nature's Secrets

Find time to get in touch with nature

This summer, discover science with your senses: Here are 10 ways to explore the great outdoors

CORRESPONDENTJuly 18, 2011 

It probably doesn't matter if, while trying to be modest and eager watchers of life's many spectacles, we sometimes look clumsy or get dirty or ask stupid questions or reveal our ignorance or say the wrong thing or light up with wonder like the children we all are.

Diane Ackerman, "A Natural History of the Senses"

Sensational, sensory, sultry summer - as long as hurricanes remain distant, this is the best season to activate our five senses.

Humankind is evolutionarily endowed with five precious assets - to see, smell, touch, taste and hear. These senses have provided Homo sapiens with essential survival attributes over time - hunting prey, planting crops, sniffing danger, observing change and tasting nutrition. In this technological world, where computer screens have established a new baseline that requires limited sensory requirements to put food on the table, we are fast losing our physical abilities to smell Earth's seasons, to locate a singing cicada amidst green foliage, or detect a bird song amidst traffic jams.

To reverse this degradation, why not rejoice and rediscover your five senses? Cultivating your senses should be as important (if not more) as working out at the gym, beating the stock market or scoring high on the SATs.

The detective-like capabilities of our five senses represent thousands of generations of development. As the world changes, the loss of these instincts may someday be the downfall of humanity. What better place to appreciate our senses during summer than the diverse natural areas of North Carolina, from beach to coastal plain to Piedmont to cool mountains?

From extreme heat to luxurious shade, from brilliant colors to extraordinary camouflage, here are 10 activities, a veritable boot camp of sensory perceptions:

1) Scoop up a handful of moist dirt. Smell and touch the earth. Close your eyes and see if you can determine the smell of good soil. Years ago, a family's harvest depended on the ability to identify good soil. Today, we tend to take for granted that earthworms work overtime to aerate our soil, and decomposers recycle dead materials that would otherwise pile up higher than the tallest skyscrapers.

2) Observe and recognize poison ivy. Your ability to survive in the woods depends on the ability to see danger, and poison ivy is one plant worth knowing. (Factoid: With elevated levels of carbon dioxide due to climate change, poison ivy is predicted to thrive under warming conditions. Research at Duke University provided this amazing outcome, as scientists continue to monitor the impacts of change.)

3) Close your eyes and feel the wind on your face. Stand at the beach or on a mountaintop, and rejoice in nature's cleansing breezes. When wind blows, your body hairs respond subtly to the prevailing winds; wild animals use this sensation to know when to run away from danger.

4) Touch the bark of trees. Take several minutes to explore their crevices and surface features. Give your kids a quiz. Blindfold them, and then put their hands on maple, and then oak. Can you identify different species by touch? By smell?

5) Listen for insect or frog sounds at sunset. Nature's symphony is free - no velvet seats but a surround-sound theater that exceeds the capacity of any human orchestra.

6) Taste nature's salad bowl. Clover leaves and lemon grass are delicious. Oak leaves, sour from tannin content, are not edible to humans (but many beetles and caterpillars love them). If you are lucky, locate a few wild blackberries or raspberries and taste their sweet, natural flavors. Some plants are toxic to humans. Did you know that the family of tomato plants is extremely toxic (although the fruit itself is edible)? Using energy from sunlight, plants provide not only food to munch on, but also medicines and important nutrition to all creatures.

7) Sit quietly under a tree and appreciate its details. Smell the air, watch for movements of insects or birds, feel the bark and relish the coolness of its leafy shade. If you sit still long enough, animals will cease to recognize you as "danger" and venture close enough for careful observation.

8) Find a vine and follow its circuitous pathway. (Be careful not to select poison ivy!) Appreciate nature's resilience and creativity - so many ways to reach sunlight and water, which are the critical elements for survival as a plant in the forest.

9) Stop and gaze at some roadside wildflowers. What colors dominate Mother Nature's summer palette? What shapes? And what pollinators are busily flying between plants? How many species can you isolate along a trail, roadside or railway? Pink and red dominant in early spring, with yellow and white becoming more common in late summer. See if you can find some exceptions.

10) Walk with bare feet. Depending on where you live, feel the sand between your toes at the beach, experience the coolness of forest soil or luxuriate in the soft texture of grass.

Summer is a special time to enjoy and rejoice with sight, smell, taste, sound and touch!

Meg Lowman is an N.C. State professor and forest canopy expert who directs the Nature Research Center, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Online: www.canopymeg.com.

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