I heard this story on NPR recently, and I think it’s the best advice I’ve heard in awhile on how to get out in the woods and explore, relax, and as they say in the article, take time to smell the roses! The answer: make an exploratory game out of it. “Pretend” to be a naturalist. Yes!
In this permanent state of hyperventilation, the issue for us all is not stopping to smell roses. It’s not even noticing that there are roses right there in front of us. Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of religion, hit the core of our problem when he wrote, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.”
But how can we experience “being alive” in the midst of the crushing urgencies that make up modern life?
Well, it might seem strange, but one answer to that question is “science,” at least science with a lowercase “s.” Science, you see, is all about noticing. This is where it begins, with simple act of catching seeing the smallest detail as an opening to a wider world of wonder and awe. And here is the good news. You don’t need a particle accelerator or well-equipped genetics lab in your basement to practice noticing (that would be science with a capital “S”).
You already are a scientist. You have been since you were a kid playing with water in the tub, or screwing around in the backyard with dirt and sticks and stuff.
If you want to rebuild your inner-scientist-noticing-skills, the best place to begin is with a walk in the woods.
There are lots of reasons to take a walk in the woods. To get away from it all, clear your head, smell the fresh air. The problem, of course, is that even if we get ourselves into a park or a forest, we might still be so lost in our heads that we miss what’s right in front of us. Practicing noticing, like a scientist, can change that by binding us to experience in ways that are thrilling, even in their ordinariness.
Noticing can take many forms. One trick is to count things. Scientists love to count stuff. How many trees are there on the sides of a steep hill compared with its crest? How many leaves are there on the stalks of the blue flowers compared to the yellow ones? How many different kinds of birdsong do you hear when you stop and listen, (by the way, this requires really stopping and really listening, which is awesome). Counting things forces you to pay attention to subtleties in the landscape, the plants, the critters.
Other things scientists love: shapes, colors, patterns. Do the rocks at the stream’s edge look different from the ones near the trail? Do the big cattails have the same color as the small ones? Get your naturalist on and bring a notebook. Pretend you are or John Muir. Jot down your findings, make little drawings and always, always ask your yourself those basic questions: why, how, when?
It may seem counter-intuitive, but scientists are all about creativity and exploration, and noticing things outside of the ordinary, so acting like a scientist is great way to see the world in a whole new way by playing with things, seeing what happens when you mess with something. Kids are natural players/explorers/scientists, so you can even bring one along as it might be helpful to get you in the explorer mode.
I would also argue that it doesn’t have to be “the woods” necessarily to get the same playful/exploratory benefits, it can also be short walks around the block, whatever works to get your observational juices flowing.