A New Way of Seeing:
Nature Awareness at Under The Canopy
“Waking up one's nature awareness is a process of sharpening all of our senses to perceive more of what's going on around us. It means discovering a sense of individual belonging in a story that's as big as Earth itself. “–David Santillo
It is easy to look around an urban green space and just see trees, park bench, breeze in the leaves, and a place for your footfalls to land. Most people wonder through parks without really seeing all that is happening before them. Now imagine the same green space from a bird’s eye view perched on the edge of a tree limb taking it all in from above. What humans feel they need from these green spaces is vastly different from what a bird needs. The bird sees a space to get food, to shelter her potential young and hide from the constant menace of predators. She is looking for all of her survival needs to be met in just a slim patch of grass and a tree.
Now imagine yourself in that same urban green space from the perspective of an ant. Each blade of grass becomes the size of a tree, your anthill home, a mountain you transverse each day. This is the beginning of nature awareness. I used to do this all the time as a child. At some point in my hurried adult life I forgot how to shift my perspective and walk in other animals' feet. It’s so easy to go through life in a haze of what to do next and get stuck forever exuding energy out of your eyeballs and going through the steps of life without realizing there are other ways to exist in the world. When we stop and take the time to connect with a natural environment, we tune into a much bigger picture. Once you tune in, it is hard to not tune out again.
At Under The Canopy, my nature program that gets kids and adults outside learning about and loving the nature that surrounds us daily, we learn to be still while outside. In after school and homeschool classes we do a practice called “sit spot” where you choose a quiet spot to sit still, open your senses, and contemplate the world around you. This is not a sleepy, meditative time; it is a time of focused energy, taking in the world around you with your ears, eyes and nose. You are creating a map in your head of the space you inhabit daily. You may try on a new perspective by placing your cheek in the grass and looking at the earth from a beetle’s perspective, or you might try to see from a cat’s eye view, stalking in a corner of the yard and tracking the birds in the sky.
We use a process called “animal forms” to try and move and think like animals through a landscape. One example of this is using our ears to hear like a deer. When you try and hear like a deer you open your hearing to all the subtle sounds you miss when your ears lay flat against your head. If you put your hands behind your ears and stick them out a little, suddenly ambient sounds our amplified and you can hear the scratching of beetle as it climbs the bark of a tree, or the tiny buzzing sound of hummingbird’s wings.
Sitting still and observing the natural world is not a common practice in our American culture, though it is a wonderful way to de-stress and see the bigger picture. Using sit spot as a weekly practice grounds you to the earth and helps you gain perspective outside yourself and your daily routine. When I do sit spot with young people, I keep it simple with four to eight minutes of sitting. I set a timer, the children pick a spot that is a little hidden and not near anyone. At the end of the time we all get together and write in nature journal pages about what we saw, heard, and felt.
I taught a camp this summer, “Coyote Backyard Nature Camp,” that was like my school year classes but squeezed into one week. I gained a new appreciation for sit spot watching as the group of children between the ages of three to eight years old use the daily practice of sitting. The three year olds could barely sit for more then a minute without moving or trying to engage with someone, but by the age of four, most of them were able to sit the entire five minutes and try to draw something they observed. The eight year olds may have found it a little boring in sit spot, but when it came time to nature journal they spent the longest time documenting the details of their spot. It renewed my personal sit spot practice to see the excitement that overcame these children when they made a new nature discovery or watched as they tried to get the lines just right as they drew a picture of a bird of prey.
This practice of observing and documenting sets up a rhythm of exploration in the child’s daily round that is a practice that is available to them when ever they need it. Sometimes sit spot is the perfect hard re-set to a particularly frustrating experience. It can also be used on a family trip when you are enjoying a new place and want to get a better feel for the new nature that is in that eco-region. Sit spot gives you the space to enjoy it.
Santillo, David (2016). “Awaken Your Nature Awareness” http://www.spiritofchange.org
Margaritte Arthrell-Knezek is a naturalist, writer and community educator committed to teaching the skills of sustainability and instructing children and adults on how to connect with the natural world that surrounds them daily. Arthrell-Knezek hails from New Haven, Connecticut where she began her work in the arts and environmental activism in 1997. She graduated from The Evergreen State College In Olympia WA, 2010, with a bachelor’s degree in multi-media art and sustainability studies. She has traveled the world and landed in Tulsa, OK where she is the Executive Director and Lead Educator of Under The Canopy LLC. She is a parent to two awesome children and wife to Mykey Arthrell-Knezek. You can learn more about the programs she teaches at www.underthecanopy.org She also keeps a personal blog about parenting in all its real and messy forms email@example.com