Creating a relationship with Nature
What qualities do you look for when meeting a potential friend or embracing someone into a familial state? I often ask this question of participants on my “Stroll for Well-being” walks and there are common attributes people say they look for in a close friend. The list often includes: trust, reciprocity, being fully present during quality time together, and many other qualities we value in a person. Similar qualities are revered in pets and they are often referred to as “fur babies” or members of the family. Is that because we can be ourselves and feel accepted when they are around?
Is nature any different? Do birds rely on each other for family, fun and safety? Is trust developed with mammals who rely on the birds for alarms to stay safe and hidden from potential dangers? If so, these birds and animals are creating new relationships all the time. Consider a person who lives in the city who only steps off the concrete a few times a year for the annual picnic compared to the naturalist who prefers to sleep on the ground and removes their shoes when entering the wilderness. What differences do each of them experience? If it is possible for a human to create a relationship with a local wilderness area, what is the first step?
The first step is simply to show up…
To start creating a relationship, simply be out there each day doing nothing except being present and aware. Just sitting in nature, being open to the possibility of experiencing something new will open many doors to the beginner and the seasoned naturalist alike.
In the spring of 2011 while working as the Chief Ranger of the University of North Florida’s wildlife sanctuary, I accepted a challenge from my peers and staff to sit in a wilderness setting for one hour every day for 30 days. A part of the challenge was to find a spot I was drawn to and would continue to use for the duration of the challenge. I had the whole 400 acre trail system to choose from, but I knew if I went farther than a 2-3 minute walk, I would most likely abandon the challenge if crunched for time. After a slow 3 minute walk to a spot that I felt was calling to me, I sat down and the challenge had begun. The spot was close to the trail with a clear view of the lake and three other habitats. It was a crossover of these habitats, also known as an ecotone, which brought more diversity of plants and animals. Being close to my office, I knew it was an ideal spot.
Sitting quietly in the woods was not too difficult for me because I had already created a comfort zone with nature for many years. I decided to make the challenge more difficult by using a blindfold during a few of the sits. I was surprised that the blindfold challenge only lasted 5 minutes the first time I tried it, but as I kept returning, I eventually lasted the full hour. The main ingredient for me was time, as well as being willing to step outside my comfort zone of losing my sense of sight. Focusing on my other senses and experiencing them fully became a grounding practice during this time. The sound of the critters walking was louder than I’d noticed before. The feeling of the birds watching me increased. I started to notice that the larger trees had a different feeling compared to the open spaces.
I never considered feeling my surroundings and here I was tuning into space as a new sense of feeling. My fear of being blindfold faded as I learned to trust and relaxed into the arms of the earth. I learned to trust my intuition at a higher level, my thoughts became more clear. I became increasingly aware of what was around me as well as what was going on inside my mind and heart. What was once dirt became soil to me, and sinking my toes into it was not uncomfortable anymore. In fact, it became more of a feeling of belonging and accomplishment to receive it. At times I embraced the soil, clay, and mud, by painting them on my skin, recreating the patterns I saw in the leaves and trees. There was a shift I could feel happening inside me and a renewed perception of the outside world. I felt encouraged and at times empowered by Nature to speak about these connections with other naturalists and friends. When I described my experiences with others it sparked an interest and some of my coworkers started the challenge as well. Nature has a simple way to give you the experience you need to inspire your life and rekindle the fire you may have been missing. A great example was when I was talking with one of my coworkers: after 15 days into the challenge he told me that his wife claimed he was more pleasant to be around when he did a daily nature sit. It took an hour each day away from his family, but that time became a positive union and connection. If his mood was off, his wife would ask him if he missed a sit. Of course, she was right - he had.
Throughout the challenge, I began to understand that I have unique experiences that are mine alone and I gained a sense of confidence in the connection I created. It was as if my relationship with this local habitat was important to us both (human and the natural world). Nature does reach out and speak with me like a loving family member. I have continued to learn to talk to the trees and practice this by letting out some frustrations when I have a negative world view to release, as well as when people play the reflective teacher in my life. Elders of indigenous cultures tell me that trees are good listeners and are happy to provide this space for the human race. If this is a fact or an opinion doesn’t matter to me, and I still find comfort in this teaching.
The natural world is also looking for companionship and wants to be heard. She has promised to not hold a grudge of any perceived past negative actions that someone can conceive of or has committed. People who own pets know this through long term relationships with them and I can see this daily in my wilderness sit.
I discovered during the month long commitment that humans are silly with their fears and lack of awareness, stumbling over roots as they walked by hundreds of close encounters with the critters of the woods. Through those 30 days, I had counted a total of 99 people who had passed me by as I sat quietly. My spot was in a clear area, in open view to anyone who would look up from behind a trail map the size of a half sheet of notebook paper. I sat less than 15 feet away. No one looked up and not one person saw me during my 30 day challenge. As an experiment, I sat closer to the trail, only 2 feet away, and covered my legs lightly with leaves and my upper body clothed in a light gray t-shirt, with no natural cover and leaned against a tree. Forty middle school kids and a few biology professors, who were taking a hike to learn about nature, never saw me. I learned they were not looking through the eyes of awareness and many weren’t even conscious of their surrounding at all. Is this how Nature sees us? As visitors to the planet we live on?
We, as one of the mammals within the earth community, seem to be over-consumed with ourselves, so much so that we don’t see beyond our own thoughts unless someone points the way or shocks us into awareness. We can remain in that state for a lifetime, or worse yet, teach this behavior to our children. It is important that we reach out to Nature to receive gifts that are waiting us. How about you? Are you willing to discover your wilderness relationship or to strengthen it? Are you ready to start your journey to reclaim your community membership to this planet? It is time to rekindle the art of finding the quest in questioning in communion with the earth.