Sensational Senses

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By Joy Clough, Cook County Master Naturalist, July 2020

We think we have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste. But there are more: imagination, curiosity, memory, insight, play, and emotions that range from fear to surprise to delight. Engaging our outer and inner senses fosters our health, and nature is just waiting to help us become more alive. 

Nature? Forest preserves, botanic gardens, wild prairies – sure. But nature is also the flowers on your porch.  The birds on your block. The trees in the park. The plants in the empty lot. The insects in your garden. Try befriending any of these with your inner and/or outer senses and see how they refresh you.  Ready?

Choose a nature spot like any of those mentioned or another of your choosing. Settle yourself comfortably. Close your eyes and breathe deeply 3-5 times, paying attention to the air going in/coming out of your body. Then choose one of the invitations below and enjoy 5-10 minutes of sensory refreshment.

Look, Then See: Look at your nature scene.  Take it all in with your eyes – colors, shapes, textures, sizes, movements. Blink a couple times and look again.  See!  See details, tiny things, gaps/open space, changes as you watch, things unnoticed before.  How does what you see stir your imagination or memory or curiosity or feelings? Sit back, breathe, keep looking, seeing more, coming alive, glad you have eyes. 

Hear, Then Listen:  Hear the sounds in and around your nature scene. Narrow your hearing to nature-made sounds coming from grasses, trees, birds, insects, air, water, clouds, earth.  Listen! Listen for sounds from all these sources. Let the sounds wash over you, discovering them as pleasant, grating, strange, mysterious, rhythmic, relaxing, whispering, loud. Do the sounds stir feelings? Does your listening carry you to other places – real or imaginative or remembered? Bask in the sounds; gather them in; give thanks for ears.

Touch, Then Feel: Touch: Become aware of some of the things touching you in this moment – air/wind, ground/chair, clothes/glasses, thoughts/worries.  Reach out to gently touch parts of your nature scene – leaves, flowers, stones, insects, soil, whatever.  Pick up some of those things and brush them across your cheek or the sole of a foot. Feel!  Notice what – in your hands or against your forehead – feels rough/ smooth, heavy/light, warm/cold, dry/wet, soft/hard, pleasant/unpleasant. Are you experiencing surprise, alarm, delight, something else?  Think of something at home that might give you a similar feeling to awaken or refresh you.  Marvel at the gift of skin.

Ask, Then Imagine:  Ask yourself why you chose this nature scene as one that might refresh you.  Ask the scene itself  what it wants to share with you. Look, listen, touch, question: Why is the leaf shaped like this? What could that bird’s song possibly be saying? How does that flower see the world? Do ants look at grasses like you look at trees? Let questions rise in you like bubbles in champagne. Imagine! Let your imagination answer such questions, and then engage you in a conversation: What do you want to tell your little patch of nature?  What does it want to tell you? If imagination leads to laughter or memory or insight, be glad of such powers within you.

Rest, Then Remember:  Relax in the company of your nature scene. Breathe deeply, aware that plants give us the oxygen we need and we offer them the carbon dioxide they crave. Breathe. Let external sounds slide away and listen for the quiet in nature, in you. Breathe. Remember! Call to mind some early or special times in nature.  Choose one and recall details of place, season, wildlife, scenery, activity; how you felt; what made it special; why you still remember it.  Breathe. How does it feel to remember?  To return in imagination to a scene that you savor? Let the experience be special once again. Breathe.  Ask if it has something new to offer you.  Wait. Imagine. Breathe. Be at ease. When it feels right, bless the experience, past and present.  Memory itself is a gift to savor.