherent whole

2. I make sure the things I’m doing every day are what I want to be doing. This includes things I “have” to do like chores, work, sitting in traffic, expenses, etc.
3. I make my own well being a high priority
Taking care of myself makes the foundation for everything else I do. Moving from an unstressed place, where I feel good, makes me naturally kinder, more helpful, and better at thinking.
But even with these priorities, I’ve found it can be hard to get my life and who I am on a track that makes sense.
Years ago I established a foundation of basic morals and values by asking over and over what I really cared about. Since then I’ve expanded on that basis, finding how I fit into society, finding ways to meaningfully contribute. You’re reading one of the results of that search right now, which is my writing. 
It’s easy for me to go back to that basis and check to see if my life & work is still consistent with those original thoughts. While some of them have been tuned or discarded, they have proved to be an important sounding board as I’ve moved through the currents of my 20s, finding my way through life. And this foundation has given me awareness of how the decisions I make affect what may happen in my future.
~~~
Years and years ago, I was given the chance to take classes at a specialized tech focus program downtown. Attending the school would have required a thirty minute drive into downtown every day. I turned it down, mostly because I liked walking to school out my backdoor. 
A lot of people who put accomplishment above all else would probably tell me that was a terrible decision. They would call me lazy. And for a career, and for achievement, and that type of success, it probably was a lazy, terrible decision.
But from my decision and innumerable walks back and forth across the field, I reaped several things that tech school may never have offered: a sense and an enacting of what mattered to me, not what mattered to other people, or to some imaginary ladder of success. And I am very proud to say that if I’ve “achieved” anything in life, it’s that to this day I’ve stayed true to myself.
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Hudson Gardner

Writing & Photos covering place, ecology, and existence.

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