Paying Attention: Four Trails, Four Folds

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Miniwanca, Summer Camp, Kayaking, Georgian Bay, Wilderness

We don’t matter much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen . . . Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world . . . Stand them in the stream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its ticks and leaves, and then the silent, beautiful blossoms. Attention is the beginning of devotion.

— Mary Oliver, Upstream


 Attention is at the heart of all that I do with the AYF — to curriculum, training, agendas, schedules, colleagues, and campers. I try to pay attention to even the smallest details as I review maps, routes, and itineraries in preparation for a summer of incredible adventure. In this, I am reminded to center my thoughts and to take a moment to consider the intention that sits just beneath the checklists and objectives.

I’m inspired by Mary Oliver’s reverence for the forest: For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple. For me these words are a mantra of the Four Trails program — at the core of Four Trails is the belief that when we invite youth to explore and discover the wonder of their natural surroundings, we are also inviting them to explore and venture inward. In paying close attention to what is astounding about the outdoors, they also pay attention to their equally astounding inner selves.

The same is true for everyone, not just youth: the woods invite us to slow down and to contemplate our experiences. In the same way that the individuals around us can highlight our understanding of ourselves, the woods awaken us to the possibility of exploring our inner motivations, dreams, ideals, and values. When Mary Oliver says that the door to the woods is the door to the temple, she invites us to experience the interconnectedness of all of these things — physical and spiritual — and then gives us permission to explore our own position in the wider world. Today when you step outside, I hope you can take a moment to be mindful of your surroundings: close your eyes, take some deep breaths, listen, feel, and connect.

I saw the power of this mindfulness firsthand last fall as an adventure trip leader in the mountains of West Virginia. I invited the kids to stop hiking, to disperse themselves along the trail, and to close their eyes. We spent five minutes in silence, and then I asked them what they heard, what they felt. They told me: birds, leaves rustling, running water, warm sunshine. Many of them were surprised by how much they could hear, and in particular how much they had missed simply because they weren’t paying attention.

Specifically for those of you who I will meet as campers and leaders of the Four Trails program this summer, it’s vital that you begin to connect, play, and reflect in the outdoors. There are unique challenges that being outdoors for 3, 5, and 6 weeks can offer. Consider ways that you can begin to prepare: walk, run, cycle, hike, once or twice a week if possible. While you do those things, I hope you’ll have the chance to immerse yourself in the smallest details of spring — the leaves as they begin to unfold, the bees and hummingbirds straying from one flower to the next.

Finally, and in that spirit, I’d like to offer an overarching invitation to all of us: as we leave winter behind and as spring fast approaches, let’s take the opportunity to simply step outside. Learn (or re-learn) your neighborhood, Annie Dillard tells us. While we’ve been indoors — braced against the cold — the world continued moving forward. With spring comes the opportunity to catch up with the world. See what you might’ve missed in all those winter months. It’s my hope that we’ll find exactly what we’re looking for — a worldview shaped by gratitude and curiosity and by a belief in the power of our own unique capacities.

Pay attention, listen, feel, connect.

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun…there are millions of suns left.
I lean and loafe at my ease . . . observing a spear of summer grass. 

— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass


By Andrew McIver, Miniwanca Four Trails Coordinator