SEPTEMBER 2005 / Links updated 2010 GETTING IN TOUCH
Like most Americans, I live my life outside of nature. It's not that I never get outdoors. I take one or two walks a day through neighborhood gardens and parks. But beautiful as many of these places are, they aren't nature. They are human environments with nature in them -- a strange inversion of the natural order.
Though I live in the city, it would be much the same if I lived in the suburbs, where the greenery, though more profuse, is still plotted lot by lot. There, too, the plants and animals are present by human design -- or on human sufferance. In no sense do they own the place.
Don't get me wrong -- I love gardens, and only wish I had one of my own. But the experience of nature in a garden is an attenuated one -- nothing like the sensation that comes from immersion in a true natural environment where plants sprout all by themselves, animals run wild and people are the visitors.
The difference, when I'm back in nature, is so absolute, it always comes as a great shock, like a sudden plunge into cold water. In the brief moment it takes to acclimate myself, I wonder anew that I could possibly have forgotten how incredible real nature is.
This summer, on a short vacation in California with my daughter, I got to wonder all over again. It was hardly a wilderness trip, just a chance to venture out into the semi-wild from our comfortable bed-and-breakfast. The first day, we trekked across dunes in Año Nuevo State Reserve to see plump elephant seals lazing on the beach. The next, we kayaked up the Elkhorn Slough, an estuarine river, amid bobbing otters and harbor seals and scores of brown pelicans. The last day, we whiled away a charmed afternoon in the hush of an ancient redwood forest.
What a tonic! If you haven't taken your own plunge recently, I highly recommend you do.
There's no need to go far. A trip to Alaska might be fun, but there is surely a beautiful patch of nature in easy driving distance from your home. Even a single day trip will be restorative. Here are some suggestions for how to make it wonderful:
Pick a destination that doesn't get many visitors, even if it means going to a less extraordinary place. There's no nature in a crowd.
Get information beforehand about the plants and animals you can expect to see at the time of year you're going.
Bring binoculars -- or a camera with a telephoto lens for wildlife viewing. Take a magnifying glass as well for close inspection of plants and bugs.
To maximize chances of viewing wildlife, go in the morning or early evening.
Avoid using scented soaps and cosmetics beforehand. They may attract pesky insects and drive away other animals. Besides, they make it hard to smell what's around you.
Walk quietly and keep talking to a minimum.
If you see something interesting, bring your binoculars up to your eyes without moving your head, so you can find the thing you spotted in the lens.
Pause often to look and listen. When you find a comfortable spot, sit down for a spell. If you keep still for a little while, animals may come out into the open where you can see them.
And, of course, always remember that you're the guest and behave accordingly. This means:
Stay on the paths.
Observe animals only from a distance.
Never feed them.
Don't take any specimens, living or otherwise. Leave even the rocks as you find them.
Take your trash out with you.
But enough tips and warnings. It doesn't take special training to get in touch with nature, and you can do it any day of the week. My guess is that you'll be thoroughly surprised. For as Thoreau says, "Let a man have thought what he will of Nature in the house, she will still be novel outdoors."
When you saunter out, bring a "spirit of undying adventure," suggests Thoreau in his essay, "Walking." "If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk."
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), wherealong with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Petershe tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.
Resting elephant seal. This was one of several elephant seals we found sleeping on the beach. They were undergoing their catastrophic molt -- a month-long process in which they replace all their fur. During this period, they go without food, as they can't enter the water to hunt without the protection of their coats.
Brown pelicans on the wing. We saw many pelicans at eye-level from our kayak as they cruised over the water. The amazing pouches on their bills, which we got to see up-close, hold three gallons -- three times as much as their stomachs can hold.
Peering out from a redwood. The old-growth redwood grove we visited had a 280-foot giant and several trees thought to be 1,500 years old. The tallest redwoods can get to 360 feet and the oldest, to 2,000 years.
--------------------------------- Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (http://www.mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.