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Finding Ourselves in Nature

Holistic Parenting Magazine

I am sitting outside on my farm on a beautiful Indian summer day.

A playful breeze is coming from the west. Fallen leaves lie scattered at my feet, the breeze causing them to whisper to one another. A magpie calls from a leafless willow, a chickadee whistles from a thicket. This morning a whiff of skunk swirled on the breeze, I saw raccoon tracks in the dust on our road, and vole trails in our field.

I am surrounded by nature, and spend my time outside each day, connecting to the landscape as I teach programs focused on primitive skills and nature awareness. My entire adult life has been dedicated to intensifying my awareness and immersing myself in ancestral skills, but it has not always been this way.

I grew up in cities, big cities. My relationship to nature was time spent at the neighborhood park, or annual family camping trips. While I enjoyed these outings, I did not have the tools to develop a personal relationship to the earth. An avid reader, my imagination was filled with dreams of wilderness, reading books of adventure into nature. I did not find the deep connection I was yearning for with my limited access to the natural world. It took many years to reach the place I am today. It is not the result of a rare and magical friendship with an elder or mentor, or any extraordinary circumstance, but rather the culmination of dogged patience, curiosity, and belief that I could find a way. I now spend my days helping others find a connection to nature, and want to share some thoughts and practical ideas I have picked up along the way. Many of these have come out of youth programs I have been running for the past decade, and are wonderful for anyone working with children.

Develop a sense of wonder and slow down.

Much of my time in nature has been spent moving slowly and quietly. I take the time to explore the mysteries I encounter, getting down on my hands and knees to look at tracks in the mud, marveling at dew on a spider web, or slowly moving towards an unknown bird song to see its maker. When I am out with a group of children, we are rarely quiet; we quest across the landscape, captivated by our senses. We crawl through bushes on deer trails, sink to our knees in mud looking at raccoon tracks on a lake’s edge, and smell the bark of trees—sniffing out the caramel-vanilla smell of ponderosa pine and the rich spice of sandbar willow. Once we observed a deer standing on an island in a lake. He was peacefully grazing, but we wondered how he had found himself to be on that island. Crouching down quietly by a cottonwood, we watched silently for thirty minutes, observing him feed, scratch behind his antlers, and move around the island. Finally, our patience was rewarded. We witnessed him swim the length of the lake, then emerge glistening from the water, trotting away from us, wet coat gleaming in the afternoon light. The long vigil yielded an image that is burned into my memory, a story that inspires me to see more of the secret life of the animals that surround us.

Forget the destination.

Our modern approach to nature is frequently goal oriented. Allowing ourselves to wander gives space for adventures to unfold. Once, while exploring a new foraging location, I discovered a beautiful mushroom, growing in a beam of sunlight. I moved closer, trying to get a perfect angle for a photograph. As I eased around the mushroom, suddenly the ground exploded under my feet, and an immature snowshoe hare bounded a short distance into the cover of a thicket. This was the first snowshoe hare I had encountered, so the mushroom was quickly forgotten. I moved gently forward, to the point where I sensed my presence would be permitted and watched the hare in its hiding place. The brown summer coat blended perfectly with the duff on the forest floor, the long ears laid back, the improbably huge feet firm against the earth. It was the picture of relaxed readiness. Its liquid eyes and quivering nose assessing my every action, poised for flight, yet ready to remain put if I offered no threat. After a moment of watching each other, I moved on.

Holistic Parenting Magazine

Become an otter. Play.

The otter is one of the few mammals that plays throughout its entire adult life. Following its lead can prompt us to enjoy our time spent in nature in rich ways. Classic children’s games are perfectly suited to time in nature, and can be used as the base for endless variations with a little creativity. We play probably a dozen different games based on Hide-and-Seek. While hiding, my students come back and report watching spiders build a web, a bird constructing a nest, or a praying mantis stalking through the grasses. Once while hiding my wife had a baby woodrat curl up to sleep on her shoulder, nestling against the warmth of her neck. Mimicking animals is another great way to learn to see through their eyes. Stalking like a heron at the edge of a pond, perching in a tree like a squirrel or moving down a trail like a fox opens up our awareness, and helps us to find our own relationship to nature.

Learn to participate in nature with primitive skills.

Primitive skills are the skills of our ancestors, the everyday arts of life necessary for living close to the earth. These skills involve taking materials from the landscape and crafting them into beautiful and useful objects. Baskets, pottery, fibers from plants, and stone tools can inspire us to look deeper and develop our creativity. When I was sixteen, I watched a friend take the fibers from a milkweed plant, and twist them into a strong and beautiful two-ply cord. I thought he had just shown me a magic trick. These can be learned from numerous books, yet finding someone to pass them on in person is the best. Schools and individuals are present across the country, teaching these skills to children and adults. These skills are the common unifying thread. No matter what our ancestry is, if we look back far enough everyone was making fire by friction, using baskets as containers, and foraging for food.

Develop awareness.

This is what it is really about. Opening our eyes and ears to what nature is teaching us forges a personal and profound relationship. I know many of the birds and animals around my home as individuals. They have personal names, quirks, and calls. As I move about my day, seeing them feeding, quarreling, or singing lifts my mood, adds a bounce in my step, and brings light into my day. Many people are doing fantastic research around the biological response to time spent in the natural world. My work is largely experiential, but these studies reinforce the anecdotal results that I see with students every day. One thing I would recommend is to leave the cell phone behind. Giving ourselves the space and attention to devote to time in the natural world is a gift that can add meaning and balance to the rest of our day.

Some people may wonder whether any of this is possible, while living in urban or suburban environments. In a word, yes. I spent three years teaching tracking and survival skills in parks and abandoned lots in cities. I have tracked in Central Park in Manhattan, foraged for basketry materials in London, observed bird language in Los Angeles, and built shelters in parks in Houston. Nature is everywhere; it is simply a matter of finding it. Looking for the hidden places and the forgotten corners is the key. A muddy underpass or corner of a park is great for tracking. An abandoned lot or overgrown backyard is filled with edible plants, and birds sing from every corner. Finding a personal relationship to the natural world is a way of reclaiming our birthright. The raw reality of nature is calming, healing, and reminds us of our humanity. We can breathe, listen, and relate to the natural world, our home.


Karina Wetherbee
Photo: Karina Wetherbee


About the Author
Neal Ritter
Author: Neal RitterWebsite:
Neal Ritter is one of the co-founders of the Laughing Coyote Project, a non-profit dedicated to passing on the traditions of primitive skills and nature awareness. Even while not teaching, he continues to practice the skills of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. He lives on a farm just outside of Boulder, CO, with his wife and son.

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