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Photo credit: Janet and Phil (Creative Commons)

Chicago Wilderness > GO OUTSIDE > Fresh Ways to See Nature
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Fresh Ways to See Nature

When you take a walk in a woods or prairie, are you experiencing it with all the vivid intensity nature offers? Here are 11 ways to shift your awareness into high gear. We challenge you to make it a checklist and take it to your favorite preserve. When you pay attention, consciousness expands. And nature — especially healthy, diverse wild places — will always surprise you with one more wonder.

1. Get a Bird’s-Eye View

John Muir famously climbed a storm-tossed tree to get a better perspective on nature. Nowadays, there are other ways to get the lay of the land. Internet tools such as Google Earth and Microsoft TerraServer simulate, in a sense, flying over your favorite preserves. They allow you to zoom in on aerial photos to discover features you never knew were there. Study it some evening; make judgments about what those patterns mean. And then the next day, take a hike and compare your expectation with what you find.

2. Sit Still

Sure, this one sounds obvious, but when was the last time you actually did it? Sit quietly in one comfortable place for an amount of time that you feel comfortable with: 5 minutes, 10 minutes,15. Soon you’ll realize that you’re surrounded by other beings. In nature, it’s almost magical the way this happens. You don’t think it will happen, but it does, pretty much without fail. Their motion reveals them: A walking stick takes a few steps, compromising its camouflage. A black-throated blue warbler comes right up to you to investigate. The longer you stay still, the better.

3. Improve Your Eyesight

Using binoculars will allow you to see, in detail, animals that almost always keep their distance. Binoculars can turn a mere speck into a bright, colorful creature going about its miraculous day-to-day life.

4. Track an Animal

Pick an ant, a cricket, a deer, or maybe just a set of tracks, and follow it wherever it goes.

5. See With Your Ears

Hearing is like seeing on a different frequency. Close your eyes and listen, and imagine all of the creatures and their relative positions. Or try to follow the sounds to their source. Even better, learn frog and bird calls. (Recordings of local species are available from monitoring groups — see #11.) It can take a while, but once you know these, it’s like having Superman hearing — you sense things on a whole new level, things that others often won’t notice. You’ll know you’re in the company of a scarlet tanager, an oriole, and a yellow warbler before anyone’s even seen them.

6. Use Peripheral Vision

Stare straight ahead. Keep your eyes wide open, and don’t focus on anything. Be as aware as possible of your peripheral vision — you will see a very wide field of view. Continue to stare (it’s okay to blink), holding the whole scene in your mind. You won’t so much see things as sense them. You’ll become much more aware of motion. Humans are focusers; we “look” at things, focusing all our attention and energy there, and being aware of little else. But animals (particularly potential prey) more often simply “see,” taking in what’s going on around them. It’s part of their adaptation — those eyes on the side of a rabbit’s head make it harder to focus on something in front of it, but help it detect a stalking predator.

7. Give a Friend a Picture

“To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,” Walt Whitman wrote. “Every cubic inch of space is a miracle.” Keep nature’s miracles foremost in your mind by making “live nature pictures.” Take turns leading a partner, whose eyes are closed, through a wild natural place. The sighted partner leads the other to something wonderful and interesting, be it a bug on a flower, a beautiful twist of wood, or a whitened deer skeleton. Line up the view just right, as though you are framing a picture. Then, using a prearranged signal — it can be a tap on the shoulder — the sighted partner “snaps a picture.” The “camera” person opens her eyes for just a moment, then closes them. In her mind is now a gift of a photograph, a very conscious moment of attention.

8. Let Your Child Lead the Way

Take your children outside and let their curiosity be your guide. See nature through fresh eyes and catch the unrivaled and contagious enthusiasm of youth.

9. Write, Draw, Paint

When you write about something, or draw or paint it, your brain processes the information differently. As you interpret what you see, nature travels through your mind, your body, and out onto the page. That’s an intimate experience, and it can affect the way you see those things for the rest of your life.

10. Get Up Close

How much time do you take to examine nature up close? We mean really close. We mean really examine. Your garden (or any patch of weeds for that matter) will expand into a universe if you take the really tight view. Dramas will reveal themselves. Watch insect battles. Or look very closely at some “white” flower, only to discover that its orchid-like petals have ornate colored patterns etched onto the white surface.

11. Monitor Plants and Animals

You can become a citizen scientist and monitor species and their habitats. Volunteers can train to record birds, amphibians and reptiles, plants, and other things for science. Not only will this focus your attention on one part of a preserve (possibly a place you would never have gone otherwise), it will also help you see a preserve from the perspective of the organisms you are monitoring. You’ll start to gain a feel for the kind of habitat a species likes, how many there are, and where. Your monitoring spot may begin to take on the feel of a comfortable wild space of your own.