Six simple but powerful steps help you nurture your connection with nature and awaken to calm, clarity, and enchanted wonder.
By Jake Miller
Nature is a wondrous teacher. Consider the autumn crocus: a fragrant deep-lavender beauty that blossoms in New England long after the trees have lost their leaves. These flowers are so reminiscent of their March and April blooming look-alikes that the first time I saw one it felt like a message of hope and renewal—reminding me that even though the starkness of winter was fast approaching, it would soon be followed by the rich new growth of spring.
I find that the more I can be in touch with the natural world, whether out in the wild or in my backyard, the more it opens me to a sense of wonder, joy, and freedom, and helps me feel how intimately we are connected to the entire web of life.
Spending time consciously in nature nourishes us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Russell Comstock, yoga teacher and cofounder of the Metta Earth Institute Center for Contemplative Ecology in Lincoln, Vermont, says that the source of that nourishment is the simple fact that we are, inextricably, a part of nature: “Our body is an animal body, governed by natural rhythms—planting and ripeness, daylight and night.” He adds that much of the wisdom embodied in our oldest cultural traditions comes from sitting in deep stillness, observing the wild, and contemplating the human role in the natural world.
For many of us, it can be challenging to maintain this perspective in our deadline driven, technology dominated lives. We get so caught up in our schedules and to-do lists that we often forget to look out the window, much less go for a hike. We lose touch with the cycle of life: the flow of the seasons, light and dark, life and death—and our interconnectedness to all living beings.
In Awake in the Wild, meditation teacher Mark Coleman writes that immersing ourselves in nature is a way to “awaken to life: to wake up from confusion and suffering and live a life imbued with awareness, compassion, and freedom.” This is something that many of us feel intuitively when we spend time in nature, and research shows that the great outdoors can indeed be psychologically healing. Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, pioneering environmental psychologists at the University of Michigan, theorize that the “soft fascination” we experience when spending time in nature helps us recover from the mental fatigue caused by periods of overstimulation.
There are myriad opportunities to connect with nature every day – gardening, kayaking, meditating under a tree. Below we look at six ways to deepen that relationship through mindful presence and engagement in the natural world.
The first step to strengthening your connection with nature can be as simple as slowing down. When you can sit still and let yourself be completely present, you will be rewarded with calm, clarity, wonder, and a sense of harmony.
“I’ve had tours where I was practically running after my people,” says Warren Costa, owner of Native Guide Hawaii, a nature tour company that offers visitors intimate outdoor experiences. “People feel like the idea of going on a trail is to get to the end for a spectacular view. But there’s a lot of stuff along the way. If you move too fast you might miss the little moss sporophytes, or the tiny little insects at your feet.” Instead of racing through the forest searching for birds, Costa leads a small group of visitors to sit quietly in a forest clearing. After a few moments an Oma’o—an elusive Hawaiian thrush—emerges from the understory, perches on a branch, and begins to sing.
You can immerse yourself in nature slowly, by walking the same path through the woods once a week for a year, watching the seasons unfold, taking every step in with all of your senses. Or you can embrace a single moment and let it wash over you like a wave, clearing away your own thoughts, concepts, and desires, and leaving you present and connected. Having a calm, focused, and receptive mind is crucial for this kind of awakening. Don’t get so caught up in chasing after these moments that you miss them. Just sit and breathe or walk gently and let yourself be drawn to something—and then let yourself experience it fully, on its own terms.
“Go somewhere where the natural environment is very present—where you can hear crickets or birds singing, wind rustling in trees, or a babbling brook,” Comstock suggests. “Begin to explore these sounds as if they were yoga sutras—encapsulations of deep wisdom.” This open-ended practice, he says, allows us to invite whatever insight might come.
Comstock also suggests practicing conscious breathing in a natural setting. “While you pay attention to your breath,” he says, “let your mind absorb itself in questions about the essence of the air you are breathing: where is this breath coming from, what is this breath made of? On some level this breath is carrying the story of the natural world all around you.”
The more we slow down and practice being mindful in the moment, the more we awaken to the constant changes in nature: The last sun-warmed ripe tomato of summer gives way to crisp, just-picked apples; late dahlias bloom and herald the coming of brilliant autumn foliage. Before long a lacy skim of ice forms on the pond; frost crunches on still-green grass. Days pass and soon the autumn crocuses are a memory, replaced by the first spring snowdrops. The cycle of life continues.
Crystallize Ephemeral Moments
You can deepen your awareness of nature and cultivate a calm, clear focus by unleashing your creativity in the wild. When you stop moving and focus closely enough to draw, write a poem, or take a photograph, you allow yourself to slip outside the rush of everyday thoughts and build a more intimate relationship with the world around you.
Naturalist, educator, and author Clare Walker Leslie has been teaching people the art of nature journaling and drawing for more than 30 years, and she can attest to the spiritual awareness that comes from observing nature. “I see sheer joy in the eyes of the people I teach,” she says. “You don’t need a special water bottle or a fleece jacket to be outside; you don’t need the right pens or the right brushes. You just need to pay attention.”
The work of classical haiku masters epitomizes the immediacy and intimacy that comes from absorbing oneself in nature. Each poem crystallizes the essence of simple natural moments in a way that still resonates with us centuries later. The juxtapositions in haiku—a sudden noise amid silence, dark geese against a bright moon—tie seemingly disparate parts of the world together, reminding us that every element in every moment is connected to the rest.
this deep in fall—
still not a butterfly.
(translated by Robert Hass)
Calligraphy of geese
against the sky—
the moon seals it.
(translated by Robert Hass)
Making art in nature allows us to find the beauty in the world around us, and it urges us to accept the imperfections that sometimes seem to mar that beauty. As an amateur photographer, one of the artists I most admire is Robert Adams, who makes unflinchingly beautiful landscape photographs of mountains, complete with power lines and suburban subdivisions, all in sharp focus. “Perfection” becomes a matter of perspective. Learning to see the whole picture while in nature—where moments of beauty abound and we’re empowered by our own creativity—makes it that much easier to practice acceptance when we are stuck in traffic or dealing with someone disagreeable.
To set your inner artist free in the wild, grab a camera on your next hike, or find the perfect spot and settle in with some paper for spontaneous poetry or with your nature journal (see “Art of Observation” below). Or embrace a beginner’s mind by bringing some unfamiliar creative tools into the great outdoors—a spindle and a few ounces of wool, a froe and some wood-carving knives, a lump of clay. Moving your hands in repetitive motions—whether you’re sketching, knitting, or whittling—helps focus and open your mind to the present experience.
Nurture a Child’s Love of Nature
For a child, spending time in nature ignites curiosity, nourishes an appreciation of beauty, and reinforces an intuitive understanding of our indelible connection to the elements and all living beings. It’s a perfect remedy for what Last Child in the Woods author Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” Louv says that spending time outdoors helps prevent obesity; improves test scores; and promotes self-esteem, problem solving, and motivation to learn. It also helps kids—and adults—deal better with hyperactivity and stress. (See Louv’s website for tips and activities.)
It doesn’t take much. Every child should have a chance to listen to the whisper of autumn cattails in the wind, to feel the cold of the winter ocean on their hands, to smell spring’s first apricot blossoms, and to taste a fresh-picked wild blueberry on a warm summer day.
Children’s book author and educator Jennifer Ward has found that, given the slightest chance, kids embrace the wild instantly. In I Love Dirt she offers parents of young kids an antidote to the life of too little time and too many gadgets. Her Let’s Go Outside is a resource for older children ages 8 to 12.
“The key is allowing curiosity to happen,” says Aimee Tow, a Massachusetts-based yoga teacher and outdoor adventure leader who has organized programs for introducing nature to inner city kids. “Kids love dandelions. They blow the puffballs everywhere. Instead of saying, ‘That’s just a dandelion,’ you can talk about why dandelions show up everywhere, how they have several different ways of propagating, how tough they are, and how you can eat them in salads.”
As a dad myself, I’ve learned to remember that you are following your child’s schedule and viewing things through their perspective. Unlike his father (who has been known to chase “interesting birds” around the countryside), my three-year-old son, Lucas, is always perfectly content to stand around and watch whatever ducks and geese happen to be at our local pond. As the mood strikes him, he may splash a stick in the water, throw a few acorns, squish some mud in his hands, or just be open to whatever the moment has to offer.
“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement,” wrote famed environmentalist Rachel Carson. “It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”
While your kids are delighting in the outdoors, practice staying present. You can learn a lot from watching how they interact with the world and immerse themselves in it. I get to see the joy of awakening and wonder in Lucas’s eyes—the same joy, every day, every time a goose flies into the pond. Spending time outside with him helps me let go of my own naturalizing ambitions and wake up to the wondrous possibility of the moment.
Follow the Flow
Of course nature isn’t something that only exists in parks and preserves; it’s part of us and all around us. Learning about the flow of life-giving water through your community can be a powerful way to experience nature’s interdependence. A watershed is more than the hills and valleys, ponds and streams that make up the drainage area of a river. It’s also the living communities—salt marshes and cities—that shape and are shaped by the flow of water.
Our watersheds tie us together. The storm water that washes off our streets (along with contaminants like motor oil) feeds our streams and recharges our marshes, which protect our coasts from erosion and flooding. That same water either nourishes or poisons inshore fisheries and is the water we swim in and the water that our neighbors downstream drink.
Following the flow of water also gives us opportunities to observe pockets of wilderness. In many communities, streams and rivers have disappeared into concrete tubes, and most of the water seems to flow through pipes. But nature still finds its way: a snapping turtle crosses a busy road to find a sandy spot to bury her eggs; a chorus of spring peepers sings in a pocket-sized pond in a city park; dragonflies and damselflies flit above a rank urban canal.
How can you learn about the water flow in your area? For starters, if you don’t know which watershed you’re in, you can search your zip code online at the EPA. Find out if there’s an active watershed association for your area, and then see if they offer nature walks or paddles, or if they need volunteers for cleanups or plant and wildlife censuses. If you live where there are chronic water shortages or where heavy rains regularly overtax the sewer system and blast untreated human waste into the environment, think about installing rain barrels on your home to cut down on runoff and provide water for your garden. (For more ideas, see WATER.)
Finally, take time to simply contemplate the movement of water: Go for a walk along a stream or a river and, just for a moment, try to imagine how much water flows by every single second. The next time it rains and you see water rushing down a storm drain, think about where it’s going and where it’s been. Even you are part of the “vast hydrological cycle,” as Mark Coleman writes. “Water enters your body, rinses it clean, and exits your body to rejoin the flow through seas and mountains and sky.”
Water isn’t the only thing that flows through our communities. An endless parade of wildlife is almost constantly on the move around us. When lengthening days signal the coming of spring, thousands of monarch butterflies begin their journeys north from their winter retreats in Mexico and California. All summer, fish swim up our streams to spawn. And every fall, great masses of southbound ducks and geese linger over fallen grain in farm fields and dabble in ponds as they make their way toward richer winter feeding grounds. Some autumn days thousands of hawks, eagles, and falcons may soar past a single point—such as a dune overlooking the sea or a mountain escarpment—where favorable winds and uplifting thermal air currents aid their journey.
According to Bill Gette, director of Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport, Massachusetts, one of the best ways to experience migration is to visit a bird-banding station, where you can learn about the physical and behavioral adaptations birds and butterflies need to make for their long-distance flights. For instance, with a puff of warm breath to blow aside breast feathers, you might get to see the belly fat of a blackpoll warbler, which flies from points in Massachusetts, Maine, and Canada, directly to northern South America in a single 90-hour flight over the ocean. The epic flight is fueled with a mere 10 grams of extra body fat.
If you’re just getting started with birds, you can take a workshop through a local bird club or an Audubon sanctuary. Gette’s beginning bird-watching workshops encourage new birders to focus on a bird’s size (is it bigger than a robin?), shape (including body type and bill), and behavior. Once you’ve got things narrowed down, Gette says, you use plumage color and song to finalize your identification. But it’s not just about attaching a name to a bird, he says. “We want people to understand how the bird fits into its environment.” (For more on the fundamentals, see David Allen Sibley’s book Sibley’s Birding Basics; you’ll also want a field guide to the birds of your region.)
Mass movements of birds and monarch butterflies, with millions of creatures flying thousands of miles together, are amazing, but it can pay to be attuned to the subtler movements of animals around us. For instance, in the spring, the missing tulip buds in my urban backyard are sure signs that deer have come calling in the night. I imagine the deer are at least as alarmed as I am to know that they share the neighborhood with coyotes, whose scat I occasionally find on the sidewalk. These sightings remind me that I’m part of a living community that’s bigger than me—bigger even than the city. Once we’re aware of this constant movement of wildlife, we can no longer pretend that we’re separate from the natural world.
Placing ourselves in something bigger than ourselves helps broaden our perspective, fosters our respect for the natural world, and may even inspire us into action. The beauty of our interconnection is that one simple act—say, choosing fairly traded, shade-grown coffee—can have a broad positive impact: shade-grown coffee not only tastes better, it secures a better livelihood for small coffee farmers, prevents soil erosion, and reverses deforestation, thus providing a winter home for endangered migratory birds.
Your commitment to healing the environment may be something as private as creating a personal reserve of biodiversity and local plant heritage by growing native grasses and wildflowers instead of commercial lawn mixes in your garden. (Native plants, adapted to the local climate, use less water and save precious resources for all of your neighbors.) Or you may feel moved to connect with a community organization, such as your local watershed association, to rally around issues like restoring clean drinking water.
But you don’t have to limit your environmental stewardship to your local surroundings. If you find a cause you care about, take action—volunteer to fight invasive weeds in Hawaii or help research the effects of climate change on the edge of the Arctic. Whether you engage in activism locally or internationally, the connections you make will inevitably reach around the world. For ideas on what to do—and inspiring stories about innovative projects—visit WorldChanging.
A few years ago I spent a week in rural Haiti. I was working for an international development organization, visiting grassroots community and environmental projects that we helped fund. Every morning I woke up a little early to walk and look for birds. In the degraded and deforested Haitian landscape, I found that the few birds I was able to find inevitably gravitated toward areas revitalized through successful environmental projects; they were taking advantage of the richer, moister soil and the abundance of life that come with organic farming and permaculture practices—holistic solutions that promote biodiversity and benefit the whole ecosystem.
What struck me was that many of the birds were migrants who split their time between Haiti and places like my home in Massachusetts. Haiti may seem distant, but if you look with fresh eyes you can see that all life is rooted in the same soil, breathes the same air, and is warmed by the same sun.
Art of Observation
One of the fastest ways to get connected with the natural world around you is through a nature journal. Keep track of where the sun rises on the horizon every day, when rain falls, or what birds you see in your yard for a year, and you will begin to get a sense of the real essence of a place. Besides taking notes, you can also try your hand at sketching.
“Drawing and observing are mutually reinforcing activities,” Clare Walker Leslie and Charles Roth write in Keeping a Nature Journal. They suggest starting with simple paper or a notebook you like (Moleskines and Clairefontaines are great). Experiment with a selection of felt-tip and rolling ball pens, or try old-fashioned and mechanical pencils. When you’re ready for color, start with Berol Prismacolor pencils or Derwent watercolor pencils.
Nature journaling doesn’t need to be a solitary act. My family keeps a shared notebook at my mother’s cottage. My mom makes poetic descriptions of light on the water, I make detailed lists of bird species, and my mother’s partner leaves cryptic notes about which of her secret spots has yielded the best berries. Visitors are asked to share a moment from their stay. Over time, with our many voices, we are telling the story of our shared place.
Jake Miller, author of more than a dozen books on nature, science, the outdoors, and community, is a lifelong beginner naturalist and gardener.