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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?