Grandpa Schiffman joshed that he was taking us grandkids on an ocean voyage to Europe. The round trip on the Staten Island Ferry to the city’s farthest-flung borough and back to lower Manhattan took a little over an hour and cost a nickel, a bargain even in the late 1950s.
While Europe would have to wait, New York Harbor was unusual enough for kids brought up in the asphalt jungle. There was a limitless bowl of sky above us, swift tides, salt-tanged breezes, even wildlife: cormorants diving headlong into the waves and seagulls snagging the chunks of baked pretzel we tossed them. There were boats too of all sizes—tugs and barges, a fireboat fountaining rainbowed streams of water, and an ocean liner two blocks long bellowing its horn while heading out to the open Atlantic and ports unknown.
The harbor was where the world began, an expanse of ocean just beyond Manhattan’s wall of skyscrapers. I will never forget the thrill of being a part of something larger than myself. It was the beginning of a lifelong romance with the natural world, and with travel.
Since then, I’ve done my share of global travel, for which I am grateful. Travel is a powerful antidote to the growing distance many feel from the natural world. But I’m just now learning that travel does not have to mean flying to the other side of the planet. A walk around the block will do. It’s not how far we go in miles that counts, but how deeply we allow the world to enter us.
The importance of even the humblest travel was driven home for me during the 1970s, when I was a teacher at Camp Hi-Hill, an outdoor education school in the San Gabriel Mountains above the Los Angeles basin that served sixth-graders from the city of Long Beach.
On one night hike, the students huddled around me. “It’s just like the planetarium,” one boy said as he craned his neck to view the star-studded sky. A classmate was equally dumbfounded by the crunch of freshly crusted snow. She had never seen snow before, still less heard the sounds of walking on it.
Our students learned the names of local trees and birds and the facts of photosynthesis during their week on the mountain. But I hope they also discovered a new way of paying attention. That quality of affectionate attention has never been more needed (nor been in shorter supply) than it is today.
I’m an environmental journalist, and my stock-in-trade is reporting on disasters: wildlife poaching, deforestation, species extinction, and the escalating havoc caused by climate change. Often the trashing of the environment is treated as an essentially mechanical problem that can be eliminated by changing laws, conducting scientific research, and developing clean energy.
These are important things to do. But I’m not convinced that even the best regulations and smartest technological fixes will solve the problem. The real problem, I’m growing to suspect, is that we don’t love the world enough. We don’t love it, in large part, because we don’t see it. We don’t see it because we aren’t paying attention.
There is no shortage of reasons for this failure to pay attention: education that feeds the head but starves the heart; an economic system that puts short-term profit ahead of care for the planet; the toxic gospel of unlimited growth that sees a forest as so many board feet of lumber and a mountain as metric tons of coal. Not to mention all the screens vying for our attention. Many of us don’t look up from our smartphones long enough to notice what’s around us.
And even if we do notice it, nature is often viewed as a hindrance. The other day a friend called and said it was a miserable day, meaning that snow was in the forecast. To be sure, snowstorms can be harmful to those without shelter, hourly wage workers, and people with disabilities. But for me that day, news of the impending snowstorm was like a shot of adrenaline for my inner child. I hopped on the subway to the New York Botanical Garden and stood alone in an open field hypnotized by the swirling flakes, the unaccustomed hush. When I returned to my apartment several hours later, I felt oddly refreshed—as if I had just come back from a beautiful vacation.
I’ve lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for more than 25 years and continue to experience things that inspire, refresh, and connect me to the world just outside my two-bedroom apartment—though I have to pay attention. Recently, on one of my regular walks along the Hudson River, I witnessed scores of red-tailed hawks circle in a gyre above the river as they prepared for their yearly migration south. It was something I’d never seen before.
Admittedly, I would at times rather be in the woods or standing under a night sky unmarred by light pollution. My happiest days have been spent backpacking through mountain terrain. But I now realize that nature doesn’t exist only in remote places. It is also in a kettle of hawks wheeling above America’s largest urban area or a dandelion blooming in a sidewalk crack. It is also the breath moving through my own lungs.
Such events might seem too ordinary to notice—especially in a city where so much else is going on. But paying attention to the ordinary miracles of life is the best way I know to feeling fully and blissfully alive.
Some techniques cultivate this quality of attention. Practitioners of mindfulness meditation rest their awareness on the bare act of observation—watching the rise and fall of their own breathing. While formal meditation practices may not be for everyone, most of us can take a walk in our neighborhood park or by a river. We can make the effort to turn away from our restless thoughts and worries and enjoy whatever the world presents to us.
To help sharpen my own focus, I bring a notebook on my walks and jot down poems about what I see and feel. Others take a sketchpad with them, keep a diary, or take photographs. Art deepens our appreciation of the world around us and helps us to see common things uncommonly and with fresh eyes.
Other suggestions: Find a new place to travel to every day. Go as far as your legs or bicycle will take you wherever you are in the world. And don’t be afraid to put away your mapping app and get lost.
Other species migrate across continents and span oceans in pursuit of food and mates. They travel to get somewhere. Humans, by contrast, often travel to lose themselves—ecstatically—in something larger than ourselves. That ecstasy is never far from those who remain open to being surprised.
One winter day, I stumbled upon a road I had never noticed before at the edge of the Hudson River, appropriately called Marginal Street.
Off Marginal Street a concrete jetty
where I sat with my back to the city
and faced the river.
The billboards, the pylons of the highway
were behind me.
The west was tinctured peach with evening,
the river an icy slurry sliding to the sea.
There are places where nothing happens
to nobody in particular,
where you slip into some crack in time.
Once I tramped the globe to find them.
Who knew you could be lost
so close to home.