We joke a lot about students on our long-term courses needing a few weeks to “reacclimate” to modern life. After a month or more living at the field school, in a low infrastructure system, this is often true. It takes a little while to adjust, not only to modern conveniences, but students have also expressed that they miss the daily interactions with the natural world that are common during an intensive wilderness living program but seem harder to find once students leave.
I spend my winters in Vermont running programming at a ski mountain, and experience the same thing once I get settled into my home here. I find that I have to go out of my way to have those experiences that are almost taken for granted during the rest of my year. However, it doesn’t take much to create moments like that. Carving out time in my days to simply go for a walk, or any other common outdoor activity can scratch that itch once the appreciation of the natural world is ingrained in you. One of my favorite exercises, no matter where I am, is picking one spot outside and sitting for a set period of time every day. You start to get to know the plants and animals that inhabit that space, and they start to get used to you as well. Through simply observing over a period of days and weeks, you start to interact with the natural world in a way that lets you see into the daily comings and goings of the spot you’ve chosen.
Last year, I chose a spot by one of the bird feeders on the property here in Vermont, and not only did watching the birds create questions in my mind that led to a greater understanding of how birds of different species create a micro-ecosystem in one tree, but it created what I’d call personal relationships with some of the birds that showed up every day. Of all of those, my favorite has been a chickadee with a broken or otherwise permanently injured right leg. I watched it get creative with how it positioned itself on a branch in order to split a sunflower seed and wait patiently for other birds to finish at the feeder so it could find a spot that was easiest for it to perch on. Eventually, I started taking a little extra seed out with me, and after a few days, the chickadee was comfortable eating right from my hand.
When I described this as a personal relationship, it wasn’t just a nice way of describing the situation. When I arrived here a few weeks ago I kept an eye out for that particular bird, and when I saw it, immediately grabbed some seed and walked outside. Less than five minutes later I took the picture at the top of this page. Birds and other wildlife are a lot cleverer than we sometimes give them credit for, and they have individual personalities that you only get to know by spending time with them. I don’t know that the bird remembered me specifically, but it certainly remembered that seed from an open hand was a good thing.
So even if you’re not on a course, or out in the bush, I encourage you to take some time each day to participate in the natural world around you. The experiences are there waiting, I guarantee it.