Lissen Every Thing Back by Kathleen Jamie


What I’m wondering is this: can a simple act of attention be called political?


Given the state we’re in, given the grotesque high-handedness of our so-called leaders and the reckless exploitation of the Earth, can a moment of attending actually amount to a moment of resistance?


Dare we propose that in heedless times, simply paying heed becomes part of the alternative?


Paying heed to what? Ah well. The tiny spider descending from the kitchen light as I write this. The fruit fly already attracted to the dregs of beer in my glass. The way the yard is darkening, now the nights are drawing in.


Paying heed to the natural world.


This is what I’d like to think. That the very act of paying attention, of noticing, becomes what Seamus Heaney, speaking of poetry, called a ‘redress’.


That attention weaves resistance. A web of attention-resistance.


What we subsequently do with that noticing, whether we transform it into poetry, art, science or activism comes a little later. But first, there must arise that primary act of attending. Happily, to do that we don’t need special skills, we just need to be human.


James Wood, the literary critic, has a marvellous essay called ‘Serious Noticing’.  There, he is talking chiefly about the novelist’s noticing. He says that in fiction, good fiction, the things, details, nuances of the world are rescued from oblivion because of the writer’s ‘serious noticing’, a noticing which is transformed into art through metaphor and imagery.  Wood talks about ‘the slow death that we deal to the world by the sleep of our attention.’  I hope he will forgive me for stealing his phrase and observations out of their careful contexts, and suggesting that a ‘serious noticing’ of the natural world might likewise save it from slow death. That the noticing itself, prior to any transformation into art, can be a political act we are all capable of.


If inattention is slowly killing the world, then attention might just save it.


The more of us do this noticing, the more democratic it all becomes. And we all can – it is available to absolutely everyone, because it is small scale, and because attending employs the faculties we all have in common, honed over millions of years of evolutionary history. I mean our senses, our awareness.  We don’t need to be artists or scientists, we just need our deep, ancient, sensory being-in-the-world. To be a noticer ‘requires no fancy intellectual envoi’ (in Peter Reading’s phrase). It is available to all. It might save us too, save us from feeling so useless.


But how distracted we are!  In itself, just reclaiming our senses could amount to a protest movement. Perhaps we should launch a Campaign for Real Noticing.


If to notice is indeed to save.


‘Many minute attentions, many knowledgeable watchers’ (Alice Oswald)


Of course the notion is ridiculous. Can we actually say to ourselves, as we examine a clothes moth or mould on a corner of cheese  ‘this noticing as an act of defiance’?  If we hear the geese arriving, as they will soon, and look up, it’s hardly an act of resistance.  If we indulge the idea, then a bairn hunkering down to peer at a slug will be committing a political act, and we don’t want to lay that on them.


And also, what if our attention is caught by something non-natural? Is stopping to watch a lorry reverse into a tight space a political act? Again, hardly. But I like to follow the driver’s acute attention, shifting between mirrors.


But before we discard the notion, let’s go a wee bit deeper with our ‘serious noticing’.  In his book The Great Work the late Thomas Berry wrote this:


‘Here, in its human mode, the universe reflects on and celebrates itself in a unique mode of conscious self-awareness.’


That’s worth reading twice.


‘Here, in its human mode, the universe reflects on and celebrates itself in a unique mode of conscious self-awareness.’




Is Thomas Berry saying that when we seriously notice, when we pay heed, that’s the universe working through us?  Because we, human beings, are the only known means the universe has of being aware of itself? That to our knowledge, only through our attending can the universe reflect upon and celebrate itself?


We have wandered into matters eco-theological. (Berry was an eco-theologian.) My already shrunken Presbyterian soul quails before this stuff.  But it’s also kind of inarguable…


But why not privately mark a moment of attention as a moment of resistance? Who is to say it’s not? When we do that  ̶  step outdoors, smell Autumn in the wind, seriously notice   ̶   we’re not little cogs, little consumers, in someone else’s machine. We are not doing what the forces of destruction and inattention want us to do. It is our way of being, not theirs. It’s the simplest act of resistance and renewal. So long as it doesn’t become portentous, a joyless chore  ̶  we don’t want that. Or worse, ‘mindfulness’ which is a bit icky. We want our spontaneity!  Joy and spontaneity are part of the supple weave of resistance.


(Okay, perhaps ‘resistance’ is not quite the word, perhaps it’s about maintaining a human presence in the world which is benign. And where ‘noticing’ ends and ‘witnessing’ begins, I don’t know.)


How do we lose the world? Little by little. As Russell Hoban almost said in Riddley Walker  ‘All it takes is for no. 1 to be lissening every thing back’


So best we lissen.  Pay heed. The spiders. The wind in the trees. The geese.






Kathleen Jamie is a prize-winning writer and poet. Her books include Sightlines, Findings, The Overhaul and most recently, Surfacing. Her reviews and articles appear in the Guardian and The London Review of Books, and her work has appeared on BBC Radio Three and Four. Her poetry has appeared on the underground systems of London, New York and Shanghai, and has been chosen by the public to be carved on the national monument at Bannockburn.

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