One of my favorite animals is the Eastern Newt (notophthalmus viridescens) or, to be more specific, the Eastern Newt in its terrestrial juvenile phase, known as the Red Eft. The newt at this point in its life-cycle resembles a brightly colored lizard, a few inches long (although, to be clear, newts are amphibians and not reptiles). Having spent the first phase of its life in the water, the Red Eft lives on land, walking around the forest floor until it reaches the next phase of its metamorphosis, becomes an adult, and returns to the water to live. The Red Eft is a beautiful animal. Its color ranges from golden-orange tones, to gaudy fluorescent orange and bright, cardinal red with even brighter red dots. Its vermillion tones look more suited to some far away tropical rain forest than our temperate woodlands, where most of the animals are of much more subdued hues. Surprisingly, these bright orange and red creatures can be very hard to spot on the forest floor. You’d think that such a thing would stand out against, say, the green of moss. But our sight is limited by what we are paying attention to. Sometimes we just don’t notice what is right there before our eyes.
I was on a hike in a forest nearby, headed up a hill or, depending on how you think of it, a small mountain. I had been told there was a spectacular waterfall at the top of the mountain, and I was determined to see it. I walked looking out and ahead to the trail in front of me, gazing up the hill toward the top where my reward for this hike was said to be. I was enjoying myself in such a beautiful forest on a lovely day, but I was very focused on my goal, reaching the top of the mountain and seeing the waterfall. Then the terrain became a little rougher and I had to look down and watch my step, moving more slowly and carefully. And then I saw it. Vibrant red among the brown leaves. A Red Eft. I hadn’t seen one in quite some time, and I was thrilled. I looked around a little more, my attention now focused on the details of the ground around my feet, right where I was standing, and I quickly spotted several more. (Note: if you see Red Efts in the forest, please do not touch them. The oil on your fingers can harm them.)
How many had I walked past and not even seen? I began to look carefully at the ground as I walked now, my mind focused on the area immediately around where I was walking, my sight suddenly discerning with precision the shapes and colors on the ground – different kinds of leaves, rocks, sticks and other things took on sharp, distinct detail. Sure enough, as I moved up the trail I spotted more and more Red Efts. They were everywhere. As I began to observe them, I found them absolutely delightful. The focus of the hike had changed for me. I was no longer singularly concerned with making it to the waterfall at the top of the mountain. I was now trying to spy as many little Efts as possible, and enjoying myself immensely in this task. My gaze was no longer turned up the hill to something distant and in the future, but noticing intensely the particular details of the ground upon which I was stepping. I began to see not only Red Efts, but to notice things like the different species of moss and lichen all around, wonderful and fascinating in their variety. So many shapes and textures and shades of green!
As I continued the hike, I counted about forty of the beautiful, vibrant red and orange Efts. I so easily could have walked past them all, without seeing them, my eyes turned upward to the top of the mountain. I also would have missed out on enjoying the many other beautiful colors and details of the place where I was walking, in the present moment. How often do we do this? We keep our gaze and focus on some distant, future goal. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but too often we don't notice the wonderful, delightful things that are right around us, here and now. We don't see the details and the colors and the variety. We miss so much, concerning ourselves with what lies ahead, with whether or not we will "make it" to where we want to be in the future, whether we will get to the top of the mountain. I think sometimes we even miss out on perceiving God's presence, imminent and near, beckoning us to partake in the delights of a closer relationship with the One who is Love. For God is not just in some distant heaven, far removed in a future to which we aspire. God's presence, God's grace, God's wonders, God's love, is also right here, right now, offered to us in the present moment. Sometimes we do have to adjust the way we are looking, the way we see, how we are focused. But it is there, right where we are standing.