We live on a remarkable planet that manifests its brilliance through nature, yet modern life constantly creates barriers and distractions that numb us to this glory. Waking up one’s nature awareness is a process of sharpening all of our senses to perceive more of what’s going on around us. It means discovering a sense of individual belonging in a story that’s as big as Earth itself. Being aware in nature unlocks a simple secret to the meaning of life: follow your bliss.
The very survival of a wild animal depends on its awareness. It needs to be alert to where food and water are located, feel changes in weather, and perceive danger. One needs only to watch a white-tailed deer in a natural state for a short period of time to begin to understand nature awareness. The eyes of a deer are still and intently focused even as it moves its head. Its nose glistens and twitches to detect every subtle scent and shift in wind direction. Ears rotate so freely they barely seem attached, determined not to let the slightest sound escape. Each purposeful step embodies mindfulness in a focused task. Awareness for a deer is the key to staying alive; awareness for us is the key to truly being alive.
The rewards from connecting with nature are too numerous to keep track of and, besides, you’ll find that it’s far more fun to just be in nature than to make lists, anyway. The physical exercise that goes along with venturing outside makes you feel better and more alive, which in turn naturally improves your mood. Being in nature can create endless banks of positive outlook and peaceful well-being, setting the stage for the healing of whatever ails you. By shifting you out of your routines, nature brings more beauty into your life and can even energize your activism. Giving back to nature through green living or activism pushes your satisfaction levels to even greater heights.
While practicing nature awareness is recreational and fun, it still takes time and commitment. Start by slowing down and not rushing the time you spend in nature. Then try these practices that can help you sharpen your nature awareness.
- Focus on the big picture. In nature, the big picture is the landscape, and a landscape always has a story worth reading. Begin with your mind’s camera on the panorama setting and scan the horizon. Breathe it all in as you absorb colors, highlights, shadows, shapes, compositions and structure. Read a landscape by noticing hills and valleys, forests and clearings, rivers and lakes. Allow your imagination room to roam. Picture the landscape before human development. If you are near the ocean, picture what a shoreline would look like if sea level rises 10 feet. Imagine yourself as a powerful winter wind surging across the land; where would you run wild and where would you encounter resistance?
- Focus on the small. Now that you have gone big, switch gears and go small. True awareness will only come with experiencing things up close and firsthand. It’s not hard to view an entire forest from a distance as a single entity. Next try to focus on individual trees. Further still, it can be downright challenging to make the quantum leap to zoom in on individual leaves. With each successive magnification, you need to devote more of your attention span, put aside more of the clutter of your daily life.
- Stare down nature. Busy eyes are aware of very little in nature. Practice keeping your eyes still so they can see movement. Pick a spot and look at it for a while or scan as slowly as you possibly can. Movement, even at the edges of your field of vision, will jump out, then allow you to re-center your sightline. Master the nature stare down and you’ll certainly see more wildlife, but you’ll also begin to perceive all of nature’s processes in motion around you.
- Calibrate your ears and nose. Sight typically is the sense we engage the most on nature walks, just as we do in daily life. Sharpening all of your senses is a cornerstone of nature awareness. Collect a blindfold along with ear and nose plugs and go to a favorite outdoor place where you feel comfortable in the natural surroundings. Isolate one sense at a time by blocking the others for five minutes at a time. Try hearing by covering your eyes, plugging your nose, and keeping your hands at your side. Once you hear something, acknowledge it, but then tune it out to develop greater acuity to other sounds. Keep peeling away the obvious layers to become aware of the hidden, quiet sounds. Do the same for your nose. Get up close and personal with your surroundings. Have you ever smelled tree bark? Does it smell differently when you scratch it? How about crushed leaves, moss-covered rocks or dirt? Don’t accept a lazy nose!
- Make like a rock and do nothing. Try meditating in nature. Sit quietly, breathe deeply, and let the pace and place of nature effortlessly relax you. It may not happen immediately, but when it does, your senses and awareness will be heightened to a stunning extent. Become an erratic boulder deposited on the land after the last ice-age glacier retreated. Witness the surroundings and happenings without judgment. In other words, just be. Physical and mental stillness will be the natural result of relaxing and witnessing. During this stillness, nature will reveal its deepest secrets and you will observe things you simply were not tuned in to. Successfully do nothing in nature and you will quickly realize that there is never nothing going on in nature.
- Draw or sketch. Sketching requires more immersion than simply snapping a photograph and you will be left with the memory of a state of mind in a wonderful place and time etched personally by your hand.
- Weather a storm. A powerful way of awakening awareness is to assault your senses by heading out into nature just as everyone else seeks shelter from a storm. Clouds swirl, trees bend to the onslaught of wind, thunder rumbles and waves tumble. Rain or snow slice through the air and the wind roars a lively tune. More effective than the most powerful energy drink, a storm is like a shock treatment to senses dulled by the numbness of everyday life. I find it impossible not to be ecstatic in storms, where nature sings using its full lung capacity. One of the legends of John Muir, a founding father of the conservation movement, is when he climbed to the top of a tall pine during a severe wind and lightning storm so that he could experience the full fury of a storm from the wildly flailing tree top. A simple walk during bad weather with your feet firmly planted on the ground will do quite nicely to further your awareness practice.
- Tap latent energy. Feeling the energy of nature in a storm is one thing. Sensing and feeding off the latent energy stored in nature expands this awareness even greater. Nature’s energy is stored everywhere — in the fibers of plants, the grains of rocks and the tissues of animals. The energy stored in a large tree may be apparent, but no less impressive is the energy of a hayfield just before mowing. A rewarding meditation is to walk slowly in nature, mindfully pausing just long enough to touch and feel the latent energy of a tree, that rock, the hillside, or a waterbody along your path. Admire the peace and equilibrium that naturally exists alongside so much potent stored energy.
- Follow a track in the winter. A great way to gain insight into the functioning of nature is to follow a set of tracks. Animals active in the winter include deer and moose, foxes and coyotes, fishers and otters, and small animals like mice. Human trails and roads are usually in fairly straight lines to accommodate our predisposition to wanting to get to our destinations as quickly as possible. Almost never in a straight line, animal tracks embody the concept of being about the journey. An animal’s tracks convey how fast it was moving, what caught its attention, perhaps what it ate, and what kind of habitat it was using. It can be insightful and just plain fun to “become” the animal. Walk faster when the distance between prints increases, slow down when the tracks meander and the distance between prints is small, and stop when the prints are settled and concentrated. Look up from the tracks to see what the animal saw, listen to the same background noises, and smell to the extent the crisp winter air allows.
- Take a walk in nature in the dark. Turn off your headlamp, preferably on a moonless night. If you are like most people, this alone will make the hairs on your neck stand up at least a little, and with that you’ve immediately achieved involuntary heightened awareness. Noises in particular will seem amplified. This sensation fades as you get used to nighttime noise and settle down. Feel free to laugh a bit at your fears. This activity works in all settings, from a cold and stark northern winter night in a boreal forest to a humid and sultry rainy season night in a tropical jungle. More than a practice of sharpening senses, this activity reminds us what it means to focus and awakens the ability to achieve it.
Practice nature awareness each time you venture outside, whether walking to your car or trekking into deep wilderness. Find what’s fun and works for you. Exercises can be practiced repeatedly without risk of boredom because you can choose to walk the same trail every day for weeks and be confident that the experience will be different every time. It will vary depending on the time and temperature, the birds you see, the amount of snow on hemlock boughs, or which animal left new tracks. You can never be sure what surprises are in store for you when you let nature be your guide, but you can be sure it will transform your life in countless positive ways.