Wild About Noticing Nature

One of the things I’ve been doing over the past few months is spending more time outside exploring the local parks. I’m very lucky that my city is bisected by a river and that most of the land in the river valley has been designated as parkland. Armed with Merlin and iNaturalist, I’ve been making an effort to get outside and explore, much the same way I did when I was a kid. 

Rain clouds fill the sky above a prairie landscape. In the foreground, deep valleys known as coulees cut through the flat landscape.
Coulees near the Oldman River are the perfect place for aimless wandering. Photo by TWC.

As adults, it often feels like we’re discouraged from random explorations of natural spaces. Walks must have purpose—for exercise, to complete a route, to see a friend. None of which are bad things, but in a busy world, aimless wandering is considered a luxury. As a kid, one of my favourite activities was to explore the local woods and streams by myself. I would follow animal trails, see what flowers were blooming, look for deer tracks, and find where the robins had built their nest. As an adult, I simply haven’t made time for this type of experience. Until this year. 

Because I’m a person who likes their aimless wandering to have some structure, I gave myself some rules before I set out. First, I gave myself permission to stop whenever I want for any reason. If I see a new flower, if the hill is too steep, if I hear a bird—I can stop. Second, there’s no end goal. If I want to go to the end of the trail, great. If not, I can turn around at any time. Third, and probably most importantly, I want to notice things.

A small brown rabbit sits on the edge of a path.
This Mountain Cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii) was doing its best to pretend I didn’t notice it. Photo by TWC.

What does it mean to ‘notice’ something? As words go, ‘notice’ feels squishy and overused, almost a placeholder for an action that we take for granted. The OED defines ‘notice’ as to observe, to become aware of—which suggests an active process that goes beyond passively being in nature. And, in fact, the research into noticing nature supports this. 

Studies out of the UK suggest that actively noticing nature through simple activities such as smelling wildflowers, watching a sunrise, or photographing wildlife increase people’s connectedness to nature at a level that goes beyond merely spending time in nature. While being outside in nature has benefits for our mental health, the act of noticing creates connectedness that enhances those benefits even further. 

The research also reveals that the amount of time spent in nature isn’t as important as the specific moments of noticing the world around us. It’s these experiences that create that sense of connectivity between ourselves and the natural world. Best of all, that connection to nature isn’t only valuable for its own sake; it creates feelings of happiness and well-being. Unfortunately, the research also found that many people are not engaging in even the simplest moments of connectedness. 62% of people rarely listened to birds while 80% rarely smelled wildflowers. 

A bright orange bettle perches on top of a purple flower.
Blister Beetle (Nemognatha lutea) on Wavy-leaved Thistle (Cirsium undulatum). Noticing one thing can lead to another.
Photo by TWC.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who notice nature are also willing to take action to protect it. If smelling wildflowers or watching clouds creates greater connections to nature, it makes sense that people who feel that sense of connectedness would also want to do things in their own lives to protect nature. For those of us who work to create connections between people and nature through environmental education and experiences, it may be worth considering if we’ve been over-complicating our approach. Perhaps the simpler strategy has been best all along.  

I’m sure that someone who is reading this might be protesting against the idea that I’m not leaving my phone at home when I’m out trying to notice and connect. Quite the opposite, in fact. Apps like MerliniNaturalist, my favourite plant ID app, and my camera are an integral part of my experience. I can say confidently that no app has driven me to go outside and explore as thoroughly as Merlin has. I’m not the first person to compare Merlin to real-life Pokemon Go, but truly hearing bird songs for the first time and being able to “collect” different species has been transformative in igniting my desire to be outside. 

While some birders may turn their noses up and warn about false positives (which do happen), for me Merlin provides a way to connect with nature that I never expected. Again, the research bears this out. Using technology as a tool expands our connection to nature. Rather than making us feel disconnected, apps such as Merlin or our phone cameras help us document nature, making us more, rather than less, present in our relationship with the natural world.

An inconspicuous yellow flower grounds on a sandy trail.
Border Goldthread (Thelesperma subnudum). Noticing a rare species is always a thrill. Photo by TWC.

Noticing nature is about the moments and those are what I remember from being outside this year—the moment of joy at finding the first crocus of the spring, the excitement of discovering a rare species in a new location, the wonder at hearing a new-to-me bird song and having Merlin teach me it was a Baltimore Oriole—these are all experiences where I felt fully connected to the natural world. 

It’s easy to be outside without actively noticing nature, but it turns out that stopping to smell the flowers might be the path to happiness.

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