Another Lesson in Small

Once again, my granddaughter has taught me a lesson in small.

I spent last weekend in the Anderson Valley with Jonah and his family. On Sunday, Poppy invited me on a “feather-hunting walk.” Her plan was to ride her bike while I walked, along a road in Rancho Navarro, and hunt for wild turkey feathers. “I’m really good at finding feathers,” she announced as we set off. “You’ll see.”

And she is. Within a minute or two, she had hopped off her bike and picked up three different feathers, which she had spied along the side of the road, in a gulley filled with ferns and wild grasses. I had not yet seen one feather. “See, I told you, Gram. You have to look really hard.”

She was right. I did have to look “really hard.” But I didn’t know how. I would start off gazing at the gulley, searching for feathers, but would quickly notice a tiny pink wildflower, or a mottled leaf—and forget about the feathers. After Poppy had discovered seven feathers to my one, I realized that I had something new to learn about small. I was practiced at stopping what I was doing and setting my gaze on one object, a practice that yielded enough results for me to write an entire book about my experiences. But deciding to hold a single focus as I moved about in the world was quite a different skill.

“You’re right, Poppy,” I told her. “I need to practice looking hard in that way.” As I said this, I realized that I could use the word “feathers” as my mantra during the walk. Whenever I caught myself paying attention to something else, I would repeat the word feathers to reset my gaze.

It took some time, but this strategy worked. Each time I caught myself paying attention to a wildflower or a leaf, I’d think feathers, and return my gaze to my intended focus. After a while, I found that I needed fewer and fewer reminders to stay focused. And of course, I saw more and more feathers.

Poppy and I established a relaxed pace, with each of us announcing every minute or two, “I found another,” then holding it up for the other to see. We were finding all kinds of wild turkey feathers. Short fluffy feathers, long striped feathers, iridescent feathers and shiny black feathers. After a while, we began examining the feathers more closely. We ran our fingers from bottom to top to smooth out any ruffles. We noticed the blackish band on the end of some of the shorter feathers was iridescent, changing color as we turned the feather slowly in one direction, then the other. Some feathers were mostly down. Others were stiffer and courser. Sometimes the iridescence turned toward bronze, other times toward blue and red.

From just looking for turkey feathers in general, Poppy and I found ourselves seeking out the larger feathers, and those with the widest bands of iridescence. I found myself wondering exactly where on a turkey the feathers we were finding had lived: the tail, the wing, the face, the body? And I realized that as the two of us searched, something else was taking place as well.

I usually spend time with both Poppy and her sister, Amelie, together. Today, Poppy and I were creating an intimate experience for just the two of us. And it wasn’t just any-old experience. I was pretty sure it would be one of the permanent building blocks of our evolving relationship, an experience she and I would refer to far into the future.

What’s more, I could sense my perception of wild turkeys shifting. While years ago, wild turkeys had been an exotic element of the Iowa countryside, they had become for me more of a nuisance, since they had established a presence in Berkeley, leaving deposits wherever they ambled, and sometimes attacking dogs who just happened to be passing by. Nothing beautiful about a wild turkey, I had come to think.

But by the end of my feather hunt with Poppy, I was beginning to see that the turkeys were more than a pest. They were creatures covered in treasures. Creatures who this day, had brought a Gram and her Poppy closer than they had ever been before.

Not a Feather


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