My morning walks now occur in partial darkness. The sun rises behind the trees as I make my way through the neighborhood. The merchants are already out, driving to pick up other crew members. Students reluctantly stand at bus stops, backpacks packed and hands in pockets when their phones are not in hand.
Nature has slowed down a lot these days, but it’s quietly busy. A red-bellied woodpecker sings in the distance as a gray squirrel scuttles down the path with leaves in its mouth. You’ll add the leaves to a nest in a tree hollow to create a cozy spot for cold, stormy winter days.
Gray squirrels make leafy dreys, or summer nests, in tree branches as cooler resting places, but winter calls for better insulation and protection. Red squirrels add to their pinecone caches in the woods all fall and in some areas these piles of food can reach four or five feet high. Most, however, are only a foot tall. Squirrels may be protective of their individual mounds, but if you look you’ll find that most of these are actually community-shared spaces. More than one squirrel will add to the pile and more than one will remove a pineapple when hungry.
Shorebirds are still on the scene on area beaches, and a recent foray into Eastham found dozens of egrets and herons feeding in the marsh. In the distance were thousands of terns, and over the nearby fields huge flocks of swallows swooped down and fed on insects in the air.
To truly observe nature, I find it best to go alone or with a like-minded friend or family member. Too many people want to walk and talk. I have nothing against walking or talking, but if I’m looking for birds, bugs, snakes, and plants, I prefer slow and quiet. I want to be able to hear the wind through the trees, the waves on the shore, the chipmunks scolding each other, and the frogs splashing in the water from the side of the swampy creek. I hustle and talk a lot in the rest of my life.
One year I joined a hiking club thinking it would be a great way to see new places and lots of nature. It was, in theory, but I fell so far behind the group that I never went again. They moved too fast for my liking. I stopped to look at a box turtle, play with some seed pods that don’t touch me, blow some milkweed fluff into the air, and watch bluebirds. His goal seemed to be the opposite, to cover as much ground as quickly as possible. I’m pretty sure they never missed me.
Don’t get me wrong, exercise is great and I’m sure hikers see the obvious things, even at their brisk pace, or at least some of them do. Me? I like quiet things, slow things, the caterpillar hiding in the leaves and the spiders doing a mating dance on the trunk. If you’ve never seen hundreds of leggy daddies doing their mating dance in the morning light, you’ve missed an amazing sight, by the way. If I hadn’t stopped to see a slug eating a mushroom, I wouldn’t have seen it.
Speaking of mushrooms, this is your moment. With the rain we just had last week, fungus is already growing everywhere. I can identify a few and have attended many walks and classes, but there are many more types of mushrooms than I can fit into my limited remaining brain space. Maybe mine is too full of birds, I don’t know, but mushroom IDs fall out of my head almost as fast as I put them in there. However, I enjoy their colors and shapes, and draw many of them to look at when I get home.
Stopping to draw or take notes is a lovely way to slow down and enjoy connecting with nature. I often stop to look at one thing and end up seeing many other things as well. I once sat down on a log to draw an interesting patch of lichen and turned to find a large toad sitting next to me. I never saw it before I sat down and I was probably lucky I didn’t sit on it. The toad was not impressed with my presence, so we sat there like two old friends while I drew, and I contemplated whatever it is that toads contemplate.
We can learn a lesson from the great toads and frogs and other animals that just sit and wait. Much of nature rushes through parts of its cycles. Young animals and plants have much to do to grow and learn, and parent birds and mammals have much to teach and gather food. There is burrow and nest building, migration, hunting, foraging, and a safe place to rest, but most of the time we can find much of nature simply resting. Rest has an important purpose, of course. Rest is when we rejuvenate, replenish, or conserve our energy supply. Rest can actually be one of the most important things we do every day. Most of us should be doing more. We should be more like plants and birds.
Getting out in nature helps us slow down. It also helps us connect with our immediate environment. Our breathing and heartbeat slow down, and we become calmer, happier, more sane.
Many of us have become disconnected from nature. We work indoors, spend a lot of time awake in front of screens or in cars. Leave. Take a few deep breaths. Look at the sky, the trees, the ocean, the pond, the weeds that grow in the cracks in the sidewalks. Connect to the moment and feel the breeze, the sunlight, the humidity of the sea. The world will not end if we slow down. In fact, it could start to recover. We also.