“Pay attention to what you pay attention to.”
I can’t remember where I read the words, but they ring true. What we see is far more of a choice than we often realise. The act of seeing can be a cyclical, deepening one; when we see what we see, and we want to see it more, the world expands.
For most of my life, I’ve been an indoor naturalist. Most of the colour in my life came through screens. I collected knowledge, but more in the way that a trainer picks up soil in its tread. It was only when the first lockdown began in 2020 that I truly threw myself outdoors, sent my mind scattering to the sky and the fields where the rooks and jackdaws and goldfinches and starlings and all the other sparks of life brought their own kinds of light to my days.
I’m a swimmer. I marvel endlessly at the moment when I plunge underwater, switching between two worlds and two bodies in an instant. To go outdoors with the intent of being outdoors is a similar kind of shift. Another merging.
In 2020, for the first time, I chose to find out the names of the plants I saw. Before, I might’ve smiled in appreciation and tucked the memory away, like those tasty-looking recipes I collect and hardly ever try out. But in my new state of noticing, it wasn’t enough. Bird’s-foot Trefoil. Catmint. Chicory. And then the birds, whose songs and cries are as hard to hold in memory as they are beautiful. Except the jay, that is. I used to think the harsh loud rasps from the trees above were squirrels, until the day a jay flew overhead making the noise instead. The jay apologises for its cry with startling blue wing feathers.
Walking out every day — and there was much walking, because I couldn’t get into a pool during lockdown — was an act of drinking in the world, pouring it into my mind, letting it reshape me, and irrevocably shaping how I saw all future things.
In July, in one of the fields where the farmer seemed to have deliberately set his margins free to grow whatever they wanted, I met the chicory. Chicory: that thing they make coffee with in New Orleans, yes?
Chicory, 2020: the field margin is taken over by these tall spears knobbed with buds that come out each morning and close again by afternoon. Each flower is a powdery blue, sunlight shining through the tissue paper of long petals with just slightly raggedy hems at their ends, like the trim of a painted lady’s wings (but not the more severe tearing of the comma butterfly). The bees adore them.
So did I. For two weeks, I went every morning to the chicory, captivated, hungry, and endlessly frustrated because my camera lens couldn’t see them the way I did.
My move to Bristol in January 2021 was a willing one, but a shock all the same. Feet hitting pavements, eyes hitting blocks of buildings. Beauty is harder to find here.
Though not always. With so much more grey than green, the things that do grow stand out all the brighter. The city’s pavements and walls are turned into calendars.
March: Green Alkanet, whose flowers are deceivingly violet-blue.
April: Wall Barley, all soft hazy green.
May, June: Red Valerian, deep pink rising to the sky. Ivy-leaved Toadflax frothing from the bricks.
July: Buddleia, much-loved friend, deep smell of honey. Creeping Thistle, flowers like pools of purple that all kinds of insect plunge hedonistically into.
Some of the plants I knew before I arrived, though many have only been learned in the last few months, mostly thanks to my Masters course. By the end of the year I have to hand in a herbarium featuring ten grass species, and ten non-grass species. A real-world Pokémon quest.
I never saw grass, until now. The poetry of Yorkshire Fog, the delicateness of Common Bent, the trueness of Crested Dog’s-tail. Spring and summer preserved between stacks of newspaper in the corner of my bedroom. I’ll cut some chicory, the next time I visit my parents. Though, perhaps like the camera, my pressing will fail to capture the flower too. Memory shall have to do.
Noticing makes the world bloom.