Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

The joy of almost nothing

Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-01-04

Over the last few weeks, the importance of nothing for human happiness has become more deeply impressed on me.

I was looking back at an earlier post, "On nature-deficit disorder" and grateful that, over the last week or so, I’ve been able to sit with my nearly-2-yo grandson for extended periods of time watching the birds in the yard, and that he didn’t struggle, but was happy without the a hyperactive TV screen or the availability of stacked-up megablocks to pull apart.

Most of the time, neither of us made a sound.  We merely scattered across the yard some fried rice that was a little old in the fridge, and watched the way different species interacted: the family of plovers, just doing their thing away from the throng, the crow so cool and self-assured that it wouldn’t chase away wattlebirds pecking a few centimetres away, the sparrows and magpie-larks darting back and forth, the galahs and rosellas stripping the seeds from the drying grasses, and of course, the magpies that are almost part of the family.

The toddler has probably already figured out that each of those species (apart from the sparrows who are obviously too small) will chase away the seagulls, separately, or by joining forces.

An hour on the porch, just watching, even waiting quietly if the yard was empty of birds for a while, can have such a healing effect, especially after the pre-Christmas madness in Melbourne, and helped quieten the partial seizures that were bubbling away in my left temporal lobe from various stressors.

All that quiet contentment was tinged with sadness, a pity for all the children (and adults) who lack such opportunities for wordless thought, a lack that cannot be healthy.

While watching birds is more interesting for a toddler than lying down, looking up at clouds pass, and much earlier than the wheeling Milky Way (invisible of course in cities), it’s still a far cry from the frenetic jumble of images and sounds from TV, the stimulation of noisy toys.

Yet how many children and adults don’t have the time to soak in the sky, a river, a forest, cows grazing in a paddock, or even lines of ants?  How many need that tranquil time?  How useful is the lesson that watching nothing happen can be satisfying?

Being at peace watching nothing happen was an essential skill for much of our species’ history as hunter-gatherers.  With such an evolutionary background, it may even be important for us to have periods of time when we can be conscious, but nearly still the internal conversation.

In modern urban society, such times are probably limited to when we sit on toilets.

I wonder if many big-city kids could last as long as my grandson did, saying nothing, just calmly soaking in the surroundings and the non-human inhabitants.

Perhaps primary schools should be encouraged, on a fine day, to take a class outside, lie down on the grass, and wordlessly watch the clouds, without the need to discuss or write an essay on it afterwards.


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