Witnessing by (1 Story)

Prompted By Something Wild

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Miner’s lettuce flanks Sweet Spring Trail in Portola Valley, California.

A few days ago I had one of those experiences – the kind that you feel in your body before you know what it is – the kind that crystalizes some deep truth in your life. While walking in our local woods with my son, now 36, I noticed he had stopped behind me on the trail, so I’d turned to see what he was up to.  He’d spotted some spider holes in the moist soil bank, small holes where spiders sit inconspicuously, waiting for their next meal of an unsuspecting insect. It was such a small moment and yet I felt in awe of my son who can see things I can’t see – like the tiny spider holes – and do something I’m now learning to do – wait and watch.

I used to walk the trails so differently. I’d rush through my daily work out with the objective of moving along the path as fast as I could while distracting myself from my exercise induced aches and fatigue. Putting on my sunglasses and ear buds, tuning into my podcast of the latest interesting interview that would fill up my mind, off I’d go – completely unaware of my body or the environment around me. I wouldn’t see the tiny spider holes, or the numerous fungi hiding under leaves or barely peeking out through the dirt they push aside as they make their way towards the soil’s surface, to bloom and be eaten or, if poisonous, decay. What a world this is! What a world I was missing!

Watching my son respond to the natural world reminds me of watching sunsets with my grandmother. As a child visiting my grandparents on Round Mountain, we’d rarely miss the daily ritual of sunset watching. After dinner when the evening summer sun was still visible my grandmother and I would walk out to the front of their house in this central California desert. Their home sat atop a knoll and was surrounded by empty dry land except for sagebrush and an occasional small tree. But my grandparents had cultivated an oasis of tall trees along with their beloved gardens which surrounded their home.  Scorching heat produced a barren landscape beyond their knoll but when the sun began to set, the sky was set afire. My grandmother would watch the radiant colors spread across the sky before us and make sweet cooing sounds, oohs and ahs. I watched her unguarded passion. It was a moment of witnessing a grown up in love with the world.

My grandmother introduced the natural world to me and I’ve come to love sunsets as she did. And now I see in nature so many of the small wonders that my son sees. His passion is different from my grandmother’s – quieter and more enlightened. He shows me the golden Chanterelles, which now I can confidently identify and cook up with garlic and butter. I know the oyster mushrooms growing on logs and pick them when they’re fresh and free of bugs. The many death caps, though beautiful, must be admired from a distance, my son seriously warns me. I missed all this as I rushed along, focused on my podcast, the clock and the future. But now I slow down and breathe in the aroma of the as yet unborn mushrooms scenting the soil near my trail; I smell the vanilla fragrance of Pearly Everlasting which must be growing nearby, though I can’t yet see it. I hear the screeching call of the Red-tailed Hawk and the Great Blue Heron wades in a pond as I walk by, rendered nearly invisible by the stillness of its blue-gray form. I stop and taste the Miner’s lettuce, sweet from a fresh rain.

There’s a mystical quality to my son’s relationship with the natural world. Many years ago on one of our first nature walks together he introduced me to Pearly Everlasting. I bent down to pick some but he stopped me. He said wait, and then he leaned over and spoke to the plant, softly asking if it was alright to pick it. I soon learned to follow his lead and now I ask any plant before I pick it for permission. It feels like a blessing. I’ve been learning from my son for a long time now – really since he was born.  He shows me how to wait in order to see the wild surprises nature is full of. It’s a joy to learn from my own child. I’ve long ago stopped telling him about the world; I relish learning about what he sees. It gives me confidence, not just in him, but in the future.

Witnessing my son – how he understands and sees the world – I don’t think of as my giving him a gift. It’s how he learns he exists. But, in fact, he is giving to me and it is a gift that extends beyond a shared interest in flora and fauna. I’m finding solace in nature as I contemplate my own existence ending. Everything I see is transient and yet so beautiful. My son shows me, with every walk we take, how to be in this world. I’m still learning how to quiet myself like the Heron, to be the spider in the hole waiting for the surprise.…

Profile photo of alison mackessy cabell alison mackessy cabell

Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written


  1. John Zussman says:

    What a graceful, luminous meditation on the little wonders of nature! It reminds me of the writer—I can’t recall who, unfortunately—who says he goes for walks and tries to notice what his dog would notice. When I hike in the hills, I try to doff the earbuds and remember that. Thank you for sharing this and welcome to Retrospect.

    • thank you John for your response – I’m so glad you like this piece and I love the idea of taking on our dog’s perspective…I think we’d likely have an intense olfactory experience!
      It was so nice meeting you and Patti the other night.

  2. Suzy says:

    Alison, this is such a beautiful story! Learning about the natural world, first from your grandmother and now from your son – you are wise to pay such close attention. And I love the idea of asking a plant for permission to pick it. I will be sure to incorporate that into my life. Looking forward to reading more of your stories on Retrospect.

    • Hi Suzy – I sent a previous message to you but I’m not sure if you got it – so I’ll send again. Thank you for your appreciation of my Witnessing piece. And I’m glad you will carry with you the suggestion of asking the plant for permission before picking. It made so much sense to me when my son brought this to my awareness.
      I look forward to reading your writing as well.

      • Suzy says:

        Hi Alison, I didn’t get your previous message, so I’m glad you sent it again. Retrospect is a wonderful community, it has really made a huge difference in my life.

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