There are Nature Walks, where you explain things to people (see above, me explaining things on the left) and others that you take alone. Needless to say, you create a lot of commotion during the first kind, which startles birds and animals out of sight. Going alone, you can do meditative sauntering or the opposite kind of Nature Walk when you want to notice things and so keep every sense alert. I found some great techniques for this latter variety in Tom Brown’s chapter on “Fine-Tuning the Senses” in his Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking years ago, and have used them ever since. He asks us to approach familiar walks with new eyes and ears, avoiding the tendency to look only at places where we saw interesting things on previous occasions.
One of my favorite walks is a deeply wooded path where I once saw an Ovenbird in the undergrowth and a Scarlet Tanager in a tall cherry tree. Ever since, I keep my eyes on that particular bit of forest floor and that particular cherry tree, blinding myself to something that might emerge from a boulder or be growing where I never bother to look.
To see more in nature, Brown teaches, we need to
- Avoid Tunnel Vision
- Look at the Unfamiliar
- Take a different Path
He advises “Splatter Vision,” fixing our eyes at the horizon and then spreading our range of vision widely. “Instead of focusing on a single object, [we] allow the eyes to soften and take in everything in a wide half-sphere.” Things may seem a bit fuzzy, but with this “Wide-angle Seeing” you can pick up movement for an arc of 180 degrees. Look down as well as up, scanning every level. When you spot something interesting, focus intently.
I decided to experiment by returning to that wooded path. I caught a flicker on my left periphery — two male damselflies sitting parallel to each other on a fern frond. They were unusually far from the river. Were they trying to avoid that wild melee of fluttering and coupling? Was there something on the bracken that would nourish them for the fray?
I emerged in a sunny cherry orchard overgrown with tufty moss – light green and crunchy dry – perfect for lolling to enjoy the midday warmth. (I have always felt that Nature Sitting is as important as Nature Walking).
When it was time to go I remembered to scan different heights and places; I turned around and saw a hole carefully excavated in the cherry stump.
As I left, I looked down at my feet instead of across the meadow. There was Devil’s Paintbrush growing in the moss
and young ferns casting their shadows on the sand path in patterned symmetry.
Brown’s method brought me two mysteries – what were the damselflies doing so far from the river; who lived in the cherry trunk- and two eyefuls of nature’s absolute and random beauty.