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Collecting data to cultivate mindfulness

As we juggle the demands of jobs, family, and other commitments, many of us have limited opportunities to slow down and connect with nature. This is particularly relevant in May, as we recognize National Mental Health Awareness Month. Those of us who have built a strong connection to natural places understand the many ways that time outside can reduce anxiety, remind us of the simpler things, and build mindfulness as we breathe and notice nature around us.

With this post, I hope to encourage you to make regular “focused wandering” through nature a part of your routine. In addition to benefiting your mental health, it may help researchers understand and address some of the challenges facing those same natural spaces.

Many of us find that the more we take the time to notice nature, the more it draws us in. I distinctly remember the first time I really looked at tiny but gorgeous American elm flowers, and being stunned at the fragile beauty of brand new bright purple cones on our spruces, tamaracks, and pines. The more I learned about the phenology, or timing of seasonal changes in nature, the better I got at finding and noticing those special moments. 

These moments are all small and easy to miss. I walked by elm flowers and baby cones countless times before stopping to look. I’m sure I still do as I move through the world, hurrying to get to the office or pick up a kid. (Being part of a family with two working adults and two active kids doesn’t lend itself to strolls to see what’s blooming!) But when I think back on my most intense memories of nature, many moments of focused wandering come to mind, because they helped me to discover beauty and mystery almost under my feet. So how can we cultivate these memorable moments?

A few years ago I started using my smartphone to photograph and report the things I saw during those rare but delightful wild wanderings. I’ve found that platforms like Nature’s Notebook and iNaturalist can add some structure, and give us a reason to make the time to check on our favorite wild places.

What if you decide that once a week for 30 minutes you’re going to walk slowly through a nearby natural place, intent on noticing and recording what’s new with the flora and fauna? After a growing season has passed, you’ll have a record of who bloomed (or called, or leafed out, or emerged, or left tracks in the snow) when. You’ll have dates to compare to the next growing season. Most importantly, you’ll have the peace of mind that comes from having made a regular practice of focused wandering through nearby nature.

“But I don’t know many species,” you may say. “What if I get them wrong?” That’s OK too - with iNaturalist, other users will see your observations and help you identify your posts. It’s a great way to tap into community knowledge to help identify plants, birds, fungi, insects, or other invertebrates.

Another reason to not only notice but share your observations is the more people like us who post, the better the datasets available to ecologists, climate change scientists, or others curious about what is and is not changing about our natural world.

Is it a coincidence that mental health awareness month happens precisely when nature is exploding with new growth, migrating birds, spring ephemerals? I don’t know. But don’t miss out - make a regular practice of focused wandering in your woods or another nearby natural space this spring. Start building your own phenology log, and build mindfulness at the same time.

Click on the images below to expand.

Eli Sagor, Extension forestry specialist

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