How to be a Better Observer of Nature

Nature is all around us, whether we live in the city or in the country, but not all of us are aware of what is actually out there.  Becoming better observers allows us not only to become more aware of what is in our local environments, but also to develop deeper relationships with nature, encouraging us to become more aware of the influence of our actions on the environment, and ultimately leading to a better relationship of humans with the more-than-human world.

Here, then, are ten suggestions of ways you can become a better observer of nature:

Becoming a better observer means opening yourself to the beauty within the everyday world.

Becoming a better observer means opening yourself to the beauty within the everyday world.

  1. Eliminate distractions.  Leave the house and find a place outside where you can practice observation.  Turn off your phone and take out your headphones.  Clear your mind.  Try to not focus on your internal thoughts and worries, but rather on the world that is around you.
  2. Let go of preconceptions.  Maybe you’ve been taught to think that the vacant lot across the street is an ugly waste space filled with weeds, or that the dandelions growing up in the cracks of the sidewalk or in your lawn are unsightly blemishes, but try to let go of that.  Try to see the plants and animals that you encounter simply for what they are: individuals surviving as best they can in a challenging world.
  3. Focus on each of your senses separately.  First, close your eyes and listen.  Can you hear any birds?  Can you hear the wind rustling in the trees or in the grass?  If you are in a town or city, the sound of traffic may be the loudest sound, but what can you hear behind that?  Without opening your eyes, focus next on the sense of touch.  What does the surface that you are standing or sitting on feel like?  Is it smooth or rough?  Can you feel air moving over your skin?  Can you tell what direction the wind is coming from?  Breathe deeply; what can you smell?  Car exhaust, dust, freshly cut grass, decaying leaves?  Open your eyes.  What do you see?  Often, when we see things everyday, we no longer really notice them anymore.  Try to move beyond that and truly notice what is around you.
  4. Look for the small details that are easily missed.  Walk around slowly and look closely at things.  Look for lichens that may be growing on rocks or on the trunks of trees.  Look for weeds growing in untended spaces.  Look at the different shapes of leaves, the different colours and textures of rocks.  Watch for small birds or animals in the underbrush, or insects crawling on the ground.
  5. Look up.  Most people don’t look up.  Look up at the trees, at any birds that may be flying above you, at the different patterns of the clouds.  What direction are the clouds moving in?  What colour is the sky?  Is the sky a different colour at the horizon than it is right above you?  Can you see the moon?  If you are observing just before sunrise or just after sunset, look in the direction of sun rise or set.  If you see a very bright light in the sky that is not moving, it’s probably the planet Venus.  What else is up there?
  6. Come back to the same place again and again.  Come back the next day at a different time and see what is different and what is the same.  How does the quality of the light change the way things look?  What time of day are the animals (birds, insects, mammals, any others) most active?  How do things change with the seasons?
  7. Practice.  Practice these skills of observing everywhere: when you are on the bus, walking down the street, or even indoors.  The more you train yourself to observe, the better you will become.
  8. Keep a journal.  Practice writing down and sketching what you see.  Even if you feel that you can’t write or draw well, this will help you to slow down and observe more closely.
  9. Find out what to look for.  After you’ve built a habit of observing, buy a field guide to local birds, plants, insects, or mammals.  Even if you’re not interested in identifying different species, becoming familiar with the different patterns, shapes, and colours that are out there will give you something to look for and help you to see better.
  10. Be safe.  Especially if you are in a city, make sure that you choose a place to observe in where you feel safe.  You won’t be able to focus on observing if you are worried about being mugged or about injuring yourself while manoeuvring among rocks, trees, and uneven ground.  Even a balcony or an open window will do if you are housebound or if that is the only way you will feel comfortable.

What suggestions do you have for becoming a better observer of nature?  How you do practice nature observation?

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6 Responses to How to be a Better Observer of Nature

  1. Loren Webster says:

    I find that taking a camera with a zoom lens helps me pay closer attention but these are all great ideas, too. On the days when there’s nothing spectacular to see, I have to look harder for things to photograph and that makes me see things I would have otherwise missed.

    • Heather says:

      Thanks for the comment, Loren! Of course a camera is also a great way to practice observation. I’m surprised that I forgot that when I was making this list. I have also found that bringing a camera helps me to actively look for interesting things to take photos of – often things that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

  2. Bo Mackison says:

    This is a great synopsis of ways to observe nature. I think a kit including a journal, a few pencils, and a simple camera often help define the trip to explore nature, makes it more mindful, and often a better observer. And then sometimes, I simply want to get away and absorb the great outdoors with my senses and nothing else. It’s all good! Thanks.

    • Heather says:

      Thanks for the comment, Bo! I also agree that sometimes it helps to have a camera or sketchbook along to help you see more clearly, while at other times you simply want to absorb it all in. I have found that taking photos or sketching focuses my attention more on the details, while just simply being helps me to appreciate the landscape more as a whole and take in everything at once.

  3. This is a lovely post Heather. I personally also think that becoming more aware of the non-human world, its vitality and presence, makes us more aware and respectful of other humans, and of ourselves. We seem to be getting less and less present – exactly as you suggest in your ‘Eliminate distractions’ suggestion – never in the here and now with the phones and the headphones, but somewhere else.

    • Heather says:

      I agree with that, Lady Fancifull. Cultivating awareness in one area of our life encourages us to become more aware of other aspects as well. When we become more aware of our interconnection with all of life, then I think we naturally begin to act more respectfully towards others, because we recognize that what we do to others, whether human or not, will influence us in turn.

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