There is a story in Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country that I just love.
It goes something like this: Soon after the first Europeans arrived in Sydney, they discovered that to Sydney’s west, past the Blue Mountains, lay rich farmland. The problem, however, was how to access this fertile land, as the Blue Mountains posed a formidable obstacle, full of steep cliffs and thick forests. It took years for the Great Western Highway to be built through the Blue Mountains. When the men building the highway reached the edge of the mountains and looked down at the verdant, rolling hills beyond, they were surprised to see that the land was already occupied by cows. The herd numbered in the hundreds, in fact. As it turned out, these cows were descendants of cows that got loose during the early settlement of Sydney Cove and found a passage to the south around the mountains. According to Bryson, it has never been entirely clear why it never occurred to the humans to take this path.
I love to imagine the look of surprise on everyone’s faces. Here come the men, huffing and puffing and red-faced, surprised to find that a sizable group of cows beat them to the destination. Meanwhile, the cows are simply hanging out there, eating grass, to the sound of approaching humans and their machinery.
The rogue cows simply followed the best path available to them. They looked one direction and saw steep cliffs, then looked the other direction and saw a gentle slope. Knowing instinctively what their big cow bodies were and were not capable of, they went the gentle direction and ate some grass. Then they looked around for more grass, and went that way. They continued to follow the grass and the most appealing trail all the way around the mountains, inadvertently arriving at the promised land before the humans. This wasn’t a short cut. In fact, they probably traversed a longer distance, but, in the end, it was an easier journey. The humans saw the mountains and wanted to get to the other side, so they thought, dagnabbit, we’ll just have to blast our way through, no matter how hard it is. We’ll use our might and machinery and fight our way right through the middle.
I think there are some good lessons in this story:
- Sometimes the best solution to a problem is not the obvious one.
- Sometimes we overlook the paths that are right in front of us.
- Harder is not always better; force is not always more effective.
- Sometimes there is more than one way to get to a destination AND sometimes that alternate route is easier and less stressful.
Sometimes the most elegant, easeful solutions are right in front of us. In retrospect, it’s obvious. But before? Not so much. Our perception is clouded in so many ways. By expectations. By clutter. By noise. By fear. This is one reason that it is so important to give ourselves head space, i.e., the time and space to be still and quiet. To be alone with our thoughts and listen to our heart. Not to cower and shrink, but to move forward in alignment with our intuition. This is how we invite the next steps to come to us and this is how we obtain the clarity of vision to find our way.
I came across this quote after I wrote this post, and I think it captures the idea beautifully.
P.S. I’m almost finished reading Ann Patchett’s Patron Saint of Liars. It’s so good it makes my heart ache. Any recommendations as to what I should read next?