Gurdjieff International Review

A Nature Study Team

Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.   –Thich Nhat Hanh

Mary Stein


hey need our attention,” Paul Reynard said as we sketched trees in a wood some twenty-five years ago. His words became a reminder that eventually led to forming a nature study team, now in its fifth year. What is needed in order to pay attention to the lives in the nature around us, of which we are part? We continue to explore this question, both at the Woods, our Work center in the country, and in San Francisco.

Our procedure has been to choose an aspect of the natural world—tree or flower, insect or rock or flowing creek—for study. As we are able, we open ourselves to impressions of a fellow being, keeping in mind Gurdjieff’s assertion that everything is alive, intelligent, and connected to everything else. Recent findings about plant intelligence and communication have inspired us as well.

In the city we brought plants to sketch or paint or write about. We discovered a welcoming sidewalk garden in the neighborhood and street trees in various eloquent attitudes. In a rooftop container, we planted bulbs and succulents. During weekends at the Woods or during summer work periods, we kept journals, returning to a chosen spot several times each day to become better acquainted with the great redwood by the kitchen, or the pond outside the movements hall. Sometimes we saw that the plant we were watching demonstrated along its single stalk the whole cycle from birth to death to rebirth, as we tried to give it our attention and draw it accurately.

Experimenting with Gurdjieff’s advice to “like what it doesn’t like,” our indifference quickly became apparent when we chose a plant or animal to study that we didn’t “like.” With that realization, continuing efforts to pay attention to the previously shunned individual often brought warm impressions of respect and beauty, as well as vivid glimpses of our habitual attitudes and unexamined assumptions about the natural world.

The wish to convey something of the experience of a plant’s individuality led us to the craft of watercolor, with its demands for precision and sensitivity, and we continue to be challenged and helped by the craft. We have also been guided in a practice of writing that encourages the search for truthful language.

How does one relate to other-than-human beings to whom one is in indebted for one’s own existence, as we are indebted to the trees? With this question in mind, we read of the customs of indigenous people, their practical rituals of greeting, listening to, and thanking the plants, animals, and the Earth itself that supported their lives. As we experimented with observing some of these customs, there appeared an appropriate shame at our awkwardness and lack of familiarity, along with an elusive sense of gratitude and obligation. Watching the plants, sometimes we understood that they were watching us as well. □


Copyright © 2020 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Winter 2019/2020 Issue, Vol. XIV (1)
Revision: August 13, 2020