Naturalist

A Few Thoughts on Appreciating Nature

I have always loved being outdoors. My parents were not particularly religious people, but most every day of my childhood I took a “nature walk” with my mother. There was a semi-spiritual/meditative aspect to this daily stroll. I think that old practice stuck with me, forever marrying the concept of the outdoors with bigger ideas about purpose and life. I grew up in a small, semi-rural town in Ohio among sassafras and maple, dogwood and oak. The woods were where I went to play, to think, and to discover. The shade under the trees was a little bit mysterious, a little big scary, a little bit magic. I spent years poking around in rotten logs and peering beneath rocks and still I would encounter plants and animals that I had never seen before. My neighborhood friends would just drop by the woods I haunted and could reliably find me sitting next to a campfire on weekend evenings or sitting with a book high in a tree.

You get the picture. I was a very outdoorsy kid.

Somehow, there came a time in my life during which I lost touch with my love of nature. Grad school. Financial worries. Family concerns. These things piled up until the woods became an old friend, someone of whom I thought fondly, but was no longer an active player in my life. I think this is a pretty common story. Lots of us have a closer relationship with nature when we are children, when the world is new to us and we have a seemingly infinite supply of time and curiosity. We grow. We change. We let the natural world become old news.

Now, if you’re reading this, it’s probably pretty obvious to you that my love of nature is still alive and well, but that love was something I purposely rekindled. It wasn’t hard. I think I have always felt most at home among the trees. But, rediscovering my love of nature as an adult did require some conscious effort. Primarily, it was a matter of curiosity and complacency. I fell in love with nature again when I started to take an active interest in what I was seeing, an adult approach to the old mysteries.

It’s one thing to go for a hike and simply bathe in the beauty of the landscape. (There’s nothing wrong with that.) It’s something else to realize that you don’t know the names of the trees you’re passing and to actively pursue that knowledge. This is how I reinvigorated my love of the wilds. I stopped letting myself off the hook. I stopped catching a glimpse of a bird I didn’t recognize and simply shrugging and accepting my own ignorance. I started to invest myself in understanding what I was seeing. I started tracking down the mystery of what kind of salamander I saw beneath the log, what kind of fish I saw jumping out of the lake, what sort of animal left that footprint in the soft mud. When I began caring enough to hunt down the answers to such questions, I found my old excitement about leaving the pavement and setting off into the wild. That old excitement was alive and well, just waiting for me to take an earnest interest.

So, my advice is this: If you feel your relationship with nature becoming stale, focus on deepening your understanding. Identify the things you don’t know and then work to find the answers. Step outside the role of passive observer of the countryside and take an active approach to understanding what you’re seeing. Understanding is the first step to loving.