Honing Your Senses for Outdoor Discovery


When exploring, our primal senses kick in to alert us to anything that moves.  It could be food or danger, but either way we need to know about it so we can choose fight or flight.  Beyond that it’s pretty easy to focus on some pursuit whether it be tracking an animal through the woods or searching out the most beautiful panoramic view.  What I have found amazing is that if I simply sit still and relax I can see and hear many things that I would normally have passed by without noticing.  It’s a simple way to begin honing our senses.

As a kid it starts with watching the clouds.  Before long we are seeing all sorts of animals and objects displayed in the clouds for our amusement.  As we get older we may start identifying the types of clouds and linking them to past and future weather.  That may be critical in a survival situation, but frankly the kids-eye-view seems better for our mental health.

Focusing Your Attention Through a Camera Lens

The Missouri Department of Conservation quotes photographer Bridget Jackson as saying, “I feel like people today, even those who would consider themselves somewhat ‘outdoorsy,’ don’t fully use their senses when outdoors.  I miss things, too, and this both breaks my heart and astounds me. Taking up photography and sitting in one spot waiting to get a perfect shot helps sharpen the senses. I like things that showcase the intricacies of science and math and God’s amazing wonder at the same time. Lichens are a prime example. Science tells us they shouldn’t exist because they are comprised from two kingdoms of life; but they do. They’re beautiful and varied and everywhere.”

lichenLichens are a great subject for photography. They don’t move in a perceptible timescale, they display many colors and patterns and they seem to morph as the light changes. Look a little closer and you can see how the patterns of the rock are filled with different types of lichens and how slightly changing aspects, as you move around the rock, also affect the types that appear.  The photo to the left displays a small part of a lichen-covered rock.  Click it to see more of the same rock.  It’s relatively easy to capture what you see in a photograph, but that’s not all there is.

Once you’ve looked at a lichen-covered rock in detail I challenge you not to touch it.  Upon failing that challenge you will experience the lichen in a new way with your sense of touch.  Textures that you can see become entirely new when you feel them.  It’s not just the lichen either – it’s the rock itself.

Getting Away from Your Eyes

Blind people are famed for their ability to experience the world with their other senses much more deeply than a sighted person.  When you are done seeing and touching, sit back and close your eyes.  Slowly your other senses become more acute.  Maybe you’ll pick up the sweet odor of a nearby flower or even the stench of a decaying carcass somewhere down the trail.  Maybe you’ll feel the sun on your body hinting at the time of day and the direction you are facing.

Shift your focus to your ears.  You may hear the wind through the trees or the sounds of birds.  It’s not necessary to know the name of the bird you hear any more than it is necessary to know the names of the types of clouds you see.  It’s enough to recognize that the birds are there and living their lives in nature.  Maybe they are speaking to you.  What are they saying?

Tasting Your Environment

Edible Plant BookTasting is a little trickier.  There are things in nature that you don’t want to taste – that carcass I mentioned comes to mind.  In many places you don’t want to taste the water either, unless you properly filter it first.  You can taste a lot of other things like tree bark, sap, grass, rocks and various herbs and plants as long as you understand that tasting isn’t eating.  Still, when it comes to tasting it’s best to know what you can safely eat.  A good book like Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide to Over 200 Natural Foods will help you identify plants that are not only safe to taste, but safe and nourishing to eat.


Maria Odahowski writing in The Way of the Hammock: Designing Calm for a Busy Life says “Moving the body can shift the mind.  Einstein’s daily stroll cleared his mind and developed his senses as he enjoyed savoring the time to amble.  Let yourself see the world. Colors, shapes and sounds of the landscape can all be points of reflection for our enjoyment.  Walk with awareness of nature, people and place.  Gaze upward.”  Life isn’t always about getting somewhere or accomplishing something.  Sometimes it should just be about being.


Exploring the Five Senses Through Nature (kindergarten lesson plan)

Survival Guide: Which Plants to Eat in the Wilderness (infographic)

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