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Fill Your Senses, Light Up Your Life
Reader's Digest (August 1984)
(Condensed from Sports Afield, April 1984)
By Tom Brown Jr.

Give yourself a test. Pause for a moment and answer these simple questions: What type of cloud was in the sky the last time you were out? Which way was the wind blowing? How many kinds of wildflowers can be seen from your front door? How many different birds have you heard today? Where is the nearest rabbit, owl, deer, coyote or fox? If your awareness is as sharp as it could be, you'll have no trouble answering these questions.

But I remember taking one of the wilderness classes I teach out for a walk. We passed a dozen deer, two foxes, one cottontail, six groundhogs, a myriad of birds, insects and other creatures. Nobody noticed even one of them. When I went through the list, the students were angry at themselves: how could they have missed so much?

Relearning the art of seeing the world around us is quite simple, although it takes practice and requires breaking some bad habits. And relearn is the correct word. Most of us observed much more as children than we do as adults.

A child's day is filled with fascination, newness and wonder. The desire to explore, to have an adventure, gave us all a natural awareness. But distinctions that were sharp to us as children become blurred; we are numb to new stimulation, new ideas. We don't see a loaf or bread as coming from a wheat field blown by the wind. The apples we buy seem to come from a supermarket rather than from a tree. I have seen thousands of robins in my lifetime. You probably have too. But was the last robin you saw as fascinating, as wonderful, as alive as the first one that caught your attention as a child?

The first step in awakening senses is to rediscover that wonder­ing child in ourselves -- and to do so we need to stop anticipating what we are going to see and feel before it occurs. This blocks awareness.

One chilly night when I was hiking in the Rocky Mountains with a group of students, I mentioned that we were going to cross a mountain stream, and the students began grumbling about how cold it would be. We reached the stream, and they reluctantly plodded ahead. They were almost knee deep when they realized I had taken them into a hot spring. Later they all confessed they'd felt cold water at first.

Another block to awareness is the obsession many of us have with naming or labeling things. I've seen bird watchers who spot a bird, immediately look it up in field guides, see that it is, say, a "ruby ­crowned kinglet” and check it off. They no longer pay attention to the bird and never learn what it was doing.

The pressures of "time” and "destination" are further blocks to awareness. I can't count the num­ber of hikers I've encountered who were headed to a distant camp­ground with just enough time to get there before dark. It seldom seems to occur to them to allow time to wander a bit, to take a moment to see what's around them.

Most of us have visually stuffed our surroundings into niches. The result is automatic vision, which strangles awareness and limits us to seeing only a fraction of what there is to be seen. To test your family's automatic vision, place an unfamil­iar object in one part of the living room where your family normally doesn't look -- between a couch and a bookcase, perhaps. Even though the object is in plain view, you can bet nobody will notice it. For full awareness we must rebel against what our subconscious tells us is the “normal" way to see what is before us.

Once l was walking along a trail abbot 20 feet behind Stalking Wolf, my Apache friend and childhood mentor. As we passed under a huge pine tree, Stalking Wolf turned around and said, "Don't disturb it.” Baffled, I looked everywhere. Was there a deer, a fox, or something else that had eluded me? Finally I peered into the heights of the tree and saw it -- a beautiful great ­horned owl not ten feet from us.

I was amazed that Stalking Wolf had known it was there without looking up. When I asked him how, he replied, "Go ask the mice." By looking down he'd seen tracks of mice that had scurried away from their dreaded predator, the owl.

Nature seems to unfold to people who watch and wait. One night, when I couldn't sleep, I settled close to an old oak by the Appalachian Trail and waited until the first light of dawn. Birds echoed back and forth, taking no notice of me -- one even alighted on my knee. Then came the night shift home from work, and the day shift began to stir. A raccoon climbed the oak to his hole to sleep away the day. Chipmunks raced around me and over my legs. The first spear of light to come over the horizon fell on the back of a beautiful red fox, its fur turned into a ball of red-­orange fire.

When I encountered some hik­ers, I asked them what they’d seen. "Oh, a few birds," they said. They seemed bent on their destinations.

Several years ago I had an argu­ment with a friend about the words "nature awareness." Frustrated be­cause I couldn't explain what they meant to me, I took a long walk. A northeaster was brewing as I walked out to the end of a rock jetty. The rain began to fall hard. As the waves crashed around me, I had an awareness of nature so complete that my senses screamed. The pounding waves vibrated my very bones.. Tasting the salt spray, my flesh welcoming the hard wind, I felt myself growing stronger with every surge of the tide.

Next time you take a walk, no matter where it is, open up and dive in. Take in all the sights, sounds and sensations. Wander in this frame of mind and you will open a new dimension to your life.

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