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Learning From Nature

from: Radical Simplicity by Jim Merkel

The landscape speaks to us constantly. Books and teachers can help us learn from nature, but are no substitute for a shimmering beach or a lonely desert. Hopefully, there is a magical, wild place near your home, accessible by foot or pedal, or bus; an undomesticated corner passed over and for now forgotten, where you can take regularly to learn from nature. What draws you attention? Is it the morning canopy singers? The edible plants in a nearby field? Whose tracks are on the sandbar today? Maybe you're not curious now and need time to wander. Each of us learns differently--your curiosity will tell you where to start. The most important thing is to be with nature on her terms.

Courting the Wild

The ideas here are nothing new. Many great books and resources are available about being in nature. What I'd like to offer is a suggestion: that however you enjoy being in nature, consider upping your dosage. Like those doctors who recommend saturation levels of vitamin C, I'm suggesting spending one or two hours a day in nature. Not only as a fun exercise, but also as a way to remain grounded and sane in a stressful world; as a way to continually expand our compassion for all life. Eat the wild plants; know the birds by their song; sense the approaching storm; see the first buds swell.

For a culture alienated from wilderness, coming to feel comfortable and intimate there will take time and experience. But, by "courting the wild" we might be influenced by a beautiful and powerful force that moves us to live according to our values and visions.

Being in Nature

Secret Spot

The Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall Washington uses the "secret spot" as a place to begin learning. The idea is this: you locate a spot in nature that invites you in. Then you return for an hour each day for a year. It is best if the spot is close to home so you can cycle or walk there. Are you wondering, "What am I going to do for an hour in the same spot everyday?" You can sit quietly and observe what's going on. Your hearing or sense of smell might heighten if you close your eyes. Try taking ten minutes to focus on each sense: sounds, sights, smells, touch, and intuition. While you sit silently what birds come in? What animal tracks, webs or feathers arrived since yesterday? What interactions between species do you notice? How do you feel in relation to this place? Maybe you want to let go of thoughts, plans and worries and remain present to watch passing moment. You can keep a journal, write poems and stories, or make detailed observations. Draw a map of a 20' by 20' area; learn every plant and animal there.

Walking Meditation

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnemese monk, encouraged a walking meditation together with a breathing meditation for calming the mind and body. He states, "Walking meditation means to enjoy walking without any intention to arrive. Usually in our daily life we walk because we want to go somewhere. Walking meditation is different. Walking is only for walking. You enjoy every step you take. The Zen Master Ling Chi said that the miracle is not to walk on burning charcoal or in the thin air or on the water; the miracle is just to walk on earth. You breathe in. You become aware of the fact that you are alive. You are still alive and you are walking on this beautiful planet. That is already performing a miracleŠYou walk as if you kiss the earth with your feet, as if you massage the earth with your feet."

Owl Walk

This slow walk is best done in bare feet. Keep your head level and your eyes straight ahead. Open your peripheral vision as wide as possible. Before you shift your weight, feel the ground with your forward foot to make sure you can transfer your weight there. Keep your posture very straight and knees flexible and slightly bent. Open your senses widely as you go. Stop if you can't take it all in. Occasionally stop and look over each shoulder, then continue. Try to become invisible to the forest. This type of walking has gotten me home many nights in the forest when my flashlight batteries went dead.

Studying Nature


Every inch of land and water that feeds a certain creek, stream or river is part of a watershed. A major watershed may include all land from mountain headwaters to the sea. As rivers snake through a landscape, they race or meander, are rocky or muddy, narrow or wide. They create a wide range of ever-changing habitats, including wetlands, flood plains and lakes. Nutrients are washed down from the forests to the sea to feed aquatic life. If the water way is passable by salmon, nutrients will be returned upstream when the salmon spawn and die, feeding bears, wolves, otters, eagles and the forest floor. We all live in a watershed. Imagine you are a drop of water from a hard rain. How would you move across the landscape? Where would you end up.


This is the science of the relationships between organisms and their environment, which includes how you relate to the landscape. Do you live in a forest, grassland or desert? How would your behavior change in each? Are you near the ocean or fresh water? What are the relationships between the redwing blackbird and cattails? How do sun exposure, latitude, elevation, soil, weather patterns, and precipitation affect plant and animal communities? By being out in nature, you will begin to understand the migration of birds, whales and butterflies. What is the first flower to bloom in a wetland area near you each spring? What insects will pollinate these flowers? What birds overwinter near your home?


Biomimicry is the conscious copying of examples and mechanisms from natural organisms and ecologies. Through an in-depth study and observation of ecological systems, humans can attempt to replicate certain self-regulating ecological relationships into human habitat designs. The full extent of complex relationships between the thousands of life forms on each square foot of living Earth may never be fully understood or appreciated by humans. However, by using nature itself as a database for design examples, your human ecology can serve ever more indigenous functions.