I recently listened to an interview on NPR with Walter Isaacson about a new book he’s published on Leonardo da Vinci. In the interview, he discussed da Vinci’s practice of recording fascinating to-do lists. He noted a favorite, buried within a list, of “describe the tongue of a woodpecker.” Da Vinci was no stranger to dissection and the examination of corpses, so one can only speculate the woodpecker would likely not have been alive if he attempted to study it.
I found inspiration in da Vinci’s practice, if not the particulars of his method. Poking around dead animals is not my forte. For several months, I’d written down a natural feature that I wanted to observe—such as trees—each morning during my morning ritual. The practice was becoming a bit stale, so I’ve decided to take it a step farther by delineating a specific question or curiosity, the analysis of which I wish to uncover during the course of the day.
Da Vinci placed an emphasis on consulting with experts, asking them in particular about the ways in which mechanical processes and structures worked. In today’s world, we don’t necessarily have a “Giannino the Bombardier” to whom we can turn, but we do have the Internet which is replete with information. Something in me balks though, at this process of “asking Google.” We can now install devices in our house to which we can literally ask any question, and they will provide an answer. The human, the physical, the effort is removed, replaced by an automated and unedited response. What would it look like to see the wisdom of our fellow humans and of our own skills of observation, to have to put energy and time into gaining knowledge? How much more fully are our minds shaped and expanded by this type of learning, versus a few second of a search through digital databases?
If we embark on the quest for a more intimate connection with the world in which we find ourselves, what or who should be our subjects? How do we record our findings? What do we do with the knowledge we gain? I’ve tried on the life of a scientist briefly, and the infighting, politics, scandals and backstabbing quickly showed me the extent to which human flaws pervade even the noblest of discoveries. It was not for me. But, my curiosity about the world beckons, and I desire to intertwine it with my spirituality. I wish to hone my powers of observation to more fully appreciate my place in the Cosmos and to better equip myself during my inner work to flow within the natural energies that surround us.
Where this has led me is to a deeper understanding of a possible use for a Book of Shadows. I do not practice magic with the belief that my thoughts can directly alter outcomes, nor do I believe I can summon forces to do my bidding. As I’ve noted many times, I see my spirituality primarily as a conduit for inner change, as well as a mechanism by which I can better experience the interconnectedness of all of life and existence. With this in mind, I see a Book of Shadows as a place to record those instances in which my observations have transformed my inner being, as well as the practices by which I achieved such outcomes.
The natural world is my primary sacred space, the place where I nearly instantly move on more than a physical plane, the place that causes me to leap for joy and which brings tears of appreciation for its beauty to my eyes. Therefore, detailed study of the plants and the animals and the sky and the moon and all of Goddess’ realm seems, for me, a natural companion to ripe spiritual musings.
Isaacson’s discussion of da Vinci made note of the many half-attempts and false starts contained within his writings and drawings. He demanded perfection of himself, reworking some of his famous paintings for years. Yet, the intricacies of what he didn’t complete are just as revealing as those he finalized. Most of our own observations will not lead to any great insights regarding the world, but I think the idea that, on this day, for this time, a particular person saw, felt, touched, heard, tasted or smelled something that no one else experienced in the same way is, absent of anything else transpiring, a beautiful and brilliant moment resplendent in the sacred.