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The Necessity of Observation

Recently, during one of the brief lulls between ten straight days of rain showers when the sun was making a brief appearance, I was sitting on our front porch proofing a piece of writing before submitting it to the critical eyes of an editor. Trying to think of that elusive “better word” to replace the merely “adequate” word, I was staring off into space, thinking that perhaps the word would jump out of the ether and into my brain.

Suddenly, I became aware of a strange odor, an offensive smell that jerked me out of my musing and back into the real world.

Oh no! I thought. The neighbor’s cat has been using the mulch in our flower bed as a litter box again!

Just as quickly, my mind returned to my word search. After all, I couldn’t very well shoot the offending cat, and I certainly wasn’t about to dig around in the mulch to find and extricate the source of the offending odor! My eyes flitted back and forth across the yard in front of me as though hoping to find the right term “out there” somewhere. That’s when I noticed them: blossoms on the Bradford pear tree that stands smack-dab in the center of our yard.

That’s it! I realized. It’s not the cat after all, but that tree!

It’s a good thing I didn’t shoot the cat!

A Bradford pear tree is an ornamental that many developers use in their landscaping. The Bradfords are fast-growing, symmetrically shaped, beautiful in bloom, and refreshingly white when they do bloom. But they also stink while their blooming! And their limbs, weakly structured, are often the first trees to succumb to the frequent ice storms we have here in Upstate South Carolina. (Although ours has proven exceptionally strong during the fourteen winters it has endured, the typical life span for the Bradford is at most 20 years.)

The Bradford is certainly not the first to bloom in this area, at least in our subdivision, and most of the houses in the development have one (if they’ve managed to survive this long). Our tree seems always to be the last of the last few to bloom. A true late-bloomer! But this year, it must have decided to beat the rest of them to the punch. This is the earliest I ever recall its blooming. And it was only late February!

As I sat thinking about that tree, it occurred to me that just as it had blossomed overnight and I hadn’t noticed it, my wife’s daffodils had done the same thing about a month earlier. One afternoon, their spot beside the front walk had been nothing but a bare stretch of dark mulch. The next morning, there they were, shooting up through the mulch with blooms on them.

I got to thinking about how unobservant I had been. I had even been late in noticing the appearance of my arch-enemy of lawn care, the dreaded henbit. It’s a weed that surreptitiously begins to grow just out of sight among the Bermuda grass in late December and early January. In mid-January it peeks its tiny green leaves above the still-brown grass and shoots forth a pretty purple flower. Before you can say, “Get the weed killer!” it has multiplied to cover entire swaths of the yard and is next to impossible to eradicate. I’m still trying desperately to rid my yard of it before the Bermuda turns green and its “children” are really hard to see.

But back to being observant. That’s precisely how we miss some of the most beautiful (or dangerous) things in life. We get so caught up in the many things that clutter our vision that we fail to see the things right under our noses. This is a critical mistake for every writer. Its also a fatal mistake for anyone who might face danger.

I’m reminded of the story of a student writer who once went to interview author Jesse Stuart. He was seeking the secret to Stuart’s writing success. Seeing that the student just wasn’t “getting it,” Stuart invited him to take a walk together through the old general store in town. It was clear to Stuart as the student hurriedly paced the store that he still wasn’t getting it. Stuart finally told him, “Stop! Slow down! Do you notice it?”

The student didn’t, so Stuart pointed “it” out to him. The smells of the old building and its products. The squeak in the planks on the wooden floor. The clatter of the rolling ladder as the clerk sought an item on an upper shelf. The chatter of the old-timers who sat around the wood stove in the rear of the store, having stopped in just to gossip with the proprietor and other friends. Then Stuart instructed the student in the importance of observing the “little” things in one’s environment.

Failure to do this causes us to miss out on some of the very things that can make or break our writing, things that will make it “pop.” But that mistake can also get us into trouble and danger if we aren’t careful. The copperhead in the leaves at the edge of the yard. The mugger lurking in the shadows of a nearly deserted parking garage. The “check engine” light that is blinking but hasn’t yet caught our attention.

Don’t be in so much of a hurry that you miss the “little” things in life, the things that add beauty to life, the things that will, when incorporated into your writing, make it real and authentic. And always be on guard against the “little” things, the “henbit” of life, that threaten to trip us up, the “little foxes that spoil the vine,” as the Scriptures say.

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