December 25, 2011

Gratitude for a Wonderful New Year

Here is a wonderful video a dear friend of mine sent me.  It is a great way to start a new day--not to mention a wonderful way to start the new year. Watch it full screen if you can.

Much love to all of my readers, friends, and family.

December 13, 2011

Curiosity For Curiosity’s Sake…

I have long been curious to learn. My greatest passion is in trying to figure things out. Simply put, I love solving puzzles. Not so much crossword and jigsaw puzzles, although they provide a good analogy. One approach to learning is to understand the pieces so that you can understand the whole. The question is, is my passion for learning good for its own sake? Or is the value of learning only evident in the way that the knowledge is used? Did curiosity really kill the cat? Is there more to it?

I believe curiosity is crucial for our well-being. Let me explain. Curiosity and the need to learn has been with us for the vast majority of our existence. It has been a necessary “tool” for our survival. Think before there was anything like a Google search, or before writing. The only means of accumulating knowledge was by passing it via word of mouth or by learning it for ourselves. There was an obvious evolutionary advantage to learn where edible plants could be found, where the deer are, or where the predator is. Written history goes back only about 5,000 years, but that is a short time considering our approximately 50,000 year existence as humans in our modern form (conservative estimate). Thus my argument is that we are evolutionarily adapted to learning for ourselves and have only recently acclimated to an abundance of knowledge.

I bring this together with my own experiences to extrapolate that our mental, physical, and dare I say spiritual health would greatly benefit from stirring up those “curiosity” genes through experiential learning. Lower down I describe a few activities that I have done with great success.

I found that tapping into this awareness of the world around me has made me a much happier person. No, I haven’t made any huge discoveries to benefit humanity (yet :-) ), but I have discovered that a red fox lives near my house. To me, seeing the fox made me really content in that moment, but also deeply grateful with a fulfilled heart—as if I had just taken a good dose of vitamins for the soul. To those that have never seen an animal in the wild (besides common squirrels, chipmunks, etc.) it is an experience that I can’t explain in words.

Our recent acclimation to knowledge-at-our-fingertips (literally… think Google) has a few side effects. One of them is what Richard Louv coined “nature-deficit disorder.” The symptoms of this disorder include behavioral and physical problems as described in the simple article Parents: 10 Reasons Kids Need Fresh Air by Kevin Coyle. But this is not limited to children. Look at yourself and look at the people around you. So many of us are just walking zombies. We go through a blind whirl each day, doing one thing only so that we can get to the next. Going to work only so that we can go on vacation. Living so that we may one day be able to die happy. But why not be happy and live fully now?

Learning about the wilderness through my own observation and exploration has been a key to helping me feel fully alive and present. I am not a hermit in some cabin miles from “society.” I am in front of my computer, building electrical circuits (yes indeed), and reading about the great inventions of Nikola Tesla. Technology is awesome, but we shouldn’t forget how we humans have lived for the vast majority of our existence. I realized that those vitamins I described above are actually essential for our well-being.

Here are some things you can do:

Learn the basics about your knowledge of place—where you live. Keep in mind that answers to these questions used to be common knowledge even for children. It’s like asking a city kid what the McDonalds "M" means. These are just some questions to get you started, but if you want to see a more comprehensive set, see Jon Young’s Tourist Test, part of his Kamana Naturalist Training Program. As you try some of what I suggest below, use resources such as field guides and the internet to help you out along the way. Because the internet (and even books) can have faulty information, it is imperative to use multiple guides and to talk to knowledgeable people for confirming what you learn—especially if it involves edible or medicinal plants.

  • First it’s always good to form a basic awareness of the natural hazards where you live. Poison Ivy? Stinging insects? Disease carrying ticks? Venomous snakes? What are the most poisonous plants in your area? How would you identify these? This is not meant to scare you away from the woods. Once you are aware of the common hazards, you can quickly learn how to avoid them so that you can enjoy the wilderness without worrying. It’s kind of like saying “what’s the worst that can happen?” to help you realize that there isn’t as much to worry about as you might have thought. My questions here are definitely not exhaustive though.
  • What can you use to help with some of these hazards? For example, what local plants help with bee stings or poison ivy rashes? How do you prevent yourself from getting a tick disease?
  • What three local plant species are easy to identify, abundant, and healthy to include in your diet? Only ever ingest something wild when you are 150% sure you know what it is. There are several edible species that have poisonous look-alikes, so be SURE you are aware of these hazards. There are way fewer poisonous species than edible ones (at least in New England), but it only takes one to get you pretty sick. I only make it sound really scary so that you don't do something silly and then blame me for it. Just use common sense and a lot of resources. You'll be fine.
  • What do the tracks of the five most common mammal species in your area look like?
  • What are the songs of the ten most common bird species in your area?
  • Track some mysteries: Find an animal trail and follow it. Follow the growth of a seedling. Where did the seed come from? What did the land around your house look like 20 years ago? 100? 200? (see Tom Wessel’s Reading the Forested Landscape).

Go to a sit-spot. Find a place not to far from your house, where you can sit quietly and observe nature. If you live in a city, go to a rooftop, or in a park. Try to find a place that is away from other people, but if you can’t, then try not to interact with anyone. Just sit quietly and observe. Find a place not too far from home so that it is easier to go regularly. Although it is good to stick with one spot, find a new place when you are away from home. I’ve found that after quieting your mind and body, the natural flow resumes in about 15 minutes (obviously depending on where you are and how quite you can be). This is how I saw the red fox, and how many natural mysteries have opened up. Going for at least 30 minutes every day for the last year and a half has been by far one of the best ways I have connected to my curiosity for the natural world. Try out the 30 day sit-spot challenge. Here is another link.

Here is a video that nicely summarizes the sit-spot experience.

Leave all your worries at home because while you are at your sitspot nothing else really matters. My sitspot has helped realize that I am just a spec in the history of the universe, giving me a little humor about life.

For curiosity’s sake, and for your well-being, go outside and learn a bit about the natural world where you live. Not too long ago your species had a first hand reliance on it. Tap into your genes. Live fully and stop being a zombie of a person. You’ve got one life, why not live it up?