anna brones

writer + artist

Coffee Outside, Sitting in a Forest

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Coffee Adventures Outside is a collaboration between myself and Alastair Humphreys, released each month on the new moon. Words mostly by Alastair, artwork by me, but all of it a collaborative process. We hope you’ll join us in our coffee adventures, wherever you are. 

We began all this with coffee. Taking your coffee outside to enjoy the morning. Then we took our coffee somewhere we had never been and discovered nearby newness. This episode is also about coffee time. Or rather, it is about coffee and time. It is an encouragement to explore the depths of a moment, the depths of solitude.

The challenge is to sit on a stump in a forest, drink your coffee and stay there for a whole hour. An hour with a coffee and a good book would be a treat. With your phone it would be easy. Or with a notepad and a pencil. But what about if you had nothing at all to distract you: how would you cope just sitting still for an hour? 

It is interesting to consider our relationship with time. The busier you are and the less time you have to spare, the more you should try this, if only just once. If you think that time is racing far too fast to waste an hour sitting on a tree stump, fear not: this hour will feel like an eternity for you!

Will you give it a go? Sit down with your mug of coffee and take a deep breath. Set an alarm for an hour, then put your phone and watch out of sight and out of reach. And then you just sit. You, your coffee and the stump. The book Under the Open Skies describes the stump as “a symbol of the idea that you sometimes have to leave your head and reach down into your heart.”

With pen and paper in hand we would be more than happy to sip coffee and sit on a stump all day. But with no way to record our thoughts or to sketch the world around us, we instead become aware of the maelstrom inside our heads. There is no escape! One hour sitting on a stump easily includes a dozen practical plans and a handful of emotional mood swings, whilst every minute involves noticing something new for the first time. There is so much going on inside our heads, always. And there is so much to notice and appreciate wherever we decide to sit. 

Perhaps you may carry your coffee to the woods with a friend. But we imagine that you’ll go there by yourself, as Mary Oliver prefers. “Ordinarily, I go to the woods alone, with not a single friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore unsuitable… I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of praying, as you no doubt have yours… Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds, until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing… If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.”

Here you are then, alone. Just you, your coffee and your stump. The forest is a stage for solitude. While we often focus on the benefits of collaboration, this space of aloneness is also important for our creative practice. Are we distracted? Are we tempted to wish that someone was sitting next to us so we could pose a question and escape from our own thoughts? It might be uncomfortable, but we can all benefit from some quiet time. “Alone is a fact,” writes dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp. “Lonely is how you feel about that.”

Sitting on a stump for an hour is similar to the methods of mindful meditation. You are observing what is in your head, but not recording it. And as your thoughts whirl you can only notice them arrive and then allow them to leave. If you are fortunate, who knows, you might settle into a state described by the lovely Gaellic phrase of Ciúnas gan uaigneas, “quietness without loneliness.”

In The Runner, Markus Torgeby writes, “I must do something about my restlessness. One day I put on several layers of clothes, sit down on a tree stump and do nothing. I must get over this hurdle, I must learn how to do nothing.” That time, he concluded, “was a good investment. Life became greater after that. Food tasted better and the song of the birds in the woods was even lovelier.”

Sitting on a stump in a wood (or on a rock by the ocean, or a bench in a town) is an invitation and a challenge, like William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, “to see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.”

You may find an hour sprawls into a daunting expanse of time. You may hear a dozen bird calls and watch a bumblebee rustling in dead leaves. You may wonder what is for lunch. You might feel the sun on your neck, then close your eyes and allow yourself to really pay attention to that warmth. You will certainly think that your alarm clock has broken and that hours have passed. You will squirm. You will yearn for the end. But you may also, as we did, be surprised that your first sensation upon finally hearing the bell is not relief, but disappointment that it is over. And you might re-learn that each hour is a substantial, valuable treasure not to be wasted.

The biologist David Haskell watches nature closely, visiting a one-square-metre patch of forest over the course of a year. In The Forest Unseen he writes that he chose his location by “walking haphazardly through the forest and stopping when I found a suitable rock on which to sit.” As always, it does not matter where you go. It matters only that you go. Haskell asked himself, “can the whole forest be seen through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks, and water?” His rules to himself are simple: visit often, watch a year circle past, be quiet.

One outcome of his watch was “to realise that we create wonderful places by giving them our attention, not by finding ‘pristine’ places that will bring wonder to us. Gardens, urban trees, the sky, fields, young forests, a flock of suburban sparrows… Watching them closely is as fruitful as watching an ancient woodland.”

The Forest Unseen concludes with some advice for us on our stump with our steaming coffee. “Leave behind expectations. Hoping for excitement, beauty, violence, enlightenment, or sacrament gets in the way of clear observation and will fog the mind with restlessness. Hope only for an enthusiastic openness of the senses.”

And that, after all, is what coffee is all about.

Share photos of your adventures with us: #coffeeadventuresoutside

Written by Anna Brones

April 12, 2021 at 09:00

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