Blog Post: On Attention

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by artist Fritz Haeg at Chicago’s Graham Foundation. Haeg’s Edible Estates project has built organic food gardens all over the world, tailoring each garden to available urban spaces with plants appropriate to the ecosystem. In his lecture, Haeg discussed his propensity for plantings that can be foraged. Foraging, he pointed out, involves special kinds of attention. A forager must be able to notice and identify useful plants, watch them until they are ready to harvest, and be able to cook or process them. There is a reassuring sense of repetition and connectedness in foraging, one that calls on us to pay attention to the seasons, the weather, the soil, the overall environment in which we watch and move.

Haeg’s brief mention of foraging got me to thinking about the connections between attending, tending, and paying attention. “I didn’t even notice that” and “Oh, I never noticed!” are phrases I seem to hear more and more frequently in my daily life. Two things strike and alarm me about these utterances. The first is the apparent lack of recognition that in order to notice, one must first pay attention. It seems like a given, but the mental activity of making-space, the cultivation of the blankness that allows us to receive and interpret impressions, is an increasingly endangered skill. But the second–even more alarming–aspect of these comments is the nonchalance with which these phrases roll off the tongue. They are said without a sense that paying attention is not only its own reward, but also a kind of personal and communal obligation. In other words, there is no sense that one should pay attention, or that failure to do so is, well, at least a little bit embarrassing.

Of course, we are all busy people. We are relentlessly ridden by advertisements, emails, soundbites, pop songs, text messages, and people trying to get us to give them money. Even my local Citgo features a TV at the pump, lest I miss an opportunity to have my ears filled with sound, or to be advertised to. The selective limiting of one’s attention is a survival skill, particularly for artists, introverts, and other shy creatures living in the city. I’m as guilty as anyone else of having a sense of attention that often either too fragmentary or simply not turned on. Attention, after all, requires time. But it seems to me that the skill of paying attention is not only something we, as a culture, are losing, but is an activity that is quickly losing cultural value. Why bother paying attention, we seem to have concluded, when technology tracks our every move and tells us all we need to know?

The answer is twofold. First, tending and paying are part of remembering, a form of connecting that is another skill Americans profoundly lack. “People from the United States can never remember anyone’s name,” a Kenyan friend of mine remarked. I hadn’t ever noticed, but it turns out to be true. Of course, in order to remember, we must first attend, that is, we must be present. By this I mean cognitively and emotionally accessible, available to participate with our environment instead of being passively entertained by it.

Lately, I’ve been reading writings by Karen Barad, a physicist, and Elizabeth Grosz, a cultural theorist. Both articulate the view that we humans are, at the very level of matter, beings who co-create our environments at every moment. In other words, we are not Cartesian beings who exist as disembodied minds inside the spacesuits of our bodies, choosing to act on or remove ourselves from the world. “Mind,” Grosz reminds us in her summary of theorist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “is always embodied” (Volatile Bodies, 86). To embrace the view Barad and Grosz articulate is to realize that we never exist apart from the materiality of our environment or from our interactions with it. When we think of our relationship to the world this way, our presence in our environment, our decisions to turn away or engage, have profound implications, whether we realize them or not.

This brings me to the second reason and most profound reason for paying tending and paying attention: it feels good. As a writer, when I want to get at the core of an idea, I often consult–what else–my trusty Oxford English Dictionary. It offers the following thoughts on the word TEND (v.). Beyond the meanings I’ve discussed here, “tend” also means “to listen,” “to move toward,” “to have a natural inclination for,” “to be drawn to in affection,” “to cultivate,” “to offer,” and finally, “to obtain.” It derives from the French word tendre, meaning “to direct one’s course toward” or “extend.” There is, in other words, a tenderness in tending. Tending involves stretching ourselves to connect with other humans and with our environment. In reaching forward–in growing–we both offer and are nourished. This set of relationships, embedded in our linguistic memory, allows us to care and be cared for. Haeg’s carefully-constructed gardens both offer and invite such alert tenderness. The powerful yet gentle force behind them is something we’d do well to remember, to pay attention to, and most importantly, to practice in our daily lives.

2 thoughts on “Blog Post: On Attention

  1. Pingback: On Darkness, Silence and the Loss of Negative Space | Rooting

  2. Pingback: Interview: Poet Dave Snyder | Rooting

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